Masks, of Course, Can Be the Subtlest of Traps — as Seen in ‘Ready Player One’

For my 6th birthday I received a Yoda mask and I refused to take it off. So all the photos from my party show a group of little boys… and Yoda. All my life I’ve been fascinated by masks. That’s part of why I became a gamer and why I became a psychologist. As I traveled both those paths, I’ve seen the many ways that wearing masks can affect us. We see these effects explored in many game-related media, including Ready Player One. Masks feature prominently in both the book (Ernest Cline, Crown, 2011) and the movie (Steven Spielberg, 2018), and the effects of wearing masks is a recurring theme. (Spoiler warning.)

I have much to say about masks — their essential allure, the hope of reinventing ourselves they provide.

Masks as Reinvention

As a psychologist I’m fascinated by masks — both figurative masks and literal ones. I’m not alone in my fascination: many psychologists have sought to understand and explain human behavior through analyzing and experimenting with masks as metaphors, as well as literally hiding or changing someone’s identity. For example, Carl Jung gave considerable attention to the metaphorical mask of a persona, which he described as “a kind of mask, designed on the one hand to make a definite impression upon others, and on the other to conceal the true nature of the individual.” (Two Essays on Analytical Psychology, p. 190)

Most people realize that we have some freedom to alter or recreate our personas. Each time I enter a new social context, I have the opportunity for such reinvention. This could happen when I enroll in a new school, apply for a job, or move to a new neighborhood. It could also happen when I create a new profile on a social media platform (e.g., a dating app), create a character in an online game, or join an online guild. During this time of reinvention I can design a mask that emphasizes some personal traits while obscuring others. As Jung says, a mask can conceal my true nature.

As a child I moved many times, so I had many opportunities for reinvention. Now, thanks to the internet, many people have such opportunities every day. Some people find these opportunities extremely appealing, perhaps even addictive. I’ve been socializing with people online since 1994, and I’ve observed that many of us don masks for various reasons. We often want to seem more than we really are, such as smarter, more attractive, more cool/trendy, more competent and experienced, or more healthy and happy. Fundamentally, we often wear masks to be more liked and accepted, both by others and ourselves. Thus, donning a mask can be an act of hope.

Masks and Bias

Since donning a mask is often motivated by wanting to be liked, I’m particularly interested in how bias can drive and influence attempts at reinvention. For instance, when putting on the masks of avatars in online games, some people alter aspects like their age, gender, or race because they want to explore whether they feel differently and whether others treat them differently. Some people are already acutely aware that they’re treated differently because of their true nature so they don masks to escape that prejudice. For example, I’ve known many women who create male avatars to avoid the misogyny prevalent in some online gaming communities.

In contrast, some people fear that the offline world won’t accept their true selves. They create fictional masks for their jobs or families, and then “unmask” in online personas who feel more right/true to them. For example, I have friends who explore LGBTQ+ identities online (e.g., being out, being trans). In the process they gain more self-awareness, comfort, and confidence. They may not change their offline persona, however (e.g., come out to their families), because the risks still feel too large.

Unfortunately, fears of such prejudice are validated by research in psychology. Consider the following classic experiment. I take a set of comparable resumes for job candidates and randomly add a gender or race for each candidate. I may explicitly list that trait, or I may set up possible inferences by using a stereotypical name (e.g., Jake for a white man, Shanice for a black woman). Then I have my research subjects review the candidates and choose finalists for interviews. Studies like this have shown that just the mask of a name can change the likelihood of being chosen, regardless of the pertinent qualifications under that mask. My name is Kym and I identify as male, so I have first-hand experience with faulty inferences based on masks.

Even someone with a privileged identity who just “polishes” their best qualities may find the results bittersweet. For example, as a white man I might create an avatar who looks like me but with bigger muscles, or instead of saying that I worked in my college theater I might say that I was a leading actor. While these “embellishments” may make my persona more liked and accepted, such esteem can feel hollow and fragile. I can’t be sure that other people like the real me or just the mask I’ve designed. The hope of reinvention is poisoned by the fear that only the fiction is esteemed.

Thus, even when we don masks to reinvent ourselves, we can become more aware of and hurt by our failures to be liked and accepted. We can never get completely away from our true nature and possible bias against it — perhaps even our own bias. Teen movies have featured this trope and message for generations (cf. The Breakfast Club, Mean Girls, She’s the Man, etc.). What’s changed is that online games make it easier than ever to design and test masks, and to experience the hopes, fears, benefits, and harms of reinvention. In an online game a makeover doesn’t take a montage, just a new account.

Masks in Ready Player One

Ready Player One is a story of many masks. The protagonist is Wade, an 18-year-old white male. One of the movie’s defining images is Wade wearing a virtual reality mask. Along with a pair of motion-tracking gloves, the mask allows Wade to become his avatar Parzival in the OASIS. The Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation is a fictional massively multiplayer online world (MMO). The OASIS is inspired by real MMOs like Second Life and World of Warcraft. But in technology, size, number of users, and cultural centrality, the OASIS dwarfs any MMO we’ve seen.

I’ve always felt that Second Life‘s title is brilliant marketing. It succinctly captures the essential allure of an MMO experience: donning a mask to reinvent yourself. The OASIS supersizes that allure. Wade lives in a near-future dystopian United States, complete with an energy crash, rampant unemployment, dangerous slums, road pirates(!), and at least one corrupt mega-corporation. The story doesn’t explore the dystopia much, but instead uses it as a backdrop to explain why many people spend most of their lives in the OASIS. Their first lives suck, so many people escape to the OASIS for recreation, work, friendship, and romance.

Wade is well aware that he’s succumbing to the allure of a second life. He spends most of his time as Parzival, knowingly choosing that mask/persona over his first life, and why not? His alter ego is more fit, heroic, accomplished, and popular. In his first life, Wade is a poor, lonely orphan with dim prospects; Parzival is a global celebrity. Parzival has friends, a possible girlfriend, and a whole lot of cool gear.

T.J. Miller, Tye Sheridan (Photo by Jaap Buitendijk – © 2016 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., Village Roadshow Films North America Inc. and RatPac-D) (IMDB)


Hiding in a Mask

I have mixed feelings about the stereotype that gamers plug in to escape from the messiness and pain of first-life challenges and relationships. On the one hand, most gamers aren’t social misfits who avoid meaningful relationships by escaping into masked fantasies. In fact, gaming can catalyze new relationships, especially through guilds, clans, and fandoms.

But my feelings are mixed because stories like Wade’s hit close to home. I know well the allure of a second life. Over my 20+ years in online games, sometimes I’ve neglected first-life commitments and relationships by escaping into masks. I’m not the guy who failed a college course because I was too busy playing World of Warcraft or spending all my time with an online crush, but I could have been that guy. I have often felt the potential addiction of wearing a mask, especially the palpable appeal of reinventing myself in ways that make me more liked and accepted.

Escaping into a mask is part of the allure of many fictional experiences such as plays or books. Actors describe the freedom of slipping into character and the relief of leaving behind the responsibilities and pains of their first lives. Readers can feel the same way about a book. I didn’t experience The Adventures of Tom Sawyer or Where the Red Fern Grows at a safe distance. Rather, I eagerly slipped into a protagonist’s mind and senses, immersing myself in a second life for hours. As a result, the dangers scared me and the tragedies made me cry.

We’ll eventually have access to a world like the OASIS. Compared to plays or books, such a world has three new, powerful elements. We can already find these elements in OASIS precursors like Second Life: I can create my own mask, often in exquisite detail (e.g., there are sliders to change the shape of my nose or the size of my bum); the mask can be wildly different from my true nature; and other players can affirm my mask as attractive and thus reinforce my choice to wear it.

To a lesser extent, those elements are also part of contemporary social media like Facebook, with similar allure and risks. When my every choice can earn a “like” or “share”, I have ample motivation to “polish” and “embellish” my persona. That slippery slope leads right back to doubts about my real self-worth, the authenticity of others’ esteem, and the honesty in my online relationships.

Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture – © 2017 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., Village Roadshow Films North America Inc. and RatPac-Dune Entertainment LLC – U.S., Can (IMDB)


Redefining Reality

Art3mis is Parzival’s friend and potential girlfriend, and she’s well aware of the risks of masks. Art3mis warns of a possible unhealthy, codependent relationship when two people present personas that are significantly different from their true selves. Their relationship could become a vicious cycle of mutual delusion. Art3mis says, “The OASIS lets you be whoever you want to be. That’s why everyone is addicted to it. …No one ever looks anything like their avatar.” (p. 171) Her fear of dysfunction causes Art3mis to keep Parzival at a distance: “You aren’t in love with me… You don’t even know me. …We’ve never even met!” (p. 186-187)

Art3mis’ argument gets to the heart of most of the relationships in Ready Player One. It’s also one of the most important and challenging questions of our time: As our online worlds, avatars, and experiences approach first-life verisimilitude, how shall we define real? The sensory illusion of “being there” and the sophistication of our masks will continue to improve. Once it’s reached the immersive level of the OASIS (or even Second Life), shall we say that Parzival and Art3mis have really met? Is Parzival’s love real?

Some people readily answer “Yes!” because we already feel intensely about our second-life friends, lovers, guild members, teammates, or enemies. We may don masks to get away from our first-life selves, but the mask of an avatar is permeable. Indeed, the more I invest my emotions in a mask — especially my longing to be liked and accepted — the more vulnerable I become. Wade’s Parzival mask embodies his hopes for himself: it’s who he wants to be. So when Art3mis rejects Parzival, Wade feels deep pain. Paradoxically, the pain may be greater online because the mask is closer to the player’s true self.

As a psychologist, I see this as the heart of the matter: a mask is a tool with which I can explore a gap in reality. In general, each person has two identities: a real identity (who I am, my true self) and an ideal identity (who I wish I were). There’s always a gap between these identities. The gap is small if I’m satisfied with my real identity and large if I’m not. I can use a mask to try ignoring the gap, to deny my real identity and abandon it, to just revel in a simulation of my ideal identity. Instead, I can use a mask to try closing the gap. Through wearing a mask and living a second life, I can find learning and motivation to better my true self. My mask can be the goal towards which I pull and sculpt my true nature.

Tye Sheridan and Olivia Cooke as their avatars in Ready Player One (2018) (IMDB)

Fake It ‘Til You Make It?

In the end, like most tools, masks aren’t inherently good or bad. I can use a hammer to build a house or accidentally smash my thumb. As Neil Gaiman writes, “Tools, of course, can be the subtlest of traps.” (Sandman: The Wake, p. 141) Donning a mask is risky. Art3mis fears the seductive trap of enjoying an ideal identity with none of the hard work required for true change. Yet the experience of being Parzival leads Wade to take a hard look at his true nature and own his mistakes. The mask leads Wade to become a better person, both in his second life and his first.

In Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One (Crown, 2011) by the last line Wade has become more focused on his first life and his offline relationship with Art3mis’ player: “It occurred to me then that for the first time in as long as I could remember, I had absolutely no desire to log back into the OASIS.” In the movie, once Wade and Art3mis’ player have control of the OASIS, they keep it offline on Tuesdays and Thursdays. They want their fellow players to spend more time and attention on the first lives.

I find both endings somewhat condescending. They’re out of touch with the all-too-real reality of many people’s second lives. However, like Art3mis I see the trap of masks so I appreciate the impulse behind the message. Masks as reflexive escape can devolve into denial and dysfunction. Yet with honest self-reflection, masks can be a catalyst for true change.