9780307887443In this essay, Gillian King-Cargile shares how Ready Player One is being used by Northern Illinois University’s STEM Read to explore STEM concepts and build computational thinking skills in students. Teens are participating in hands-on, game-based learning to dig deeper into Ernest Cline’s novel while challenging themselves to build a better reality.  

To request a complimentary examination copy to review for classroom use, please contact us at K12education@edu.penguinrandomhouse.com or call us toll free at (844) 851-3955.

The first time I read Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, I was obsessed with it. What’s not to love about a book that wraps the classic hero’s journey into a futuristic tale of love, video games, and virtual reality? As soon as I finished, I wanted to flip right back to the first page and relive the ways the main character used his wits to solve puzzles, stop evil corporations, get the girl, and save the day.

Ready Player One takes place in 2045, when virtual reality has become a reality. A global energy crisis has left the real world in ruins, so most people live, work, learn, play, and even fall in love in a simulation called the OASIS. When the man who created the OASIS dies, he reveals that he’s hidden an Easter egg somewhere in one of the millions of worlds that exist in the game. The first person who can unravel his riddles and fight through his labyrinth of ’80s pop culture references will win his vast fortune and gain control of the simulation itself. The book follows teenager Wade Watts (aka Parzival), a funny and dysfunctional orphan and gaming junkie, on his quest for the egg.

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Ernest Cline, the author of Ready Player One

After I read the book again, I wanted to share it with everyone. I’m the director of Northern Illinois University’s STEM Read, a program that helps K-12 students explore the science, technology, engineering, and math concepts behind fiction books. Ready Player One seemed like a great book to get teens excited about technology. I knew that a lot of students—both accelerated and reluctant readers—play video games, but I wondered if teens would be able to relate to all that ’80s nostalgia.

I passed the book around at high school sci-fi clubs, creative writing camps, and professional development sessions. What I found was that this was an intergenerational text that parents, teachers, and teens could enjoy together. Not only did the teens I worked with love ’80s music, they viewed their teachers and parents as timepieces, historical eyewitnesses who could share what it was like to experience events like the first time an astronaut planted an MTV-logoed flag on the moon or the first time Michael Jackson moonwalked.

The book offers in-roads for parents to remember what it was like to be 17 and obsessed with something or someone, to make mistakes, and to learn from failure and rejection. It also offers pop culture treasures for teens who wonder what their parents were obsessed with in the mystical, tall-bangs, power-ballad-loving ’80s. The book gave them a way to connect.

Like any great science fiction book, Ready Player One shows us our past, imagines our future, and holds a mirror up to who we are right now. Cline obviously had a blast reliving the games and styles and super-groups of his past. He also weaved in details and ideas that can help readers explore complicated issues teens face today. Everything from technology, ethics, engineering, environmental issues, the growing energy crisis, racism, sexism, corporate greed, net neutrality, and personal identity in the digital age can be found in the pages of Ready Player One.

But first and foremost, the book is great fun to read.

At STEM Read, we used the book as inspiration to create our own game, an IRL, paper-based version of Wade’s high-tech journey. We grouped students into Gunter clans, teams who needed to work together to find Halliday’s Easter egg. They created clan names and avatars and completed engineering challenges, like prototyping a fortress that could withstand the attack of a 99th level wizard. They also solved riddles and ciphers reminiscent of those in the book. Each challenge lay the foundation for students to build collaboration skills and to practice computational thinking.

With each success, students earned inventory items like armor, healing spells, and ’80s mixtapes that could help them repulse enemy attacks or navigate break-ups with their online crushes. At the end of the game, the teams with extra lives got to choose a champion to compete in a tournament of the classic arcade game Tempest.

The students insisted that their social studies teacher and science teacher act as their champions. They gathered around the simulation and cheered like crazy as their forty-something-year-old teachers moved a tiny, pixilated triangle around a circle and shot some dots at some other dots. It was a great day. I thought to myself, I have the best job in the world. I get to give amazing books like Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One to amazing kids and help them get excited about things they never knew they cared about before.

Forthcoming—STEM Read’s Lesson Plans for Ready Player One. Contact us at K12education@edu.penguinrandomhouse.com for more information or to request an examination copy.


Students prototype a shelter to withstand the attack of a 99th level wizard. The wizard was a teacher wielding a ShopVac set to blow.

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Students participating in a junk box challenge used found materials to devise a machine to make Wade’s life easier outside of the OASIS.


Students use Caeser Ciphers to decrypt secret messages during the Easter Egg Hunt.