The world of 2045 is a bleak place: people are overcrowded and unemployed, and all places everywhere seems to suffering from an energy shortage. There's not even real food available anymore, as we learn when Mrs. Gilmore offers Wade "soy bacon [and] powdered eggs" (1.63). Blech. If there's no Waffle House in 2045, we'll just stay right where we are, thanks.
The housing shortage leads to one of the novel's most striking images of danger and poverty: the stacks, precarious piles of trailer homes stacked on top of one another and loosely held together with a vertical network of girders. All that's missing is a giant ape chucking barrels from the top. Even without the danger of Donkey Kong, there's still a lot of violence in the world. Wade's father was shot to death while looting, and Wade tells us that "gunfire wasn't uncommon in the stacks" (1.1).
Some people might try to change the world if it ever gets this bad, but those people aren't in this book (except for Art3mis). Everyone pretty much flees into the OASIS, the most popular online video game ever, as a method of escape and a means for personal gain. Tired of the real world? Grab your OASIS visor (to let you view the world in 3D) and your haptic gloves (to let you feel the OASIS) and log in!
Aside from a few brief glimpses at the dystopian poophole the Earth has become, about 95% of the novel's action takes place inside the OASIS, an acronym for Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation. Um, what? Let's break it down.
In a book filled with pop culture references, it's no surprise that the very structure of the OASIS itself is a reference, in this case to the popular brain buster the Rubik's Cube. Since the OASIS holds one of the world's biggest puzzles, it makes sense that it's modeled after a puzzle that once captivated America.
Inside this 3x3x3 grid are "thousands of simulated worlds" (0.44) based on a variety of different movies, albums, TV shows, and video games. If there's any original intellectual property inside the OASIS, we don't get to see it as we follow Wade on his Easter egg hunt.
It's not all about the Easter egg hunt, though. The OASIS has grown into something much more than an MMO game. It's a valuable educational tool, for one thing, as "Teachers could take their students on a virtual field trip every day, without ever leaving the school grounds" (4.4). We wish we went to school in a place where you could virtually teleport yourself to anywhere at any point in time.
The OASIS also must be a copyright attorney's nightmare, though, because it offers "access to every book [...] song [...] movie, television show, videogame, and piece of artwork ever created" (1.15). Google can't even come close. But notice that Wade doesn't say legal access. Remember, it took how long for music by The Beatles to legally be allowed on iTunes? We can't imagine every media available on the OASIS is legal, especially since Wade later confesses that "if there was something [he] needed that wasn't legally available for free, [he] could almost always get it by using Guntorrent, a file-sharing program used by gunters around the world" (6.5).
Even though the OASIS is virtual reality at its best, people get confused. It's so realistic, "rendered in meticulous graphical detail, right down to bugs and blades of grass, wind and weather patterns" (5.27) that some people get confused.
The OASIS also operates a lot like the real world in many respects, like how they make money. It may just cost a quarter to join, but once they have their hooks in your, one of their biggest money makers is "charging people for virtual fuel to power their virtual spaceships" (4.14). So the real world is in a real energy crisis, but somehow the OASIS manages to get people to shell out actual cash for fake fuel? That's some incredible persuasive power.
In the end, we learn that pop culture—video games, songs, and all that other stuff—is just that: an oasis, an escape from the deserts of reality, and like many oases (oasises?), it might even be a mirage, providing no actual relief whatsoever.