Fun fact! Did you know that I started on YouTube in 2011, the same year Ernest Cline wrote Ready Player One? And look at us now! We both have published books–nope, I guess just him. But we both have millions of dollar in incensing and residuals-noooo again that’s him and not me. Ooh, but hey a blockbuster movie hitting theaters noooo time soon again that’s just Ernest Cline. Well shoot what have I been doing with all my time? SCREW YOU Ernest, no one likes an overachiever. Hello Internet, and welcome to Film Theory, where the one thing I DO have in common with Ernest Cline is that we’re both riding the nostalgia wave to get people to care about us.
Feels good, man. Feels good. As one of the hardest core nerds out there, you’d think I’d be sweating through my tube socks at the idea of Ready Player One. Set in 2044, it’s a futuristic sci-fi movie about a treasure hunt happening in the most advanced massive multiplayer online game in history, called OASIS, or “Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation.” It’s got the good guy, Wade, fighting the evil corporation to find the ultimate video game easter egg that promises to give the player a massive fortune and control over the entire game. The premise is truly impressive, but there are a few bones I gotta pick with this thinig. You see, in the movie the reason why most people spend all their time in the OASIS is that most of the population lives in IRL poverty, including our hero, Wade.
And hey, I’m all about the underdog coming out of nothing and fighting the powers that be–it’s the story of every good YouTuber I know–but the world of Ready Player One gets so ridiculous sometimes that if you actually look it them using real sci- instead of sci-fi, our buddy Wade literally wouldn’t survive the opening credits. And no, I’m not talking about some super advanced technology thing where someone’s getting zapped with fiber optic cables or getting their memory wiped by their own haptic suit. Let’s face it, by 2044, technology will be so advanced that there’s really no way to predict the state of video games or personal technology–I can only sit here and salivate thinking about how great it’ll be and start worshipping my Google overlords now. No, I’m talking way more basic than that: the biggest threat in this movie isn’t technology of evil corporations or even really bad eye strain–it’s the engineering of everyone’s home. That’s right, in a movie about super futuristic video games, I’m focused on the civil engineering.
And isn’t that why you come here? Oh, and fair warning: After this episode, you’ll never want to visit the Empire State Building ever again. Wade lives in the “Stacks:” monstrous scrap piles of low-income housing that are basically upright piles of single-wide trailer homes. According to the book they’re over 20 levels high — twice as tall as the smallest skyscrapers. Now in the movie we see the basic structure of these things: single trailers stuck all over the place on what the book describes as “modular scaffolds” made so that they can just keep stacking these things as high as they need to go. As more people move to the area, more trailers get added to the top. But this creates a major support problem that anyone with a little engineering know-how can immediately see. It’s not something you really think about all that often, but turns out there are some pretty strong reasons why you don’t just “add on” to skyscrapers after they’re finished, your trailer stack just becomes a really deadly game of Jenga. Starting at the bottom, the Stacks have major problems with the foundation. The bigger (and heavier) any structure is, the stronger the foundation you need.
The foundation for a 1-story house might have a depth of only 1 meter, but skycrapers have foundations that go down 50 meters or more, depending on soil underneath it. To get to a solid base, you sometimes have to go down hundreds of feet to avoid the building sinking into soft spots later on. The Petronas Twin Tower in Kuala Lumpur has the deepest foundation of any skyscraper in the world, ranging from 200 to 374 feet in different places along its base because it’s built on soft rock. Why does the building sink? Because of something in civil engineering called compression force, which is the force exerted by the top layers of a building on the bottom layers.
Think about it: each layer of a building has to hold up ALL the layers that get stacked on top of it. That means that your bottom layers have to be the strongest and most stable, since they’re holding the most weight. Applying this to the Stacks in the movie, already you can see the issue with the “modular” approach. Real buildings calculate how much weight they’re going to support in advance. A modular building like the Stacks isn’t doing that. Every layer you add causes the scaffolds and all the mobile homes on lower levels to compress a little bit more, meaning that without a foundation underneath, eventually these stacks are going to turn into sinks. I mean you could over-build those bottom layers on the CHANCE that you have to add more layers to the top, but then you’re wasting a lot of money and resources.
Another alternative is that, yes, the Stacks might not have foundations, but you don’t have to build deep if you build wide. Think like the pyramids, or, I should say, the pyramids after they figured out that they need to pay attention to compression force. You want to see what version of the Pyramids looked like? Here’s the Bent Pyramid, for example. This is a weird one, right? I’ve been to Cairo and seen this thing, which is just as bizarre looking in person.
There are a few theories on why this pyramid is this derpy outcast shape, and when you discount the crazy theories like alien intervention, you’re left with the exact same problem we’re facing in Ready Player One. In the case of the Bent Pyramid, the bottom layers are made of limestone, which is a relatively soft stone that expands and contracts with moisture. When the early Egyptians started building the structure, the slope of the sides was too steep, creating too much compressive force on the foundations as the structure got higher, causing the limestone to crush down. The builders changed angles mid-way up the pyramid to lessen the pressure on the structure to avoid the stones compressing and warping over time. So wide and flat IS an option, but it can only happen in places where you’re not having to account for weather. The only place you find wide, flat foundations today is in warm-weather climates like California and Arizona; in colder climates that hit freezing temperatures every winter, the ground freezes and cracks a shallow foundation made of something like concrete.
Ready Player One takes place in Columbus Ohio, which gets 22 inches of snow per year and makes this kind of foundation a serious no-no. But if the whole my-trailer-stack-is-sinking-into-the-frozen-Ohio-ground isn’t enough, we’ve actually got bigger problems: the wind. In addition to the vertical force of gravity, skyscrapers also have to deal with the horizontal force of wind and that means so do our friends hanging in the Stacks. Wind-dampening systems are actually incredibly high-tech and require some of the most advanced engineering in the world–not inexpensive engineering, either, if you’re looking to pay for your Stacks with fewer, well, stacks. For example, the Citicorp Center in New York City uses what’s called a tuned mass-damper to counteract the force of wind on the skyscraper. These types of systems electronically sense shifting pressure in the building due to wind. The damper then uses hydraulic systems to quickly push a 400-ton concrete slab weight back and forth across the top of the building to shift the structure’s center of gravity from side to side, counteracting the force of the wind.
So yeah, if you ever visit one of those “world’s tallest buildings,” just know that there’s probably a sliding slab of concrete floating over your head the size of a meteor. No pressure. But even those high tech systems sometimes aren’t enough, especially when you’re dealing with the same issues that Ready Player One is dealing with: namely, cost. Let’s look at the Citicorp Center in New York Again. I picked this example on purpose because when it was built it was actually built with one of the most dangerous design flaws in history. To save money, the building wasn’t initially constructed using the maximum number of reinforced joints and they weren’t made out of the highest possible quality of steel–again, going back to the idea that better materials have higher compression forces. It was discovered that if the wind blew on the building at a diagonal, any hurricane-force winds of 74 miles/hour hitting New York could bring the entire building down, crashing onto all the buildings in the area.
Those sorts of winds hit New York about once every fifty years, so obviously a massive problem, but to save face, the architect worked in secret with Citigroup to have all the bolts in the building reinforced at night with crews only working after hours, and managed to fix it right before hurricane season started. The story didn’t surface to the public for over 20 years. So yeah, this is not just a movie problem: there have been some pretty high profile engineering oopsie-moments that have come close to costing hundreds or thousands of lives around the world, with the powers that be sometimes working behind the scenes to cover them up. Of course, the stacks in Ready Player One have no sophisticated computer systems counter-acting the effects of wind like this — all of their sophisticated tech is dedicated to entertaining the masses, silly! But no matter how immersive that virtual reality simulation is, it’s going to be pretty hard to ignore the fact that your Stack comes crashing down with the first lake effect snowstorm of the year.
But on top of just being not reinforced at all, the Stacks are facing a double whammy when it comes to wind problems because of how narrow they are. Comparing them to a normal apartment building, the “skinniest” apartment building in NYC has an area of 3300 square feet, which is more than five times the area of a 600 square foot trailer home. At 22 levels high, Wade’s home is taller than some skyscrapers, yet far thinner than even the thinnest high rises. What does this mean? Well, ever try to stack a single column of LEGOs up on their own? Notice anything in particular? Maybe that they fall over really easily.
When trying to figure out whether something is easy to tip over–spoiler alert, the Stacks are SUPER easy to tip over, all you have to do is find their center of gravity. [We need a graphic here: Wade’s stack is 22 levels high, with each level consisting of a 10-foot-tall trailer (plus 1 foot for supporting materials), a total of 242 feet high. Most trailers in the stacks are single wide).] Looking just at Wade’s stack (22 trailer homes high), if we assume a best-case scenario with uniform construction, that would put the center of gravity between the 11th and 12th level,. Running the numbers, if this stack tilts just degrees, its center of gravity will no longer be located over its base, leading the entire thing to tumble over. A sway of degrees could happen with gusts of winds at 40 mph, maybe even less if you remember that the building also has no support systems and no foundation. Considering Ohio’s average windspeed sits around 18 mph, the stacks are going to be in a perpetual state of leaning. Since 1950, more than 1,000 tornadoes have touched down in Ohio. Ohio is no stranger to high speed winds sweeping down the plains, so long story short, basically anyone breathing on this thing too hard means it’s game over for Wade.
But ok, the Stacks are violating some of the basic principles of civil engineering, and they’re absurdly unsafe. “So what?” I hear you saying: Of course they’re unsafe, this is a dystopia! They don’t exactly have safety in mind when they made these stacks! Wade even describes the “domino”-like effect when a stack collapses and in the trailer we see a stack completely obliterated by what seems to be a relatively small explosion. These buildings aren’t designed to be strong; they’re designed to be cheap.
Buuuut that’s the biggest problem, you see, they’re NOT cheap. And this is where we encounter the biggest problem with the stacks: they’re designed for one thing, to cut costs on dense urban housing — and they even suck at that! In fact, they’re way more expensive to produce than good old fashioned concrete housing. Concrete is seriously cheap: it’s literally made of sand, something that it’s safe to say we will not be running out of in the next 25 years. Concrete housing is currently the primary component in urban construction where there’s a massive need for more urban homes: The national average cost of building an apartment building in the US is currently about $75 per square foot or about $45,000 for 600 square feet, the same size as our single-wide trailer.
But that’s using mid or even higher quality materials. What we’re looking for in a Ready Player One scenario are known as Class 6 building materials in the US, which consist of reinforced concrete and wood framing, but still has all the major appliances and safety features. These buildings are as low as $per square foot, or $34,434 for our 600 square foot home. By contrast, a new single-wide mobile home costs costs about $40,000 and that jumps up to about $75,000 if you’re in a double-wide. And that’s just the trailer, that’s not the cost of getting it all the way on top of the nearest Stack, building extra scaffolding around it, or extending wires and cables higher into the air so residents can get their dose of OASIS on the daily. And we’re not even MENTIONING the cpst of rebuilding these thigs when catastrophic failures occur — remember, Wade sopecifically mentions multitple instances of domino collapses.
And if you’re still on the fence about it, remember that building codes and inspections are all factored into the current cost of apartment buildings in the US, so if they’re willing to just skip that step in Ready Player One, which it seems like they have no problem doing, you can look at seriously slashing prices on the housing in this movie…oh and saving like hundreds of lives in the process. But whatever, not like that matters or anything. So when you head out to see Ready Player One, appreciate all the cool technology, dream of futuristic MMORPGs, but shake your head knowing that the most unbelievable, and the most unbelievably deadly part of this fiction is literally the house it takes place in. But hey, that’s just a theory — a FILM theory.