There is no doubt that writer Reki Kawahara of Sword Art Online and Accel World is a writer of our times. His obsession with virtual reality elements in games is something that ties in very intimately with our modern gaming culture and the possibilities we have imagined for the gaming industry. Seeing as franchises like .hack pioneered some of these concepts in anime long ago, Kawahara did not exactly invent the wheel here. However, unlike franchises such as .hack, there is a much more intrinsic focus on the social and personal implications of entirely different worlds that we can access at our finger tips.
Mass media has typically characterized the social implications of games on players as something negative. Particularly as it pertains to shooters and MMORPG’s (Mass Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games), there exists a media caricature of the typical obsessed gamer who, because of games, has become socially withdrawn and increasingly psychologically unsound. The idea is that if a gamer spends all his time wrapped up in some fantasy world where things might be too graphic or unrealistic, then their very psyche somehow becomes warped. Moreover, there seems to be some greater social worry that players of games are not really living life by being trapped in these fantasy worlds. Denigrating comments and observations such as these are pretty common. For example:
“We are now seeing some people devoting their whole lives to gaming,” says Dudley, who offers a 12-step abstinence programme to those suffering from a wide range of addictions, including alcohol, drugs and sex. “Some spend 18 hours a day playing on their computers. Immersive role-playing games such as World of Warcraft and Call of Duty hook people and let them live in a fantasy world. The online element to the game lets them falsely believe they have lots of friends. Some people were reported to have taken a week off work just to play Call of Duty when it was released recently.”
– Leo Hickman, “Are videogames bad for your health?” The Guardian.
This is representative of the general mass media attitude towards gamers, but such a perception of gaming also lacks a nuanced perspective. Why can’t immersing oneself in a virtual world be a positive experience instead? Sword Art Online, at least, seems to have an alternative answer to the impact of gaming on its players and what future possibilities it could hold: it is a powerful outlet for people’s imaginations and fantasies.
The virtual reality of Aincrad in Sword Art Online is in many ways a gamer’s ultimate fantasy. Aincrad is the full realization of immersion in a fictional world, which is by far one of the largest appeals of gaming. By putting on the high tech NERV gear you can all of a sudden become a completely different person in an entirely different place, separated from the real world, that feels just about every bit as genuine as real life. This hyperrealism is further facilitated by the fact that the game gives full control one’s five senses, allowing players to experience the full pleasures of tasks such as eating and sleeping. This goes beyond things like books and movies since, unlike these mediums which provide the fantasy for you, you are in control of your own fantasy.
While a lot of viewers might have been caught in the horror of the death trap that is Aincrad, I think the more important factor here is that this virtual world has been established as a reality practically indistinguishable from the real world in terms of what it means to live. The fact that players cannot log out, and that death in the game results in death in real life, just serves to further illustrate this point. There is nothing fake about this gaming experience.
One scene striking in this respect occurs in episode 5 when Asuna chides Kirito for wasting time sleeping on grass. For Asuna, it was incomprehensible why Kriito would be wasting time when they should be working together to try and get the hell out of the game. She could care less about what she was doing at that time because every moment she wastes in the game costs her more of her precious time in the real world. Asuna urgently wants to escape a world she perceives as a hell hole, yet Kirito dillydallies. To Asuna’s imploring, Kirito who is just trying to enjoy the weather simply retorts, “but right now we are alive in Aincrad.”
As the scene plays out, Asuna ends up lying down at the behest of Kirito, and soon falls into a deep sleep. Clearly, she is exhausted in this scene and finally seems to be at peace after having been so agitated with Kirito earlier. It is at this very moment that Kirito communicates an important perspective to Asuna – they could enjoy life there and now. While Asuna was in such a rush to complete the game without a second thought, she had forgotten that despite being trapped in the game, she is alive. As crazy as it sounds, Sword Art Online is conveying here the idea that the world of Aincrad can be enjoyed. We have seen so far in the show that players are not merely experiencing negative emotions; there equally as many times of joy, happiness, and camaraderie. Even if there are numerous deaths around them, could it not be that some of the time the game provides something positive?
This is where I really begin to wonder about the influence a virtual gaming environment can have. The world of Aincrad provides almost everything that is already present in gaming in our world: gaming already provides meaningful social interactions and a means to a wonderfully immersive experience. Virtual reality feels like a natural progression from modern games, but it merely builds upon gaming’s already attractive qualities. Virtual reality would certainly facilitate immersion much better, but immersion is already possible. What Sword Art Online says here is very applicable to the way we view games today.
Sword Art Online is a tale where one can truly tell that the author loves gaming because of how well it communicates the exhilaration and thrill gaming can provide. Furthermore, the story’s exploration of player interactions reveals how fulfilling the experience can potentially be for its players. Understanding this, there is no mystery why gamers love to spend so much time wrapped up in these worlds. The media’s favorite piñata, the gaming addict, is clouding the idea that games actually do provide something positive for its players.
It will be interesting to see how Kawahara chooses to expand upon the compounding psychological effect Aincrad leaves on its players after their time in the game world. I have found it incredibly refreshing that he did not choose to go down the Lord of the Flies route in his storytelling. By not doing so, we get to observe a society with some inner stability in the form of a game, which on a sociological level is just much more intriguing to me. Of course, there are many other reasons to enjoy Sword Art Online, but the story’s take on immersive worlds and human psychology has definitely been one of the most interesting aspects that I dearly hope gets explored further.