Sword Art Online and the Ultimate Gamer Fantasy

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Games), there exists a media caricature of the typical obsessed gamer who, because of games, has become socially withdrawn and increasingly psychologically unsound.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.

21 Responses to “Sword Art Online and the Ultimate Gamer Fantasy”

  1. From what I remember from reading the novels, the author unfortunately doesn’t go into much detail about their lives outside the game once its over. Not saying that he doesn’t at all, but its not as much as some hoped.

  2. The problem is, it’s not only the .hack series that have it. Other countries have the VRMMORPG tie-in too. China has 1/2 Prince. Korea has Yureka. Not exactly groundbreaking.

  3. @The Silver Sky

    Sorry but that’s wrong.
    Novels 3-4 are focused on ALO, which is mostly the relationship with Kirito and his half sister, in the game and outside of the game. It’s still mostly games, granted, but there’s still enough of detail out of their lives.

    Novels 5-6 are about Sion and they provide the most out of game experience from all the books. One book is completely about Sion and her out of game experiences, detailing her character, her past, and her current life.

    Novel 7 is mostly about the game, but there’s Yuuki who gets to go to school with Asuna and how delighted she is about it. More of Asuna’s problems will be solved in this book, such as her mother forcing her to drop out of school.

    It’s still a book about gaming, if you actually hoped to read about character’s lives more, I suggest you pick up Haganai. (Amazing book btw, the best slice of life there is.)

  4. Everyone knows that the ultimate gamer fantasy begins with the phrase “Two years of semen”.

  5. I like how you bring up established criticisms of gaming obsessions because in a sense Sword Art Online has to face similar demons. Even though it’s been the foundation of the premise, the whole concept of death crossing the boundary between gaming and reality doesn’t sink in with some of the players, as seen with the last couple of sub-plots revolving around PKing. I’m giving the benefit of the doubt to some considering what the media can be like sometimes, but people who criticize gaming obsessions aren’t so naïve as to just fault the game without cutting the gamer a fair share of the blame as well. When it comes to Sword Art Online, I do take an interest in how the show seems to push for an acceptance of its “death trap” as a living experience. But as a show that’s initially built on blurring the lines between gaming and reality, I hope that the series continues to at least acknowledge the compromises that have to be made between the two, lest it fall to the same criticisms the articles you linked are levying at gaming.

  6. @The Silver Sky

    Well it doesn’t have to be how they are outside the game, though that would be interesting, but more about their psychological approach to the game vs. real life.

    @Kirito

    Well sure, but we’re talking strictly about anime. For a western example, there is something like Tron, though it’s not that good.

    @jpmeyer

    Kawahara didn’t write that as far as I know :p.

    @Delphinox

    What I find interesting is that a lot of the “bad guys” are people who don’t take the experience seriously. Like the pkers in episode 4 who you mentioned.

    Kirito seems to be operating on the philosophy that their lives there and now are important, and that everything they’re doing is an important memory to be kept. Our protagonist is someone who takes gaming very seriously.

    But yeah, we’ll have to see how they treat gaming once real life comes into play as factor. Right now it isn’t because they can’t logout, but when they do have the ability to logout then that will add another dimension to it all.

  7. What I think is most impressive in Sword Art Online is the reversal of roles within in the story. At the very beginning, Kirito is shown to be reclusive and shy in modern society and looks forward most to playing SAO everyday (in the beta phase). He was running from reality if you will. But as we can see from episode 5, he’s the one who enjoys the virtual reality around him, while the rest of players desperately seek to get out. Here, he’s well-known and (somewhat) open to helping other people as opposed to his real life counterpart.

    The virtual switch completely turns everyone’s place in society on its head. So in the imaginary realm of Aincrad where what’s real and what’s not has come into question, Kirito has become the realist while the other characters have become the escapists. Everyone else is running away while he’s much more at peace with his surroundings. He’s far more lax and in tune with the virtual world and its nature than any of the other characters. To me at least, that’s fascinating. It’ll be interesting to see what happens if this “reality” is eventually taken away from him, since that’s when we’ll see what his ultimate progression as a character.

    Unless they make another virtual reality game for him. That’d just be really stupid.

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  9. @ Click

    There does seem to be a degree of running away from the real world, but this seems to be explored more in Accel World IMO. That is the story where people like Haru (Yes, yes everybody hates him) seek to fulfill the things missing in their life in the virtual world. It’s the place where they can make their dreams come true.

    SAO has this to a degree as well, but on that front I’d actually saw AW is where Kawahara really explores this at all. Despite all the rage people have for it of course.

  10. Come to think of it, I don’t remember any virtual reality-focused anime that had Lord of the Flies elements to it. I’d appreciate an anime like that more than Sword Art Online solely based on its scarcity, but that’s getting off-topic…

    (I would definitely like to see more exploring of Sword Art Online’s economics. Despite the ominous limited-EXP-pool announcement made at the game’s beginning, we see that there are hordes of limitless monsters in higher levels of Aincrad, completely subverting any complexity we could receive from EXP being a scarce resource…)

  11. I think your all reading in to deeply into the story. The phrase “right now we’re alive in Ancrad” is more ment to address the line between life and death. I’d rather live in a beautiful then die trying to escape to the real world.

    I would honestly it would be awesome to be in a VRMMORPG (more interestin) and if someone wants to forever live in that world than who has the right to stop them from being happy. :)

  12. I guess I have to call it first:

    1. .hack and SAO came about at almost the same time: in 2002. It so happens that SAO was a web novel at first before being released into anime after 10 years. Oh btw, SAO only recieved an LN after being famous for writing Accel World.

    2. Being an LN reader, I not spoiling, but I think the main point that VR has both its disadvantages and advantages has been displayed quite clearly.

  13. I would love to see this made into a real mmorpg … but I would want them to be like DC Universe Online or Yu-Gi-Oh The Sacred Card, Where the actual characters are in the game so you cant be them, but you do missions with them because we would see like a million kiritos and asunas … The best thing i like about the ln/manga/anime is that you have ultimate customization to your character, you don’t see that enough in mmorpgs kirito being able to use a one handed sword without a shield and choosing his second strongest sword for his off hand was good, usually you are either a sword and shield player, or a two handed sword player, or a dual-wielder, you dont get to pick what is in your hands … The fact that everything Kirito wore was black was cool too, also the way that guilds had their own clothes like if they were a real army … The anime is like every mmorpg players wet dream, everything we want mmorpgs that we play to be, so to make a game about it would be so awesome

  14. There is a game, almost exactly like Swords Art Online. Here are introductions
    -The more you use a weapon, the more skillful you become with this weapon.(Swords, Maces, Stabbing weapons, Bows/Crossbows, Magic)
    -You can kill other players and loot everything they had on them
    -Steal from other player backpacks
    -Buy a mount or tame a wild one. Ride on them or order to attack other player
    -Become a crafter
    -Buy a house
    -Buy a raft
    -Create or join a guild and fraction
    -Both you and your mount will get hungry, so you need to eat

    This is very short introductions. There are more stuff about this game. “Forensics Evolution” allows you to look on players corpse and tell who killed him and how long ago. Skills like “Tracking” allows you to track down players who ran away from you. There is everything from SAO, like “Cooking” skills and PK (player killers). Only thing I must add, this game is all about game-play. Graphics in this game sucks, but game-play compensates for that. Since you can loot and be looted, game-play becomes very deep. If you hit opponent while he cast a spell, casting will fail. Every spell have different casting time and effect. All this makes very deep game play you will never find in noob friendly games like wow, dc and bulls*its like that.
    uo.theabyss.eu/

  15. I never see Accel World, but i can bet that i love more above all thing Sword Art Online. Love when Kirito fights craziest… I’m so happy with this Anime, i love it. And… Maybe i’d watch Accel World.
    The characters are my reason to see Anime, expressions, feelings, the thing that… the principal character has… The way that i can have a comunication with him/her. How to be Kirito, when… i see, i’m… Ah… I see myself. Me simply.
    My thoughts don’t matter.. But in the future. If a person make a VirtualGame like this (SAO) I promise login… hahaha :D ThankzZ to tell me CRAZY -.- But i’m happy.
    Oki… Let’s to watch Accel World… :D XD BYE

  16. this is a pretty good article not only about the show, but about gaming and gaming culture. When it comes to gaming i think it comes down to the fact that life is in a lot of ways boring. We have definitely not grown up in an interesting time so we are looking for outlets to have our own personal adventures and to find something more than just going to a soul sucking job where you sit in front of a computer, and then go out and drink every night with friends. there are plenty of things we do in life that are fun like traveling for example or pursuing our interests, but gaming allows a person a way to personalize there adventure.

    I think the first episode explains it, best when Kirito says he feels more alive in SAO than the real world and that he can guide his journey with a sword. Life has boiled down to politics and BS and people just want to feel like they are in control of their own fate, when most of the time people feel like they aren’t. Gaming gives that to us at least for a short time. I think it provides a little sanity in a real world where you can go insane from feeling powerless.

    for the people who criticize, they just don’t get it and don’t want people to have fun, and when it comes to game addicts there’s usually a deeper issue with the person and its not the game.

  17. To be honest, if i got trapped in a game like SAO… i wouldn’t mind dying, and this… is how your kids end up if you don’t allow them to play with your neighbor’s kids and keep them jailed at home… i was never allowed to hang out with friends or go to their parties till i got to 6th grade, after that, my grades started going down, my parents were furious, they jailed me again at home, but i usually have some videogame consoles to spare cuz i used to buy them with my money… and now… today i stand… called a “FREAKY GAMER” to be honest, i don’t really even care if the world ends or if my friends want to hang out with me, i’d rather just ditch them and stay at home playing videogames…
    Lesson: Let your kid go play outside and don’t lock him up in your house

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