“There is no doubt that this is a virtual world, that everything we see and touch is an imitation created from data. But to us, our hearts do exist within this reality. If that’s true, then everything we’re experiencing here should also be true.” Asuna, Sword Art Online
I’ve never played an MMO, but I’ve always enjoyed listening to the stories of friends who have. Particularly in the case of games like World of Warcraft, where users have invested months of their lives into their characters. There’s drama amongst teams, scandals, heroes and villains. People can become renowned for their talents, make friends and hang-out all week-long. As such, can we really say that these experiences are so trivial as to be “just games?”
On a surface level, of course, MMOs are just video games like any other. You can beat monsters or troll other players, and who cares? You don’t have to take any of it seriously if you don’t want to. You get to choose how to play, and who to be.
That’s not just MMOs, that’s the internet. The nature of the internet is that you can exist within a reality of your own making. Your Twitter feed might be an interactive medium, filled with people you enjoy talking to, or you could just passively follow a bunch of celebrities. It all enriches one reality or another, and it’s your choice which.
I struggle with this all of the time: I won’t go out of my way to link offline friends to my online accounts. I have a Twitter profile, but I’m not on Facebook. Facebook is like the real world put online, and that’s troubling to me. I feel like I’m more in control on Twitter, but for whatever reason, Facebook has never felt like that: even its name suggests a connection to the real world.
Getting back to why all of this is being posted on an anime blog: Sword Art Online. It’s a new series about an MMO, the twist of which being that if you die in-game, you die for real. Immediately then, this is a story about ideas near and dear to my heart: the frictions between virtual and real worlds.
There’s a myriad of complaints about the series so far, notably that it’s a “dumb” premise and “unrealistic.” It would seem that an MMO with real-world consequences is an idea that many either ridicule or refuse to entertain. I find it fascinating, though. After I’d seen the first couple of episodes, I even started reading the fan-translations of the light novels.
It’s not like the writing is great, either. The story is dominated by many an anime cliché: it fringes on the cute tragedy porn of Key, but just that core idea of another reality has me hooked.
What does it mean to make friends in Sword Art Online, and to fall in love? These are such prescient questions, and as more people find themselves online, the more we face these same dilemmas. What is real in the virtual world? Do we sense hearts between the tweets and pixels? Arms reaching from your computer screen, pulling you in?