There and Back: Sword Art Online, The MMO Thought Experiement

Ah, a series I never got around to finishing. It’d be over a year late, but better late than never eh? It’d be worth at least two more follow ups. Late in the Sword Art Online series the content becomes …strange. But still a great anime series worth watching.

There are no edits below. Today, the pure article is yours. It can be found here at T.R. Red Skies as well.

Kotaku recently reposted links to some of their favorite articles this year. One of them reminded me of the anime series they turned me onto this year, Sword Art Online. It’s basically a thought experiment about MMOs or virtual worlds. As ever, without these kinds of reminders I rarely get the ideas to write about them so thanks for all the inspiration out there 🙂

This is an anime about real living in an MMO world. For the sake of not spoiling it for anyone, I strongly recommend you not look below the “Start” header below if you haven’t seen at least the first 3 episodes (they are about 20 min long apiece). It’s worth watching for an hour in order to understand the story. Plus, it’s actually a really fun story and I think MMO gamers can appreciate it a lot.

Good anime excels at constructing really philosophical thought experiments about questions which we always ask ourselves, but never seriously answer or explore. The questions posed in the series aren’t unique; what’s unique is it attempts to explore the issues of virtual worlds. The show isn’t perfect. The object isn’t to construct a perfect, flawless story but to explore issues through simple thought experiments. It’s entertaining and the scenarios are very intriguing! I’ve watched it dozens of times and it never fails to engage me. It’s just fun so check it out!

EDIT: I recently watched the second half of the series and I wanted to add warnings for sensitive viewers. Episodes 17, 18, and 24 could be triggering. This is especially true for episode 24 which has what I’d consider a rape scene. Episode 17 has strong sexual harassment and 18 walks even closer to the line of assault; in both cases threats of rape are present. Viewer beware.

Start (spoilers ahead)

First Episode: Watch @ Crunchroll

For the sake of understanding the article, I highly recommend you take 20 minutes and enjoy the first episode linked above. I promise to return your brain cells if any happen to die in the course of watching it. Virtual brain cells of course. It’s much more likely you’ll get a very fun experience out of it.

Logging in to AincradI have found over the years that anime is difficult to dissect episode by episode unless each one is truly a unique story. In the case of SAO, it’s an entire story told over a couple dozen episodes. The first episode really sets us up with exciting questions which have concrete connections to our feelings about MMOs. It puts a lot of the core questions on the table here which are explored one by one in each episode. That’s why it’s best to watch at least the first 3 episodes, or if you enjoy anime then the first 10 episodes at a minimum. I think those encompass the core and more interesting questions for gamers.

It’s 2022 (or so) and Sword Art Online is the newest online virtual MMORPG where gamers can buy a fancy set of headgear and actually play the game in first person — the only controller is your mind.  The story takes place in the virtual world of Aincrad in which there is no magic. Only sword combat. The MMO has a lot of features that any eastern gamers would immediately recognize. While it’s got common general features with popular western titles like  leveling, towns, and gear there are elements which are distinctly eastern such as the way experience works, re-spawns, and other stuff which becomes more apparent throughout the series.

The Logout BugThe first dilemma for the players comes when they discover the log out button is missing from the menu! At first, most people write it off as a bug and even when they’re force teleported to the beginner city some believe it’s part of an opening ceremony. But soon the truth reveals itself: this is a feature of SAO and no one can log out. The only way to leave Aincrad is to beat the game. All 100 levels. Oh and if you die? It’s real; your body in the real world will die. Your task becomes twofold: to survive and to beat the game so you can live to tell the tale.

I used to be a pretty hardcore MMO gamer (hardcore in the sense that I played them non-stop for years). I’m sure the idea of being trapped in a virtual world is scary for most of us. It’s not that this question is so unique; so many of us have asked this question for years at various moments in our lives, especially in our gaming careers. We’re like the Matrix generation in that regard, so the game isn’t being brilliant in posing the question. Instead, it raises other related questions about gamer expectations and the delivery of the experience.

If a video game such as SAO was crafted in the real world, how accepting of bugs and flaws would we be in our games? Think about it: a bug that can potentially trap your mind in a virtual world. I think we’d possibly far less forgiving than we currently are. In fact we tend to expect there to be bugs, even critical failures such as not being able to log in or teleport to a town or get stuck. I question whether bugs ought to be acceptable at all, but then I know that games ought to be allowed flaws. Maybe we can just focus on not having critical bugs instead of the over-ambitious No Bugs stance. That would require well thought out game design, thorough such that the major areas of concern are practically bug proof. This is doable. It’s the reason we can count on airplanes to remain airborne and that feces doesn’t make it into our drinking water. The critical areas of solving those problems have been well designed such that even if the system possesses some minor bug or flaw, the stability of it isn’t compromised or lethal to users. How do game designers feel about delivering that kind of reliable experience, where gamers would trust that they could log in to their virtual worlds without fear?

From a different perspective …how many of us wouldn’t mind living permanently in a virtual world? Imagine you could log out at will, but that you could also literally live your life as a virtual creature. There are ways to sustain the body and handle waste which could make it possible. How many of us would choose that option?

This is also not a fresh question, yet I just haven’t given that much thought about how I would choose if this were literally the case. Yeah, we’ve all heard the question, but how many of us have attempted to seriously answer it? Technologically, we’re just a few years away from being capable of delivering an SAO-type virtual world. Would you trust game designers with a track record of buggy games enough to try their VR MMO?

I think I wouldn’t choose to live in the virtual world permanently, but I do consider it a valid option. It could be very pleasant and it could allow me to realize so much of my potential in an ageless, unrestricted world which thrives on my creativity. That’s very appealing. Of course, there might be limits technologically and by design of the game, but surely far less limiting than the real world. It’s interesting to think of all the possibilities and to know that they’re within reach in a virtual world! Yet that can’t be an unlimited good thing for humans. The real world is …well, real.

Kirito's IdentityThen there’s the question of identity. This is possibly one of the most discussed topics in the MMO community. In SAO, after players learn they can’t log out the game master then strips away their fictional identities. Everyone appears in-game exactly as they appear in the real world. Some players discover that their friends look extremely different while others have similar virtual and real appearances (such as Klein and Kirito). What does identity do to us as players?

In Aincrad given the current circumstances, it seems necessary to maintain your true identity instead of concealing it through an avatar. The players are stuck in the game; is it more beneficial for their well-being to live there as themselves? Or more dangerous? Maybe it doesn’t matter.  What the story does tell us though is that the game is filled with all kinds of people; old people, teenagers, men/women, and even small children.  It shows a reasonably diverse audience which doesn’t conform to traditional stereotypes. (It’s worth noting the game is dominated mostly by Japanese players so it’s got limited ethnic diversity.) It also makes the statement that our identities are important, both virtual and real. There are consequences, good and bad, for our avatars or lack thereof.

In SAO there are small, vulnerable children playing the game. Sometimes alone without an adult. Wasn’t it better to have their identity concealed? It might have protected them from less than good people or un-rehabilitated criminals. Was there a benefit at all to revealing true identities?

Identity Crisis

“You’re a guy?”
“…and you’re not 17?”

When I log in to virtual worlds I tend to favor short characters, like dwarves. Failing that I like to be green. But the avatars I’ve made which look most similar to me also embody a lot of my perceived personality. For example, the only human character I played in WoW was a priest who was faithful to no religion. Instead, I liked to think of him as a person who lived by the circumstances whether that lead him to the shadows or to the light. My rangers were a dwarf and an orc. My warlock was a gnome.  How did my true identity manifest itself though these characters?

In SAO, players have to deal with this question and others. On the one hand Kirito prefers to hide his identity which seems to affect his preference to solo the game. Klein on the other hand is a very open person; the disappearance of his identity allows him to own it fearlessly. This is shown by the way he begs Kirito to teach him how to play, his willingness to share his friends list and also, once their true appearances appear, to confess he finds Kirito attractive. Only at that moment does Kirito volunteer something about himself. Otherwise, by remaining solo he gets to continue to conceal his identity. This has consequences later in the series for both of them.

As they discover they are compatible comrades, they vow to maintain their friendship in order to survive the game. However, Klein joined the game with his real world friends. When Kirito begins planning the ways they can conquer the world together, Klein’s first response is that he has friends in the courtyard that he just can’t leave behind. It’s at this moment that they part and go their separate ways. I really liked this introduction to how we deal with our virtual friends and our real friends within virtual worlds.

Klein's DilemmaLoyalty has always been a tricky thing to gauge in a game, but lately it’s become rather elusive. Whereas earlier virtual friends represented people you cared about because you shared the same fantasies and interests, the evolution of social gaming has meant you’re supposed to bring your friends to the game instead of the game bringing friends to you. This subtle, but powerful dynamic questions our loyalties because it challenges our distinction between real world/real friends with virtual world/virtual friends. The line blurs at virtual world/real friends or virtual friends/real world, which  then divides our loyalties between real life and virtual life. I think we feel less obligated to virtual commitments, but there doesn’t appear to be a significant reason for that since virtual friends are still real people, and real experiences occur in virtual worlds.

For Kirito, survival is the most important thing and they should act quickly and independently in order to get ahead of the crowd; to put space between themselves and the anonymous masses. For Klein, he’s not willing to survive by leaving his friends behind. He decides to stay in the beginner city in order to find his friends. So how do gamers today view their virtual worlds and friends? Why do they seem easy to dismiss? What, if anything, do these interactions say about us?

Game MasterThere are also the questions of how game masters treat their players or deal with problems the player has and how we think about relationships in games. The GM in SAO is pretty brutal; he’s kidnapped his players and is holding a microwave gun to their heads. On its face, this characterization of GMs seems a bit too exaggerated to take seriously. Yet the principle in question raises an important issue. We are at the mercy of game designers when it comes to our game experience. It is their world that they are sharing with us and for the most part we have very little say in it. Sure we can critique the game, but in the end it’s theirs to design. What are the dangers, if any, of GMs having such control over the player experience?

Does GM abuse occur in our MMOs? It most certainly does. This is the issue raised by a principle we take for granted: that GMs have ultimate control over our experience, even if they allow us to participate in our own unique way. They define all the rules, make all the content, and control all the rewards. Yet, these things aren’t themselves dangerous. It’s more a matter of how GMs use their power to deliver an exciting gaming experience to us. In Aincrad, this is manifested in the worst way. But there will be plenty to say about this later in the series. For now, let’s just keep that question swirling around in our minds for a bit.

SAO also asks about our more intimate lives: who is home with you while you’re immersed in virtual worlds? If something were to happen to you, who would know to check on you? Are children equipped to deal with virtual reality? So much to explore, so many questions, but it’s the first episode. To learn how the series answers these questions, you’ll have to stay tuned.


8 thoughts on “There and Back: Sword Art Online, The MMO Thought Experiement

  1. I loved the concept of this anime but felt it lacking after around episode 10… Personally prefer Log Horizon as an anime with a similar theme but much much better. 🙂

    • To engage you all: what do you find more compelling about SAO, as far as being a “thinkers piece” that Log Horizon does better? Neither of you have mentioned this so far so …whats the reason I should watch it? 🙂

      • SAO is very limited in it’s scope and remains, at the core, a somewhat more personal/private story than Log Horizon. SAO is based around the game, itself, where the antagonist is the GM/game which creates the scope of the personal as the guiding factor.

        Log Horizon I’d describe as a “more mature” take on the same subject. LH is about politics and responsibility. One of the more interesting lines of inquiry is a focus and exploration of the fact that not only are there PCs out there “trapped” in the game, but that the NPCs aren’t exactly scripted anymore and have their own lives and memories and will to live. Where SAO is the story of a handful of people (with the focus on one), LH tells the story of the birth of an entire society.

        Plus, at the lower end, the writing is just better. SAO came first, but LH has taken the general concept and run much further in terms of scope and depth. Plus the characters are far easier to “get into” as there often lacks the sort of angst that seems to drive much of SAO. Both are good, but LH just does it all in a way that leaves you feeling “fuller” 🙂 I never really felt compelled to keep watching SAO in the same way I was always frothing for the next LH episode.

        • Sounds like the two have same synopsis, different story.

          On topic, SAO still has some very compelling questions that MMO gamers love to talk about. I like SAO and I still recommend it.I enjoy talking about its questions with friends while we watch it. Ive seen it a few times now, but when I originally wrote this I think it was only a few months old. It was awesome to see an anime take up the topic and take gamers on a live thought experiment of the problems with “living” in a virtual world.

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