Gaming Meets Media in Sword Art Online

How would you behave if the game you were playing was for keeps?

Most of us enjoy the power of games to create remarkable experiences.  Few of us get the chance to manage a town, to terraform a planet, to put out an inferno, to battle zombies.  Games provide these experiences and more. They give us the proverbial mile in another person’s shoes.

Most of us also enjoy games for a sense of power fulfillment. Games make us the masters of our destinies, offering control over a far wider range of factors than our mundane lives.

Gamers combine the desire to have remarkable experiences with a yen for power fulfillment.  It’s unsurprising then that many of us demonstrate in-game behavior which is naughty at its mildest and antisocial at its most extreme. The bonds of society would dissolve if we treated each other so callously. Gamers routinely drive their laborers in Carcassonne, lynch suspects in Werewolf, employ gunboat diplomacy in Risk, parch our neighbors’ crops in Santiago.

I’m not knocking this behavior; a natural extension of exploration in games is exploring the darker parts of our own souls.  Plus it’s fun to exert power over other players (or at least those little bits of wood, cardboard, and plastic that stand in for them during the game).  And since we clash in a virtual world of totems and avatars, we can do it all while understanding that there truly was no harm done, no foul called.

Sword Art OnlineI’m not much of an anime fan but discovered Sword Art Online while Netflix spelunking.  It seemed interesting enough to watch the pilot.  Now I’m about halfway through the first season now and finding that SAO offers an interesting question for game enthusiasts–the one I posed at the beginning of this column.

Shortly after the launch of the eponymous Sword Art Online MMORPG, players begin discovering that they are unable to log out.  The game’s designer announces that he’s trapped them all AND if they die in game, an em pulse emitter hidden in the control helmets will kill them in real life AND that em emitter will also kill them if if anyone in real life tries to remove their helmets. For its players, SAO has literally become a game of life and death.

And now every one of the ten thousand inhabitants of this virtual world must answer that question.

Some strive to be the ideal hero.  They work to train and protect the Newbs. they fight on “the front lines,” working to reach the end of the game and thereby free everyone.  They became babysitters for the children trapped in the game.  SOA’s hero Kazuto “Kirito” Kirigaya becomes so much the embodiment of the hero that he even refuses to kill digital NPCs.

Some strive to be at peace with this world.  They become merchants.  They become blacksmiths.  They become cooks. The become fishermen.

Some strive to be the ideal villain.  They mislead players.  They lead players into ambushes.  They trap them.  They assassinate them.  They kill them in their sleep.

How about you?

Have you watched Sword Art Online?  What do you think of the questions it poses?  Share with your fellow readers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create an account with WordPress and follow this blog.  If you keep reading, I’ll keep writing.

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