Gamification has been a buzz word lately as the process where a mundane activity can be treated as a game to impel you to feel more fulfilled doing it. Games are hobbies, pastimes, and Role-Playing Games offer not only fantasy but also a space for people to explore different aspects of their personalities or even try other personas.
So what would happen if people were forced to live inside an RPG?
That’s the premise of anime series SWORD ART ONLINE.
Adapted from a series of light novels by Reiki Kawahara, the 25-episode series is about a Mass Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game that has trapped all of its players in its Virtual Reality world and forced to fight through the game until they clear its final level before they can be released from their captivity. If they die in the game, they will die in meatspace.
Kirihito, the hero of Sword Art Online, is a loner who prefers to play games solo, avoiding emotional attachment and using his inside knowledge as one of the game’s beta testers to level himself up through the game faster than most of the other players, but his journey through the game is also his awakening where he finds friendship, love and responsibility for people other than himself. It’s not that he’s a selfish or arrogant arse, but fears emotional pain. When the game literally becomes life or death for him and every player, he rises to the challenge, experiencing real loss and pain, but also love and friendship, becoming a top player but a hero who feels duty-bound to save everyone by beating the game.
Of course, this being a story from Japan, SWORD ART ONLINE has the usual harem conventions where the nice guy hero has a whole bunch of girls in love with him but his heart is only for that one girl. I think here in the West we call it Peter Parker Syndrome, but at least it is aimed at a teen audience after all. And it also boils down to the hero rescuing the princess. What makes the show one of the more exceptional ones this year is the smart writing, full of insider references to anyone who has ever played an MMO or RPG.
The writing is full of ideas and philosophical questions about Life and role-play, about what happens if a game literally becomes one’s life, where one’s survival is dependent on playing well, and to play well means to actually be a fully-functional social being as well as technically-skilled in gameplay mechanics. It examines the social structures and hierarchies that arise in society in general but also in microcosmic form in social gaming, of economic structures and transactions that develop in societies. That the players literally have to survive gives the themes an edge. What happens when trolls and griefers literally become murderers and they become drunk with the power they now have? What does it mean to develop a completely new personality in this second life that’s different from the one in meatspace? What does it mean to fall in love and get married in a game? How much does it spill into real life under life or death circumstances? Relationships, feuds and vendettas become as real as in the meatspace world, except more intense because everyone carries a sword and Player vs. Player duels can literally become deadly, and losing a boss fight is real, literal death.
What sets SWORD ART ONLINE apart from most other shows is its insider’s depiction of RPGs and the types of relationships and situations that are unique to MMO gaming. Anyone who plays MMOs and RPGs would get a lot out of watching this show. It addresses directly what every gamer looks for in an immersive game. Anyone who has played a Bioware game like MASS EFFECT or DRAGON AGE will feel right at home.
Only in Japan is prose fiction about MMOs and their players a viable commercial genre. SWORD ART ONLINE is only the latest example in the genre, but one that tackles the social and philosophical questions of the games head-on. And this is what sets it apart and made it popular. The anime series faithfully adapts the entire series of novels from beginning to end, barring some spinoff side-stories. As with every popular novel franchise, it has also spawned a manga adaptation and, in the usual meta-referential full circle, a fully-fledged action RPG videogame to be released on the Sony PSP next spring. But for those of us in the West, we will have to settle for the anime, which is more than good enough. We like nice things, but Japan tends to get nicer things than we do.
SWORD ART ONLINE has been licensed for Blu-Ray and DVD release, but until then, people in North America can watch it for free on Crunchyroll.
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