Not since Ghost in the Shell has an anime series stirred my inner technologist. Sword Art Online plays with some of the same ideas as Ghost but in the opposite direction. Instead of only pulling people into the digital realm SAO plays with the idea of pulling the virtual world into ours. At first, I was hesitant about the second series. I mean, what else could be done now that the threat of dying for real in a game was gone? I was pleased to see the series focus on the after effects of the original SAO series and the implications of the technology. The second seasons looks at Asuna in particular.
Now I know the series has problems. It has drawn a fair level of hate from many as well. However, I enjoyed it for what it was. I won’t really focus on the anime itself in this article. There are enough reviews floating around the net like that. Rather, I will take a look at SAO’s view of technology and our relationships with it. Much of the commentary buried in SAO is relevant for the Internet Generation.
The Virtual Influences the Real
As Kirito says in the first season, the virtual world changes how a person behaves and thinks in reality.
This is a profound idea that even gamers without full dive technology need to consider. We all know that the Internet and online gaming is often a cesspool of backbiting, immaturity, trolling, abuse, and general disregard for others. These behaviors impact who we are in reality as well. After all, these things have to come from somewhere. Although there is a screen between you and the other person, there is still another person on the other side of that screen.
Whatever a monk keeps pursuing with his thinking and pondering, that becomes the inclination of his awareness. If a monk keeps pursuing thinking imbued with sensuality, abandoning thinking imbued with renunciation, his mind is bent by that thinking imbued with sensuality. If a monk keeps pursuing thinking imbued with ill will, abandoning thinking imbued with non-ill will, his mind is bent by that thinking imbued with ill will. If a monk keeps pursuing thinking imbued with harmfulness, abandoning thinking imbued with harmlessness, his mind is bent by that thinking imbued with harmfulness.
-Dvedhavitakka Sutta: Two Sorts of Thinking
As the Buddhist quote points out, how we think over time influences how the mind develops. Regardless of where that thinking happens, it bends the mind in that direction. As Kirito in SAO points out, virtual reality is still a reality.
This idea extends into the second season with the introductions of Sinon and Yuuki. Both characters are changed by their interactions with Kirito and Asuna.
The Technology of SAO
As I mentioned, SAO has interesting ideas about technology. Full dive virtual reality allows people to work toward overcoming traumatic events (Sinon) or overcome limitations of illness (Yuuki). Kirito is also trying to develop technology that pulls Yui, Kirito and Asuna’s virtual daughter, into the physical world. We see this blurring of digital and analog in our world. Increasingly, the digital world interacts with our physical reality. We control our houses using phones, for example. What we post on social media has real world consequences. Abuse on social media coupled with offline abuse has driven people into suicide. Poor social media behavior can cost you a job.
SAO portrays virtual reality technology as overwhelming positive despite some of the horrors that happens in the series. It allows the characters to have a life that is often more real than what they experience in the physical world. Such as the scene with Asuna and her mother in SAO II. I particularly liked the scene of everyone working on homework in the virtual world. It illustrates how there are few real boundaries between virtual and physical. Again, we see this today with how pervasive the Internet is in every aspect of life.
SAO notes that technology does not change people. The interactions the technology provides changes people. Technology also brings out ways of thinking that already exist. Think Suguo in the later half of the first season. The core message of Sword Art Online is about humanity more than technology. Kirito sees zero differences between an AI like Yui and a real person. Asuna interacts with people in the virtual world as she does in the real world. That is because those interactions are real even if the environments are artificial. This too is something we need to consider.
But the things that proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and those defile the man. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders.
Each comment, tweet, and post reflects upon us. It is an interaction with other person. They come from our hearts. We carry our hearts with us everywhere, online and offline. Technology is only a vehicle of interaction. Of itself, it will not change a heart that is corrupted or pure. Those interactions with other people are what change us. Asuna and Kirito’s interactions with Yui changed them. That interaction drives Kirito to figure out a way to bring Yui into the physical world. She is his daughter, after all. Asuna’s desire to help Yuuki is the same: to share the physical world just as they shared the virtual. Technology is only a facilitator. It brings out what already resides within our hearts.
Ghost in the Shell wrestles with what it means to be human in a world where the body does not matter. Sword Art Online wrestles with questions of the human heart.
SAO resonates with me as a gamer. The series itself has its problems, like poorly timed Sinon fan service, plot holes, and other issues. Despite the storytelling issues that are common to anime and manga, SAO gives us ideas worth considering.
I am not a competitive person (I dislike first person shooters with only a few exceptions), nor do I seek to harm or exploit other players. I play exclusively as a healer in MMORPGs and tend to give away most of my wealth to new players. I am me both online and offline just as Kirito and Asuna are. I seek to help others (JP is also part of this) and don’t seek my own gain. Just because I don’t see a person does not mean I can take advantage of them or act less toward them even if I will never see them again.
SAO suggests a message that everyone who interacts digitally with others needs to keep in mind. There is no difference between an online interaction and an offline interaction. There is still another person behind the text or avatar.