Anime, despite the Western view of cartoons as being childish, addresses difficult and looming concepts. Beneath the virtual facade and wonder of the anime Sword Art Online, there dwells many heavy concepts. For those who haven’t watched SAO, it deals with concepts of reality with depth rivaled by Ghost in the Shell. Unlike Ghost, SAO deals with the concepts obliquely.
This post will have some spoilers for Sword Art Online.
SAO examines what happens when people are fully absorbed into a massively multiplayer online role playing game. The people are so absorbed that they cannot even log off until the game is completed. If they die in the game, or someone unplugs their virtual reality device, they die in reality. As the “game” continues for a couple of years, people begin to forget what it is like to live in the flesh. Many players start normal lives in the abnormal environment. Asuna viewed the time in the game as lost until she met Kirito, who viewed the online world as legitimate an experience as meat space. Over time, the pair fall in love. Not a virtual love, but truthfully.
Let’s stop a moment and consider this idea in our own reality. Are online experiences as legitimate as those in realty? While we are playing in a virtual world, we are meeting and establishing relationships with other people. The avatar in the game becomes an extension of our personality…or perhaps the personality we wish we could be in real life. As the main character, Kirito, states in the second part of the series, people are the same in reality as they are online. I have actually ran into the fact myself. People tend to be too honest and genuine when they are online.
As gaming delves into virtual reality, (SAO isn’t that far off from being possible) will virtual life be less than reality or a deeper experience? It is an important question to consider.
Anyway, as SAO continues Asuna is caged by a man who wants to marry her in reality. He only wants to possess her and programmed her avatar to be relatively helpless. He speaks about wanting to “have fun” in the non-body. Asuna states that virtual or physical, her view of her body is the same. She refuses to demean herself with sexuality. This is a contrast to Ghost in the Shell’s embrace of how cybernetics and virtual bodies negate the need to treat the body with respect. Mind you, Asuna and Kirito are married by this time, in the game world at least.
Again, another question addressed obliquely. Are virtual bodies, like virtual experiences real? Consider virtual sex. Is it real? Considering how many spouses feel cheated with our current, primitive virtual sex, there is a resounding yes.
Sword Art Online touches on many interesting and increasingly important questions. As we move more of our lives online, how real is the virtual? Facebook posts can get you fired from your job. Virtual sex is considered cheating. Online friendships blossom into long lasting friendships…despite never seeing each other off screen.
My own view: online experiences are as legitimate as offline. They involve interacting with people and create memories. Are they inferior to real experiences? Is spending time in the online world nothing but a waste of time? I say it is a waste and at the same time it isn’t. It depends on how the time is used and if there is a healthy balance.
What are your thoughts on the ideas stories like Sword Art Online and Ghost in the Shell consider? What do you think about our increasingly “full dive” into technology?