Sword Art Online Brings Virtual Life to Real Life


On my ever continuing quest to have colored light fill my eye sockets with entertainment–I watched Sword Art Online. I had never heard of it before (I actually do live under a rock thank you very much) outside of my weekly anime & pizza group (read as ‘old people watching cartoons’) discussing after seeing it listed on Netflix. Apparently the show is super popular–as in Men-at-Arms actually made the sword from season one. I was bored with ‘Star Wars: The Clone Wars’ and checked it out.


First impression: So this is just dotHack again right?

Second impression: What the heck… Okay…. this is getting binged watched. Be warned: light spoilers ahead.


Overall I enjoyed the series. I would say I rate it at about four stars out of five. The reason? The series makes huge soul crushing philosophical questions that hit you right in the gut-feels and then says ‘frak it–more boobs!’ Season one is more bipolar than a senator up for reelection. The thing flip-flops between meaningful storytelling with deep characters to shallow ‘Boys Only Club’ in the same breath… Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself.


For starters, some background, the series follows a ‘solo’ player in a massively multiplayer online game called Sword Art Online. SAO (as it is referred to) uses a direct-to-brain helmet that lets the player actually live in the virtual world. They have to eat, sleep, and learn how to fight to play. The game has just been released and the main character, Kirito, jumps on to go play. He meets a noob who needs help playing and our hero gladly teaches him how to play.


Soon after the players are assembled to a special audience with the game’s creator who promptly locks them into the game and promises their death if they log out. Also if a player dies in-game they die for real (because why not?). The virtual reality helmets will kill their brain if they are unplugged. The only way to get out is to beat one hundred floors of the toughest video game ever created. Think of it as trying to beat Super Mario Bros 3 blindfolded, with your hands tied behind your back, and you only have one life.


This follows the zeitgeist of  teenage death match from such series like the Hunger Games and Battle Royal and Maze Runner and and and… Okay you get the idea–lots of stuff that is suddenly popular now. The difference is how much the series takes gamer life into account.

This is what made the series for me–the deep gamer level stories that have only been made possible recently by the internet. For example there was an investigation for a PK (or player kill) in a safe zone where people should not be able to die. There were episodes about why joining a guild can be good and bad, why choosing party members selectively is important, and how love can blossom and be shunned. It is the cybernetic hyper self-awareness of teenage romances in the digital age mixed with the science fiction dystopia fanfare.


The weird part is while the world is dystopian it is also bright and sunshiny. Virtual worlds in the future are all nice looking with green grass and clear blue water apparently. Then a seventy foot centipede made of bones eats your friends while you are raped–hooray! Seriously–it is all Pleasantville up until the moment of utter tragedy and loss. Oh… and fairies… yeah… everyone has fairy wings in second half of season one. Spoiler I guess.


That said, it follows a solo player (someone who doesn’t work with others) through his adventures. He is addicted to the gameplay and doesn’t like watching people die. The first half of season one is set over a two-year period in fourteen episodes so I figure they only show the highlights when he is actually with people. The second half of season one is about life after the game ends and must be only a few weeks at most.


During his adventures he parties off and on with Asuna, a lady player, who is known as a ‘beater’ for the ungodly amount of smack she lays down. In fact she is one of the vice commanders of the guild who is clearing the game almost single-handedly.


Together, Kirito and Asuna, dig deeper into the meaning of being alive through gaming. This may sound weird to the uninitiated, but gaming as a hobby and pastime is still living albeit virtually. Time spent in a video game is not unlike the thought experiment by Descartes about a brain in a vat. Because the characters experience life in the game that experience is still real even though it is presented virtually straight to their brains. They tank therefore they are.


After two years of fighting monsters together, our heroes begin to lose sight of what the real world was like. The monsters are not real but the experience of fighting them is and so too is the death experienced when their Health Points reach zero. This carries over into the real world for the second half of season one where they still have the friendships, love interests, and post traumatic stress of the video game in real life.


This is explored in the other direction as well with a ‘Chinese Room’ experiment. During their travels they meet a young girl who is lost. Trying to find her parents (lots of kids are stuck in-game without parents which is another way this series kicks your feels’ teeth in) they actually determine she is an AI.


Over season one they try to figure out if she is like a real person or just a machine. Like the Chinese Room experiment, the cast tries to test if Yui is really making creative and spontaneous thought or just copying the humans she is now friends with. This is the same as communicating with someone in a locked room by passing notes who cannot speak Chinese but has every resource you can possibly think of at their disposal to translate things into Chinese. If you were never allowed to open the door would you figure out if they were really a native speaker or not? They leave this one a little open to interpretation but throwing it in completes the list of cyber-modern philosophical gauntlet.

In a nutshell: The series is a great addition to the discussion on exploration of human thought through the medium of virtual reality. I sincerely wish the second half of season one didn’t have fairy winged rape. Give it a chance if you were putting it off like me–if you have seen it let me know in the comments if you noticed any other thought experiments or philosophical debates that I didn’t mention.

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