SAO and Virtual Reality

The hype over the popular Japanese anime series “Sword Art Online,” or SAO, has finally gotten to me. Monday I was visiting a friend’s new apartment. There was little to do other than watch netflix and I had little time before I needed to head back home, so… we checked the anime section. I had heard much about SAO, some good, some bad. But I decided to give the series a try. Long story short, I marathoned the first season in two days. The director of the series, Tomohiko Ito, is a relative newcomer who has constructed a great resume within anime. Ito has done storyboard work on the acclaimed series “Death Note” and “Puella Magi Madoka Magica,” as well as working as an assistant director alongside Mamoru Hoasada on his films “The Girl Who Leapt Through Time” and “Summer Wars.” As such, I was excited to watch the series from the get go.

SAO begins as the player, Kirito, finds that he and 9,999 other pre-order players have been locked into the virtual reality MMO SAO by its eccentric, and reflective, creator Akihiko Kayaba. The headsets they wear for the game, dubbed “nervegears,” link players to the net through their brains (not unlike Major Kusanagi and other’s ability in “Ghost in the Shell”). Due to the neural connection needed to connect to the game, Kayaba has the ability to keep people from logging out of the game. There is no manual way to remove a player from the game. If such an attempt is made (as it was on the first day for hundreds of unfortunate families), the nervegear emits a shockwave and “fries” the players brains in the physical world. As in the beginning of Attack on Titan, the stakes are set. The game is life or death. The only way out is to mount the castle dungeon’s 100 floors and defeat the bosses of each one.

As Kirito moves through the world of SAO, he makes connections with other people and realizes that although he and the other players are barred from the physical sensation of contact, human emotion extends through this network. The message of SAO is ultimately a hopeful one. As we move forward into an increasingly transhuman, technologized world, virtual reality and online activity will become significant political and social issues with an incalculable potential for social disruption and possibly, rl deaths. But the human will can, and does, triumph. One of the fundamental lessons of contemporary philosophy is that the demarcation between the world as experienced and the world as simulated is a difficult division to ascertain when one lives therein. Reality and simulation both gain their ontological validity through the eyes of those perceivers and experiencers who exist there. As such, these two modes of being are only as distinct as the code is inversely complex.

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