Playing a Game With Power and Death: Exposing the Morality of Players in Sword Art Online, Episode 1

To be fair, the typical consequences of dying in an MMO are already horrendous enough. Loss of hard-won equipment, or experience, perhaps even being parted from the shiny, shiny gold you love so much—many a veteran player has to fight down a fearful shiver and an instinct to triple-check their money pouch at the mere thought. But what if it was worse—more terrible than you could have ever dreamed. What if I told you…there was a game…where the consequence for losing

Was death?

Well, more than likely, you wouldn’t be inclined to give that much of a damn. Why? Because the premise has been explored to Hell and back already, that’s why; And as such, the concept has lost a great deal of its ability to strike fear into the hearts of viewers. So, in the end, new ‘Deadliest MMO’ anime Sword Art Online likely isn’t going to win any awards simply for the decision to throw gamer nerds headfirst into a pit of (admittedly, somewhat frightening) level-1 boars. But even amidst the masses, SAO seems poised to stand out from the pack by driving home one crucial fact:

Sword Art Online’s players are entirely mortal, to an extreme degree—and caught up in a game designed to make them feel just the opposite.

No, really. It was ferocious and terrifying.

Like most successful MMOs, Sword Art Online practically smacks its players with a sense of satisfaction every damn time they accomplish something—even in ways we can only dream of, with the advent of gaming-helmet-system-thing NerveGear. Thanks to the technology of ‘some tomorrow in the middle-distant future’, players are capable of directing their character’s every movement with their mind alone, and to experience their every success in the most immersive way imaginable. Throw in one last little bit of realism by making every single avatar take on the appearance of their player, and you have yourself a world tailor-made to make every single player feel like a bigger badass than they would have ever imagined themselves being.

The ones who don’t end up dead, that is.

“It’s a virtual world, but I still feel more alive here than I do in the real one.”

And it’s the mortality of each and every one of the players that Sword Art Online focuses on, with flash scenes of grieving family, portraits of players already dead, and even a (rather well-animated) look at Kirito’s bleeding papercut. The anime makes it as clear to its viewers as dastardly DM antagonist Kayaba Akihiko makes it to the players: death in Sword Art Online means death in the real world. What’s more, while we’re given occasional glimpses of the real world in the anime (and likely will be in future episodes), the players have access to nothing of the sort. They’re trapped inside the world of Aincrad, with the potential for escape quite a ways away—trapped inside a game literally designed to make them feel empowered. Untouchable, even. But all the same, they’re trapped inside a world where their own mortality is all too apparent.

And for the moment, they’re terrified. Having just had their plight laid out before them, each and every player is more frighteningly aware of the possibility of his or her own death than they likely ever have been before. But consider what they have to experience in order to escape alive: they have to fight to become strong enough to overcome all one hundred floors of the game world. How many floors did Kirito make it through in one whole month?

A whopping eight.

Granted, he comments that it likely won’t take as long the second time around. But even then—Hell, even ignoring the fact that nine-tenths of the players don’t have the same experience he does with the game—we’re likely still looking at more than half a year of nonstop play time. Six months of being cut off from your past life, and reality as a whole. Six months of being completely immersed in a fantasy world. Six months—maybe even more!—of fighting and growing stronger in a world crafted with the direct purpose of empowering you. How easy is it going to be to forget your own mortality after so much time in a world like that?

We’ll never be given the chance to forget, though. With one eye always on the outside world—which is constantly portrayed as bleak and gray, to ironically contrast the bright, beautiful, and deadly world of Aincrad—the anime is always going to keep us aware of the extreme mortality of its characters. We’re always going to be aware of how much time is passed,  and we’ll be able to experience all the terror on the faces of the people watching it all unfold in the real world.

Makes me wonder if it’s at all immoral to make a spectator sport out of the people watching a spectator sport. Especially one as deadly as Sword Art Online.

Note to self: ‘for the giggles’ is not an appropriate reason to make a terrible, punny joke.


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  1. #1 by theconfusedmuse on July 10, 2012 - 10:10 pm

    This first episode is a great example of that it’s not the cliche so much as how it’s executed. I really hope that this show continues to handle itself this way.

  2. #2 by Digibro on July 11, 2012 - 8:08 pm

    This is an excellent post, and gave me the missing pieces of why I find this show so exciting. I’m going to write a post in response, but I want to wait until I see episode 2 before I write it, so it’ll be a few days.

    I will say this, though. He actually said it took *two months* to reach the eighth floor, but that it would only take him one month this time.

    Now, this guy is a pretty hardcore player. A hardcore player can usually reach the level cap in an MMORPG within four days. A lot of players capped in Tera Online at about that speed. I took about a month and a half myself, playing a total of something like 120 hours to reach that point. I’d say that at least forty percent of that time was just between levels 49 and the cap, level 60.

    Now, the top floors of that tower did look a lot smaller than most of the others, but they’re probably also very difficult. If this is like most MMOs, which I see no reason to think it wouldn’t be, considering how accurate it’s been, then it will probably take closer to an entire year, if not even longer, to complete.

  3. #3 by -chii- on July 19, 2012 - 11:17 pm

    So per your recommendation (and so i can stalk these posts of yours) I picked this up for the season. Episode 1 really didn’t wow me in anyway honestly but somehow even though it’s the same cliche story it has me interested to see how it will be done. It helps that I’m rather fond of the main character from the start too.

    One thing you mentioned that has me wondering. “one year or so to complete” how the hell are their outside bodies going to stay alive for that long? or does that thing they put on their head somehow keep their life force going?? this is kinda driving me nuts because well… everyone would be dead in a week or so without food/water…. or does eating in the game = eating irl?? maybe i missed a point somewhere or i’m just thinking too much about this…

    • #4 by Digibro on July 19, 2012 - 11:41 pm

      You didn’t miss anything, they haven’t said anything. I imagine that irl the people are being hooked up to IVs.

      • #5 by summersatellite on July 20, 2012 - 12:30 am

        From what I’ve heard about the source material, it is something like that, yeah. They’ve got them all hooked up to IV’s and whatnot.

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