So recently, I experienced two stories that triggered a line of thought regarding the slow prevalence of the MMORPG genre (massively multiplayer online role playing games) in our culture as well as the interesting things both stories did to push the idea past anything I’d experienced before.
Diving right in, I recently watched an anime called Sword Art Online. In terms of the story and the character development, the series was pretty mediocre at best. What interested me about the series was the concept itself as well as the way the show explored some of the ramifications of such an event.
The story is based on a new game that features the “full-dive” technology, where you wear a helmet and exist within a virtual world. The problem arises when the first ten thousand people who log on realize that there’s no way to log off from the game. They’re then visited by the creator of the game, who informs them that death in the game will kill their body in the real world. The only way to escape the game and return to their lives is to conquer all one hundred levels of the dungeon.
The concept itself wasn’t that amazing or unique. I can recall at least a few other novels, television shows or games that have explored this same idea.
No, what kept me intrigued was the way the series explored how the people trapped within the system would react to it.
Told over a two year period, SAO shows a somewhat realistic portrayal of how people would act in that same situation. It explores the idea that not everyone will want to risk real death in the game world, and instead, will be content to sit in the safe beginner village until someone comes to ‘rescue’ them. It explores the idea that the player-base caught within would segregate. People would split off into a faction of ‘hardcore’ gamers who prefer to go out and push through the dungeon to try and beat it while others would stay back in the towns and villages, spending their time levelling up crafting professions and such instead to try and support the front-liners through upgrades to their armor and weapons.
It explores some darker themes as well, and does it well. It deals with the fact that people who were beta testers in the game, armed with foreknowledge would likely keep their information to themselves to give themselves an edge when it came to obtaining equipment, thereby giving themselves a better chance to survive. It deals with players who would be willing to kill others to steal their items, regardless of the fact that it would lead to a permanent death.
The most important issue it tackles is regarding the separation between life in the game and life in the real world. It talks about how the distinction is sometimes hard to see and that at times, so long as you’re enjoying whatever life has handed you, it doesn’t really matter where you’re living your life so long as you’re consciously making the decision to live it.
The other story was Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline.
Cline’s novel explores a relatively near future scenario where a single game, Oasis, has grown to encompass just about every facet of life. A virtual universe with some planets featuring a strong sci-fi motif where magic is disabled while other planets feature fantasy landscapes where technology doesn’t work.
What I thought Cline’s novel explored well was the idea of how prevalent such a technology would become. A virtual universe where people have jobs within Oasis and are paid for it in the real world. A virtual universe where governments ‘buy’ planets and set up school boards on them, allowing students the option of attending classes in real life or attending classes online.
It’s a very interesting take on a virtual world that’s sort of layered over our own like a second skin.
I found it to be a very well realized look at what our world would be like if we had access to that sort of technology. In that respect, if science fiction is generally meant to extrapolate what technology can do for us as a species in the years to come, Ready Player One did a great job of painting a fully realized world where a product like Oasis makes its mark on every aspect of our lives.
What I found more interesting though were some of the more existential issues the novel tackled.
Issues like whether or not our online and offline identities can be separated. Issues like whether or not we become the masks that we wear to hide ourselves. Issues like whether or not an obsession with life in a virtual space has the potential to ruin the real life that we leave behind to live it.
These were issues that I found all the more interesting because though they were based off of the fictional Oasis system of the novel, they were also issues that spoke to us as a people now, in this day and age where the internet is becoming a frightfully prevalent part of our daily lives.
I think that stories tell us just as much about the time they were written and created as they do about the story on the surface. When writing in a near future setting, it’s important to keep a finger on the pulse of the current level of technology, as well as to explore what people have done with similar themes in other mediums in order to make our own creations feel as authentic as possible.
PS: I don’t recommend Sword Art Online or Ready Player One to an indiscriminate audience. While I enjoyed the heck out of them, they’ll probably be more of interest to people who share an interest in gaming and MMO culture. With that said though, if you ARE into that sort of thing, both of these stories are definitely interesting rides =)