When Sword Art Online first aired, people were lulled in by its premise. The characters are trapped inside a VR game and someone needs to beat it to get them all out. It’s a common misconception that this is the main idea of the show. While it is the initial premise, the purpose of this premise is to make its themes known and set up for future events that happen after the Aincrad arc.
The main themes of SAO is the way technology impacts the lives of people. This is a reoccurring theme throughout the story and it’s explored in various different ways throughout its arcs. SAO explores different types of technology and also explores its effects on individuals, communities, and society as a whole. The goal of this analysis is to discuss the various ways in which SAO tackles this theme at various points throughout the anime. So let’s get started.
WARNING! There will be spoilers for all current seasons of Sword Art Online! This does not include the spinoff Sword Art Online Alternative: Gun Gale Online!
One of the primary ways in which its themes are explored is in terms of human relationships. Asuna initially believed time in the virtual world was time lost in the real world. But after meeting Kirito, she realized her time in the virtual world was real. All of her feelings, all of her struggles, all of the good and bad times; they were real. All the relationships she made was real, and her love for Kirito was real. Even after the Aincrad arc, the friendships she made stuck with her in the real world. She even hangs out with them regularly.
Not everyone sees virtual world relationships as genuine, with Asuna’s mother believing it’s a waste of time. Asuna was able to change her mother’s mind by showing how the virtual world reminded her of her relationship with her grandparents. Asuna’s mother is similar to many parents today, believing that internet relationships are fake and people should make real friends. But friends made through technology are real, and in SAO, leads to characters becoming friends in the real world.
Escapism is a theme most people recognize when it comes to SAO, but how does it portray this theme? Escapism allows us to distract ourselves from our issues by participating in fun activities. This is true for some of the characters in SAO.
When Kirito found out his sister was actually his cousin and he was adopted, it caused him to isolate himself from his family and get attached to games. Playing games, such as SAO, allowed him to escape from family and avoid confronting his issues with where he stood in his family.
Asuna also got SAO for the purpose of escapism. She comes from a rich family with very high expectations for her. They also have what she feels like is an unfair level of control over her life. She just wanted to escape from it.
It is interesting how this anime handled the concept of escapism with both of these characters. With Kirito, it causes him to isolate himself from others. But over time, he learns to accept human relationships and becomes more open with people. It is very likely his relationship with Asuna had a major impact on him coming out of his shell. It eventually allows him to patch things up with Suguha when he got back to the real world. It begs the question as to what level is escapism good, but it also ties back to the previous theme I mentioned, human relationships.
With Asuna, she put on a tough facade to contrast herself with what she saw as her weak and helpless real world self. After meeting with Kirito, she is able to accept the way she is and put down her facade. Her relationship with Kirito and the house they lived in in-game also allowed her to achieve true escapism, and at that point was truly happy.
NEW WAYS TO RECONNECT WITH PEOPLE
While Kirito was trapped in SAO, Suguha, his cousion, began to play a new VR game called Alfheim Online, under the name Leafa. Kirito knew she was his cousin, which caused him to isolate himself and get attached to games. Suguha didn’t know this. She started playing Alfheim because she wanted to understand what about the virtual world was so special that it attracted Kirito so much. By doing this, she hoped that she could find a new way to connect with Kirito, who was still trapped in SAO. In this way, SAO presents a new way in which people can connect with each other, and also create a better understanding of each other. It’s not a stretch to say VR played a major role in Kirito and Suguha reconnecting together as a family.
Another example of this is with Asuna and the log cabin. The log cabin reminded her of her time with her grandparents while on vacation. She was also able to get her mother to understand the power of VR. Asuna was able to tell her mother about her grandparents and how they still cared for her. She was finally able to connect with her mother, and in turn her mother was able to understand the significance of VR through their connection to her parents.
EXPOSURE THERAPY/NEW IDENTITIES
In the Phantom Bullet arc, Shino Asada uses video games as a form of exposure therapy. Exposure therapy exposes the user to a source of anxiety in order to get them used to it, so they can overcome trauma. Due to a traumatic event from her past, she has a phobia of guns and severe PTSD, to the point where pointing a a finger at her head and saying “bang” is enough to trigger a panic attack. Shino tries to fix this by playing Gun Gale Online, a VR shooting game.
In game, she assumes the identity of Sinon, the game’s best sniper. To her, Shino and Sinon are the different people, as Sinon doesn’t fear guns at all. Shino hopes to become more like her in game avatar and believes if she becomes the strongest in game, she will be able to become stronger in real life and overcome her PTSD. Research into different forms of technology as therapy for different conditions is being conducted today and it’s interesting how the anime uses VR games as exposure therapy for PTSD.
In the case of SAO, it questions the difference between the real world and the virtual world. It also shows how we assume different identities on the internet to adapt to the different environment or to express ourselves in a way we didn’t think possible in the real world. For Shino, it allows her to become stronger as she doesn’t fear guns in the game. There are other examples such as Kirito’s image of the cool Black Swordsman and Asuna’s facade of being strong to contrast her real world weakness. For people in the real world, it allows them to become more extroverted, making up for a lack of social skills in the real world, or to assume an identity they are more confident in than their real life one.
DISTORTED SENSE OF REALITY
For some people, technology can distort their sense of reality. It is becoming a more common issue these days with people equating their success with internet activities with their real life self-worth. While not a common occurrence, some people take this to the extreme. The most notable example of this is Kyouji Shinkawa in the Phantom Bullet arc. Due to his real life issues, he associated his success in GGO with his real life self-worth. Since his AGI build ended up not being very effective, his personal issues started to become more extreme. This lead him to believe his real life self-worth was based on his strength in the game, causing him and two other people to become Death Gun. Making everyone believe they could kill people in real life by shooting them in the game inflated their sense of self-worth. It made them feel powerful, like they had a sense of control.
There are other examples of a distorted sense of reality. A good example is the guild Laughing Coffin from Aincrad, a guild know for killing players. Kyouji’s brother was a part of that guild, and he wanted to continue killing players in the real world.
There are many benefits to technology, but there are also a lot of risks that raise concerns over how much we should rely on technology and how much it should be regulated. Recent events on the internet has made this an even more pressing issue.
MEDICAL PURPOSES/TECHNOLOGICAL INNOVATION
The Mother’s Rosario arc introduced the Medicuboid. This was a device that allowed Yuuki Konno to live in the virtual world as her real body was physically unable to move and would be in a lot of pain without the machine. This device was designed for terminal care, for people with illnesses with near certain death. It is easy for people who grew up in a time with less advanced technology to be fearful of the negative impacts of technology in the future, but technological innovation can also have very positive effects.
The Medicuboid allowed Yuuki to live the best life she possibly could with the time she had left. Her real body couldn’t move but in the virtual world, she could move without restraint. Kirito’s research into mechtronics also allowed her to experience the real world through a camera. With the remaining time she has left, she is able to leave her mark on the world by accomplishing many things that would otherwise be impossible without the Medicuboid, which she signed up for as the first test subject.
While there are people who use technology for immoral purposes throughout SAO, overall I feel it’s an anime with hope for the future of technological innovation, asserting technology is bound to have many positive effects on the future of our world.
AUGMENTED REALITY/ALTERING PERCEPTION
Augmented Reality, or AR, allows people to alter the real world through digital means. Technically, the real world isn’t actually effect, but AR affects a person’s perception. The unique capabilities of AR allow people to experience perceptions that are entirely unique and has the potential to change the way society works. The the SAO movie, Ordinal Scale, there is an AR game called Ordinal Scale which has people use their real life ability to slice at AR bosses with AR weapons.
It explores a new way of interacting with the world, and a new form of gaming. Since your real world body is used, it’s more productive and healthy than laying down while you plays games. It also presents issues with AR and how dangerous it can be. The Augma, the AR device, collected memory and stole memory data, but there can potentially be other issues with AR. An altered perception of reality can be used to the advantage of people trying to abuse it for immoral purposes.
There are some potential great benefits to AR, such as the reward system for people using the Augma, which could be interesting if implemented in our world. This brings me to my next point about the idea of an AR community. Is AR successful for bringing people together as a community? Would it have a positive effect on society?
The rewards system encourages people to interact with the real world, which in theory should have positive social benefits. This is shown with the main cast interacting with the world through the use of the Augma.
Another way in which it encourages the gathering of communities is through the game, Ordinal Scale. It’s a great way to being people together in the real world, as there are large community events that involve defeating bosses.
Overall, it seems AR would have positive benefits, but there is also the risk of real world violence. While it’s true that Ordinal Scale is a game involving the killing of AR bosses, nothing is stopping anyone from committing real violence, such as Eiji Nochizawa, who attacked Klein’s group of friends. In this sense, AR can be pretty dangerous, as people can use AR incentives to lure people into vulnerable spots to be attacked. The dangers of AR was a big concern when Pokemon Go first released, and Ordinal Scale shows an examples of how a more immersive AR experience can also be very dangerous.
This topic isn’t one I have complete thoughts on, as Alicization is a long arc, and War of Underworld has just started. I am likely make a post on the Alicization arc as a whole in the future, but even with only have the arc complete, there are still some interesting things to talk about.
Alicization brings up the topic on Artificial Intelligence, or AI. How would one go about giving sentience to AI? It may have intelligence, but it’s still artificial. RATH attempts to achieve this by putting babies in the Underworld and having them reproduce. They grow up in the Underworld, then reproduce, then those babies reproduce, and it goes on. Eventually, they reproduce enough to the extent that there are enough people to build a society. If AI can go this far, what else can they do?
Quinella manages to gain an understanding of the system they reside in and turns the world into her own, becoming the “Administrator”. In this society, a taboo index was created to create rules, that somewhat reflect our world. But there are also loopholes some take advantage of. Quinella manages to run a corrupt system that rules the human side of the Underworld. While it is interesting to see how these AI develop from the bottom up, it is also somewhat scary one could turn out like this.
Another aspect of sentient AI that is both interesting and scary is their purpose for being created. Robots can only do so much, but if AI was sentient enough to replicate real world people and real people decision making, they could have real practical use, such as war. This raises many concerns. War on its own is bad enough, but also raises the issue of the human rights of AI. How sentient does AI need to be to be considered human enough to have rights? Does their nature as data make them completely expendable? Throughout the Alicization arc, Kirito treats everyone like actual people, almost to the point it seems he doesn’t even recognize the people of Underworld are all AI.
At least for now, it is impossible to have complete thoughts on the Alicization arc, as it is still airing, but I’m very excited to see how this arc handles its themes in War of Underworld.
Sword Art Online is a series with a lot more depth than people give it credit for, whether from its fans or its haters. It’s major themes are apparent from the start, and is important to understand to gain a sense of what SAO is really about. There is probably much I didn’t cover in this one post in regards to its themes, and that’s because there is so much to talk about when it comes to SAO. There are many avenues in which one could analyze its major themes, and I’m sure you can figure out stuff that even I didn’t mention in this post. Because of that, it’s an anime I want to talk about more in the future, and I will be sure to make analysis posts of many of the SAO characters.
If you have something you’d like to add to the conversation, be free to do so, as there is so much to discuss about SAO. And always remember…