The nature of reality is amorphous, open to and yet immune to definition or explanation. The human mind still perplexes and eludes our greatest thinkers; narratives that explore the intangible ideas of reality are themselves abstract in nature. In anime we have an art form that is itself both conceptual and hyperreal in its depictions and signifiers, making it a fertile medium in which to explore ideas of reality and the human mind. Despite series like Ergo Proxy, Serial Experiments Lain, Paprika and others exploring the nature of reality and identity, it’s the trapped-in-video-game trope that I want to explore in this context.
I’ve covered the idea of reality being a simulation in a previous post, particularly in how it corresponds to the concept of living inside a video game. Despite similarities, these two ideas aren’t equivalent; a simulation is a passive reality, while living inside a video game gives the individual power over their own existence, or at least the illusion of it. Although the trope dates back some three decades, perhaps longer in more tangential forms, it is only within the last few years that the idea has evolved from the preserve of science fiction and into the realms of possibility. With the proliferation in wearables, virtual reality and two-way media, the gap between reality and entertainment is increasingly blurry.
Whilst video games can no longer be fobbed off as the underdog of the entertainment industry, it’s still a veritable youngster compared to the cultural juggernauts of cinema, music and print media. Gone are the days of gaming as counterculture, of media suspicion and gone, thankfully, is the notion of the ‘gamer’ as identity. Instead, the video games industry has converged with traditional media and laid the foundation for the digital world we all now inhabit. We may now be living gamefied existences, but there was a time when gaming was either a curiosity, dismissed as a passing fad or outright dangerous. This paranoia fed into narratives and cautionary tales, feeding into our collective consciousness. Popular opinion places the .hack franchise as the beginning of this trope in anime, but that negates more embryonic forms in other series. I’d even argue that Digimon was ahead of the pack with its cast getting sucked into a digital world. But a more unlikely entry is with literature.
In 1988, Japanese polymath Ito Seiko released the novel No Life King (or No Raifu Kingu, which was adapted into a live action movie in 1991) dealing with grade schoolers who wake up one day believing the world is a game. This was written at a time when the internet was still in its infancy, and the idea of an omnipresent network and instant communication was very much the preserve of science fiction stories such as Seiko’s or by William Gibson, the godfather of cyberpunk. But Seiko’s novel was born as much from the social situation as the realm of speculative fiction. It was a response to the moral panic in Japan surrounding the effects of media saturation on society, especially on young people.
Decades earlier, the same phenomena fascinated Canadian theorist, philosopher and professor Marshall McLuhan, whose explorations of the effects of technology and media on society still remain relevant decades after his death. McLuhan famously coined the phrase “the medium is the message”, providing a tool through which to examine the trapped-in-video-game trope, more specifically exploring the ways in which human beings ‘extend’ themselves.
Put simply, an extension is anything an individual or society uses that extends the range of the human body and mind in a way that is new. A stone tool is as equal an extension as the invention of the internet, all that’s changed is cultural and historical context. By the same logic, virtual reality and video games are an extension of the mind, but we must be aware that these technological extensions also have the effect of modifying other extensions. In this instance, it’s the modification or redundancy of the physical body and the detachment of the mind as a separate entity. In proponents of the trapped-in-video-game trope, we often find the captives exploring new identities – or avatars – with some even proffering their digital lives to ‘real’ counterparts. Reality therefore undergoes a paradigm shift and needs to be redefined outside of our existing limitations.
So the foundation for the trope had already been paved decades before. If we agree that .hack//Sign popularised and defined the idea, at least in an anime context, then we can agree that 2003 marked the first wave of trapped-in-video-game narratives. The second, which began around 2008-09 and ended sometime around 2013 included Summer Wars, Btooom!, Accel World and, of course, Sword Art Online. Log Horizon was the bridge between the second and third wave, which came at things from a more meta, more subversive perspective like No Game No Life and Overlord. The current crop are more subversive still, with Re:ZERO rewriting the rulebook entirely (a piece for another time perhaps). Needless to say, there’s still plenty of life in the idea, the trope still resonating with viewers and consumers alike.
The appeal of virtual worlds, to both the fictional protagonists and the viewer, is in escaping the mundanity of everyday life. Reality, we can surmise, is synonymous with repetition, dissatisfaction and powerlessness, while the allure of the virtual is the promise of reinvention, of adventure and starting from zero.
In the otherwise unremarkable 2008 online gaming documentary Second Skin, it was suggested that MMORPGs appeal to the disenfranchised; those who work monotonous, dead end jobs and those who feel powerless in society. The online world offers the opportunity for everybody to begin at the same starting point. Suddenly, issues of class, race and economy are redundant. Ironically, the best players will still rise to the top, leaving those lacking in aptitude at the bottom, thereby creating a new digital class system, one which defines itself with a new criterion.
Mass media in Japan often associates violent youth crimes with a disconnection from reality, especially when it comes to the consumption of manga, anime and video games. If a crime is committed by an individual with a penchant for otaku culture, this kind of media will be demonised and lambasted as a motivator or corrupting force. The same is true in the west, where horror movies and heavy metal have been blamed for violent and deviant crimes, and anime and manga aligned with paedophilia. What’s especially interesting about the trapped-in-video-game trope is that many of the protagonists are themselves otaku and, more often than not, teenagers. As we’ve already explored, far from becoming violent or detached from reality, these characters and their real world inspirations are redefining their reality in their own image, one without societal ties.
Video games offer an imagined space, one which has no bearing or correlation with the real world. It’s interesting that these narratives subvert that idea and grant reality and context to the decisions and actions in these imagined worlds. Suddenly the ambiguous idea of unreality is given morality and consequence, and a social and physical weight to match. If that’s the case, then the virtual world is every bit as relevant and valid as the outside world.