In my recent efforts to spend more time watching anime, I’ve been watching two series – the currently-running Log Horizon and 2012′s popular series Sword Art Online – with themes that, at first glance, seem quite similar: the idea of MMORPG players being drawn into the world of the game and then mysteriously trapped there. Think along the lines of the entire World of Warcraft player base getting stuck in Azeroth the next time they log in, and you kinda get the idea.
At closer inspection, the two series are actually quite different – Log Horizon is a more light-hearted work that focuses on game systems and mechanics brought to life, while Sword Art Online is much darker and focuses more on the characters and human drama – and I could (and probably will) write an article to compare and contrast both shows once I’ve finished both of them. But despite all their differences, there is one topic that both shows – and their spiritual predecessor, the .hack// franchise – agree on 100%…
That PvP players are the scum of the earth.
Care Bears Need Not Apply
Log Horizon operates on the concept of the entire player base of the game Elder Tale being sucked in after installing the latest expansion (note to self, approach Warlords of Draenor with caution). In the first two episodes, it’s established that, just like in the computer game, anyone who dies simply respawns in their home city cathedral. In other words, everyone is functionally immortal, death is an annoyance, and killing another player nets no major consequences.
Surprise surprise! By episode 3, we have rampaging hordes of PvP guilds terrorizing, mugging, killing, and looting the corpses of any hapless player they come across. There’s even one guild that has an entire city on lockdown by threatening every player in the (safe zone) city, ganging up on them whenever they leave, and generally just twirling their evil mustaches so fast that it’s a wonder they don’t take off into orbit.
Sword Art Online is even worse. The titular MMO is a virtual reality world that the players get trapped in in the first episode; the mysterious creator tells the 10,000 launch day players that they can only go free if they beat the 100th level dungeon… but anyone who dies in game will die in real life. The stakes are as high as they can go, and all the players must work together in order to free themse-…
Oh, wait, no, this time we get to episode 4 before the raging gangs of PvPers show up to murder their way through the other players. One such PKer (PK = Player Kill) makes some offhand comment about not believing the creator’s warning about people actually dying, but most of them (her included) just don’t seem to care. And dialogue in later episodes establishes that not only are there guilds killing players either for loot or for the hell of it, but there are people coming into the towns (which are PvP safe zones) and exploiting game loopholes to kill players; one method is called “Sleep-PK” when someone challenges a sleeping player to a duel, uses the sleeper’s finger to hit the accept button, then attack them until they’re dead. And this apparently happens often enough that it’s become a trend.
Damn, and I thought the chat in WoW Battlefields was nasty…
Both Log Horizon and Sword Art Online present PKing and PvP as a sort of inevitable reality of online gaming, even when one is trapped IN the online game and living it as a real experience. Log Horizon actually does the better job of making this behaviour seem realistic by making death an impermanent annoyance, a loss of gear and time rather than of life. Given that death and killing have no consequences… yeah, I could imagine some people who play, say, World of Warcraft basically bringing their PvP playstyle “to life” and ganking people for “fun,” and defending themselves from critics by pointing out, as they do now, “it’s just a game.” But that would depend specifically on the lack of permanent consequence. Sword Art Online, however, is a bit of a harder sell considering that any death is actually real. You would think that the average gamer trapped in this very dangerous world would want help to get out of it, or at the very least wouldn’t be panting at the bit to commit full-on murder of other players. Of course, you could say, “Well, murderers exist in real life,” Which is a good point, but SAO takes it one step further to suggest that PvP players are basically all latent psychopaths who, at the first opportunity, will turn their in-game practices into “reality” without blinking. This is another trait that both series share, at least in the early episodes: anyone who engages in PvP (save the heroes who fight against them) is presented as purely evil and amoral, killing either for loot or for sheer pleasure of bullying and hurting people. Their attacks are almost always unfair, either ganging up on someone, attacking a low-level character, or backstabbing them in some way; the concept of PvP as a battle of skill between equals doesn’t seem to come up at all. And almost every PKer presented so far in either series (as of episode 5 in each) are so over the top in their evil posturing, down to the evil cackles and insane eyes, that it’s a wonder they can speak around the mouthful of scenery they’ve just chewed.
No PvP Pour Moi, Please
So, two entirely unrelated MMORPG-based anime – and another series before them – all make the same large, rather sweeping statement about PvP and PKing in MMOs. When you have three separate shows holding up player vs player violence as the cancerous blot on the face of whatever gaming world you end up in, that MEANS something. On the one hand, one can extrapolate that they are all making grand statements about the human condition (TL;DR version: Humans Are Assholes); on the other, I can’t help but feel that this is also an illustration of the different cultural values between Japan and the West. I mean, would a Western-developed show about WoW players make PvPers out to be Satan incarnate? Heck, even the Japanese name for this behaviour seems laden with negative terms – player KILLING, rather than the more neutral, competitive Player vs Player. So what exactly is going on, here?
Firstly, I think there is a subtle but real commentary being made on behaviour patterns in “traditional” games (i.e. those on a TV or computer screen) and the detatchment that screen offers us from what we’re actually doing. When we play World of Warcraft and kill someone in Battlegrounds (or even kill a lowbie player), underneath all the emotional high and visceral reaction and sense of success in skill, we are sitting in a room watching a screen on which a bunch of orc-shaped polygons are interacting with some human-shaped polygons with a set of mathematically-designed skills that cause a specific stat (health) to decrease to 0. There are so many layers and layers of metagame there that we become slightly divorced from the reality of what we’re doing; actively attempting to inconvenience, harm, or otherwise be nasty to a fellow game player. These anime series, however, take those layers away. .hack and Sword Art Online both take place in a fully immersive virtual reality where you basically perceive yourself as IN the game world; Log Horizon just up and teleported everyone INTO the game world. In this situation, attacking a player is no longer attacking her specific collection of orc-shaped hunter-skilled polygons; you are actually attacking HER directly, and even if there are no consequences to it beyond her being mildly inconvenienced, these anime series hammer home the fact that there is Something Deeply Wrong With You if you are engaging in PvP (or indeed many typical MMORPG behaviours) on a personal, “real” level… possibly even raising the question of whether it’s that great when it’s on a screen.
Secondly, I note that in all three series, only one kind of PvP is being presented and criticized: that of “ganking.” For those unfamiliar with MMORPGs, “ganking” refers to the act of deliberately attacking players that are much lower level than you, usually multiple times and in areas they may be trying to quest or level in. In most MMOs, this does not actually give you any reward – you don’t get any honor or gear or anything – so those who engage in ganking are doing it purely for the pleasure of annoying weaker players and ruining their levelling experience. Which… when you actually spell it out like that, IS a pretty dickish thing to do. Log Horizon and Sword Art Online both serve to hold up a mirror to this sort of behaviour and refuse to pull punches; by putting this behaviour in real terms, it’s basically sending a message to gankers, “You realize you’re a bit of a sociopathic jerk, right?” On the other hand, as many WoW players would attest, there’s much more to PvP than ganking; in fact, the majority of it boils down to competitive combat between equals, in level if not skill or gear. So why is it that these kinds of PvPers – the honorable duelists who just want to prove themselves in competition – don’t seem to be getting much screentime next to the rampant gankers?
This might be due to the third possibility, that there’s some deeper cultural differences at play. There’s a bit of a divide, I think, in terms of the Japanese approach to MMORPGs and the Western approach, in which PvP is considered a natural, healthy part of the game ecosystem rather than the raving bunch of psychopaths in all this Japanese anime. I chatted with a Japanese friend about the topic, and she suggested that it was possibly rooted in the traditional Japanese values of collectivism and collaboration vs. the Western ideals of individualism and competition. The latter might emphasize the skill and quality of the individual player in relation to those around her, i.e. “I beat you, therefore I’m better than you,” while the former is less about distinguishing yourself and more about working together to solve problems, beat raid bosses, etc. There are instances of this latter behaviour in quite a few Asian MMORPGs; in Blade and Soul, for example, when they introduced a wheel that would drop loot when spun, rather than fighting over it to the death, the Korean and Japanese player base formed nice, orderly lines and took turns spinning it! In this kind of a model, particularly with the higher stakes of being trapped in the world, PvP would be a major transgression as someone is passing up the chance to help the group in favor of their own ego or gratification. No wonder such a character would be portrayed as a bad guy! Now, having said that, I do think it’s simplistic to say, “Oh, Japanese people value harmony more than Westerners, so that’s why they hate PvP,” particularly as there are plenty of intensely competitive PvP game communities out there. However, as another gamer friend pointed out, most of those revolve around games that are designed by their very nature to be competitive, antagonistic, and player vs. player; how else are you going to play, say, Street Fighter or Starcraft? MMORPGs, on the other hand, tend to be designed on a much more social level, where you have guilds and parties and work together to clear content. Perhaps what we’re seeing is the discomfort and tension when those two worlds – cooperation and competition – collide in the same game space, where predatory competitor types prowl among the friendly, cooperative care bears. This is particularly noticeable in Asian MMORPGs which tend to fling everyone on the same servers, vs. Western MMORPGs which divide PvP onto separate servers and incorporate “flagging” mechanics. While Western MMO players seem to have made their peace with PvE and PvP in the same game – even if it’s just, “You stay on your servers, we’ll stay on ours,” – perhaps there’s a bit more confusion and frustration among the Japanese player base, at least as it’s expressed through these anime series. What are these competitive, individualist players doing in our collaborative, social game? Why are they “spoiling” it for us? Why aren’t they playing these games “right?” (It should be noted that these series also level a bit of critique at “solo” players for similar reasons, albeit with much more sympathy). Again, I don’t think you can derive definitive cultural commentary about Japan vs. North America from this, but the difference in attitudes is very interesting and worth thinking about.
Or, you know, maybe the next episode I watch is going to have a PvPer who saves kittens and helps little old ladies cross the street. If so, um… disregard the last two thousand words?
What do you think? Did I miss any alternative presentations of PvP and PKing in MMORPG anime series? Do you think these stories raise good questions about PvP behaviour, or do you think they’re one-sided and sensationalist? Do you PvP, and if so, why do you do it?