Warning: This post will be talking about religion, continue if you’re not easily triggered. Many of my citations are taken from MasjidTucson.com, please exercise your reasoning.
Sword Art Online, a series with a largely divided fanbase and incoherent mess of a story, remains relevant even half a decade later.
Much digital ink has been spilled to describe just how terrible this show is. You’ll find no shortage of videos on Youtube of figures like the notorious Digibro, Mother’s Basement, and DxFan619 among others ragging on it. It seems as though it’s the “in thing” to hate SAO and especially A-1 Pictures, which by no means is the aforementioned Youtubers’ fault. It simply means there are those who can’t take criticism of their favorite works of art.
I’ll never forget the year I stumbled upon Digibro’s analytical diatribe of the series, I’ve watched it too many times to count. It must become abundantly clear that I love SAO and as much as that’s the case, I agree with most of Digibro’s points in his video. Despite the show’s gaping flaws I still consider it a very important anime to me.
I must mention that there’s no shame in liking a seemingly bad piece of art, and no one should demean their love for works of art by justifying them as guilty pleasures. As with anything created by humans, art is open to criticism which paves the way for greater art, and that’s what we should all strive for, especially in the video game and anime communities.
This post will not be a review nor a response to the critics of SAO but what the show means to me and what I got out of it.
SAO, for all intents and purposes, was undercooked. However, what I got out of the show changed my life in significant ways. SAO served as a stepping stone in my life that inspired New Game Infinity, my worldview, and my love for game design. An itch began to form in my life that I couldn’t quite describe until several years later, upon reviewing my life and how I could serve others.
That which is broken contains fragments, and from those fragments contain meaning, art speaks whether it’s competently put together or not. We don’t tell children who’ve made a crayon drawing that it’s not good, because through their innocent act of creation they made something meaningful. Within SAO’s fragmentation laid a message, an inspiration that’d set me on a spiritual and intellectual journey.
So without further ado, link start!
I first became familiar with SAO when its anime adaptation was announced in early 2012, at first I actually thought it was a game, quite odd to have an anime that has a name that should belong to a game. Anyway, I didn’t actually watch the series until mid-July of that year. However after the first few episodes, I dropped it, not to touch it again until nearly two years later but we’ll get to that (Now that I think about it SAO came out in 2002, ten years was plenty of time to tidy it up for an anime).
2012 marked the year where my understanding of Islam began to change for the better, in that time my parents introduced me to the work of Rashad Khalifa. In the years following up to summer 2012 I had conflicting feelings about Islam, for a very long time I knew that there were things wrong with my religion. I never agreed with beating women which was never permitted in the Qur’an, never agreed with the notion that we can’t draw human faces in art (wut?), the notion that we can’t own dogs in the household, women having to cover up with cultural garments to look like ninjas and ghosts thinking its obligatory, the list goes on and on.
I’d soon learn that much of what I described above was never in the Qur’an but of the Sunnah and hadith, which are sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) that’s supposed to be a source of guidance for all Muslims. But the main problem with them is that they’re total bollocks, written by men who thought that the Qur’an wasn’t enough and came up with all sorts of fairytales that in turn influenced many generations of Muslims for the worst. These writings were falsely attributed to the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) by those who believed the Qur’an wasn’t complete and fully detailed that in turn painted the public’s perception of Islam and the followers of the religion.
I must mention that Islam is a way of life meaning total submission to God, Allah, Kamisama, or whatever exalted name you prefer. A way of life that promotes peace, critical thinking, and human rights but unfortunately has become a religion of terrorism, due much in part by the mass media and those who use sharia law to justify terrorism.
This revelation was a huge breath of fresh air for a 15-year-old, like taking a bottle of Drano to unclog a toilet filled with centuries-old excrement. But this was merely a stepping stone in my life, SAO would soon follow. I must also make it clear that it is not my intention to force or manipulate anyone into believing what I believe. We are freethinking creatures and have the right to our beliefs and ideas, to impose what I believe onto anyone would defeat the purpose of critical thinking, freedom, and Islam at large.
At this point in my life, I had many questions concerning our existence that always nagged at me, like why are humans allowed to clone animals, modify the weather, and control ourselves through the use of cybernetics? Basically, why are we allowed to perform all these feats that are seemingly in defiance of God? Being slightly older now I understand that there’s no conflict between religion and science, it’s when our choices aren’t filtered by morals and ethics where the conflict arises.
So we get to early 2014, and I decide to get back into SAO after my Mother and Poppi suggested I watch it again, when my parents recommend an anime I know they must have seen something interesting in it so I couldn’t turn it down. I didn’t regret a second of it, in this second watching I saw something different, and after watching Digibro’s analytical diatribe in 2015 I finally realized what I loved about SAO.
The central idea I got out of SAO was overcoming the limits of the system, which was, in fact, Kirito’s role by SAO’s creator Akihiko Kayaba. All the players getting trapped in the game with the consequence of loss being ultimate death was striking as a social experiment. The fact that Kirito was an overpowered character and even overcame paralysis and death itself didn’t destroy my suspension of disbelief in the slightest. When you consider that Kirito did this in the context of a game, which by definition are systems created by humans, it made sense.
Now the reason to why Kirito was the only one able to do this didn’t make sense and wasn’t explained but that didn’t bother me much. I think it’s pretty fascinating for a developer to grant a player a messianic role within a world that they created, the topic in itself is very interesting if not blasphemous.
I’d also like to note that although Akihiko Kayaba’s reason for trapping 10,000 players in SAO wasn’t explained, I have a theory for why he did it. I think he did it to test the resolve of the players to escape their condition and get out of the game, hence why Kayaba said in episode 24 that Kirito’s purpose was to overcome the limits of his system. Given that Kirito held Kayaba in high regard, he understood his intentions for Sword Art Online better than anyone else, or I could be wrong. A game designer holds dominion over their world and its systems as well as the players within it, also noting the fact that Kayaba was trying to play God as explained in episode 1.
Players of a game must abide by the systems and rules that were put in place by the game’s creator(s), but who said that those systems and rules can’t be broken? Kirito did exactly that, he overcame paralysis and death, which also calls into question just how imperfect these manmade systems are. Of course, him being the only one to do this makes no sense which is indicative of this broken narrative.
After this viewing experience, I couldn’t get SAO and the implications of virtual reality out of my head, I wouldn’t be surprised if SAO was somehow propaganda to froth up everyone into accepting this eventual future. Game design and virtual ontologies (realities) excite me to no end to where it has influenced how I see the world. In the years since watching SAO, I’ve discovered the works of Jane McGonigal, Ian Bogost, Roy Ascott, and Italian philosopher/game designer Stefano Guelani.
I’ve become interested in the positive and negative implications of game design, virtual reality, the philosophical questions that are being raised, technoetics, and how society will ultimately be transformed by these new technologies. But most importantly, the workings of life itself which I dub “Life Online”. Life is a massive system filled with smaller systems that are interconnected and inform each other. God is The Master Game Designer, and Life Online is the systematic expression of His Wisdom, Most Wise.
Humans also create systems whether they be social, political, scientific, or otherwise. And it’s our responsibility to understand how our systems affect us and the world such as our courts, the military industrial complex, corporations, as well as the education system. This is called systems thinking. Nothing happens for no reason, and that holds true when humans are involved, especially when it comes to power and money.
This observation has gotten me more interested in understanding ourselves. If life is the systematic expression of The Most Wise, who are we? Why are we here? How do we relate to everything? I came to found out that much of our knowledge has been distorted or corrupted throughout history, it is what’s happening to Islam and many other religions such as Christianity and Judaism as well. Religion and science play central roles in the human experience, and we must recognize their awesome ability to positively and negatively affect our existence.
That’s why it is of central importance that we become objective in our thinking, to see Life Online for what it is and what it is not. A tree is a tree, a sun is a sun and there’s no mistaking them for anything else, the same holds true for freedom, democracy, spirituality, and many other concepts in our experience. Our brain is the one computer we definitely can’t leave home without.
Whether SAO is good or not is of lesser importance to me, it is indeed a series that should’ve been more polished. What was important to me was the journey it set me on, to follow this road and see what I find. SAO has also inspired me to create a story that is even better than it in my own vision, but that’ll be in due time. I hope that what I’ve shared here has also inspired you to see this series differently, or not.
Fraught with contradictions, fragmented, broken, these are the words that I’d use to describe Sword Art Online, its titular character Kirito, and our current situation as a race. It is something that we should stride away from, for ourselves to not be filled with contradictions, to be a straight razor-sharp blade, that to me is Sword Art Online.