It’s Mother’s Day, and I recently binge watched Sword Art Online. These two don’t exactly fit together, but bear with me. Near the end of the second series of SAO there is a scene involving a mother and her teenage kid that hit particularly close to home to me, and in the spirit of Mother’s Day, I felt the need to write up why. Minor spoilers for SAO ahead.
For context, SAO is a Japanese anime that explores the implications of “full-dive” technology, effectively Star Trek’s holodeck, or, more accurately, a much more consensual form of the Matrix. I think what drew me to SAO was that in the wake of Ready Player One and it’s inevitably dodgy movie adaptation, I was in need of a different look at some facets of the future aren’t that far off these days, issues like “Where does The Real exist when the lines have been blurred”, or “Does the validity of our relationships depend on physical interaction, or is it just a compliment”.
Honestly these questions aren’t even near-future, they are questions that need to be asked right now, and strongly I believe they are some of the most prominent and important social issues of my generation. What’s fascinating then, is to explore them through different eyes and different perspectives. This was where SAO came in. A disclaimer is in ORDER however, SAO does suffer from all the well-worn pitfalls of much of modern Japanese anime — flagrant inappropriate fan-service, absurd boy power fantasies, over the top plot stakes, and macguffins up the wazoo — but it would be a mistake to dismiss a work just on culturally different grounds, especially when the cultural difference is part of the curiosity.
So, at a basic level, SAO is primarily a story about what could happen if players were trapped inside a “VRMMO” where they’re informed that in-game death would mean real world death as well. The goal of leaving the game is also a lofty one — it clearly could take years. It’s an interesting preposition, and I believe effectively manages to demonstrate how those two facts can play together to force those above questions to be answered. In SAO season 2, the PTSD of the characters that managed to escape the game is compared to a sufferer of PTSD from a much more real-life and grounded scenario, that of killing in self defense. Both of these plot lines are fascinating, and the anime explores those key questions through exaggeration, theater, and a flare for the dramatic. All that tickled my sci-fi brain in all the right places, and if it peaks your curiosity it’s worth a watch, but it isn’t what hit me in the feels.
In the later episodes of SAO season 2 a more subtle plot-line emerges, one of a mother striving to ensure the best for her daughter, but while failing to see how the passions and experiences of her child played into that. The mother wants a school transfer, from the state run school designed to treat these PTSD suffering kids, to a well respected private school. She wants to fast-track her daughter to university even though she had missed two years of school while in the game. Lastly, she wants to take away the one thing that is still connecting her daughter to the experiences she had and the friends she made, her VR headset. You might think, since I talked about this hitting home, that I had similarly pushy parenting, maybe that I was forced to swap schools, but I wasn’t. I am hugely thankful that my parents did not treat me like this.
The key segment of SAO that hit me hard was when the daughter, after learning a valuable lesson in standing up for herself, made a final attempt to convince her mother to let her recover and discover her passions. She gave her mother a headset and asked for just 5 minutes — a chance for her daughter to show off her world, on her terms. The mother sees her daughter’s place in the world and comes to an understanding, I think, of what it means to be young and unsure, but full of ambitious energy waiting for the right target. In the end the Mother sternly makes a deal — better grades, and University, but she can stay as is.
VR wasn’t around when I was that young, but I remember a similar feeling as a teenager, of ambitions being projected onto me, of teachers and parents looking down on my fascination with games and their systems, and of a fundamental misunderstanding — that the experiences I’d had in games, online, and the friends I’d made, weren’t “real”. One memory, at the age of maybe 13 or 14, that stands out above all others, is of my mother eagerly letting me explain my world, on my terms — the guild of players I led, the forums I moderated, the game systems I’d been fascinated by and the video game economics I’d abused to make riches. That dynamic grew, and fundamentally changed how my hobbies were viewed from then on. I very much doubt I’d be thriving in what I do today if it wasn’t for that compassion and willingness to understand shown to me by my mother. For that memory, and countless others, I am forever in her debt.
Happy Mothers day, Mum.