Back in the heyday of social media, when MySpace was waxing old, Facebook was hitting puberty, and Twitter was merely a babe, older people would look at the emergence of these new digital forms of communication and say things like “You kids are only communicating through screens!”, and “Kids today don’t have real conversations anymore!” Basically, the onset of social media led to a belief that relationships created and maintained over a virtual space were somehow less personal and “real” than relationships in the physical world. While no one can doubt the intimacy offered by a face-to-face conversation or the powerful experience that those relationships create, does the use of a virtual medium of communication somehow negate the true experience of a relationship? Today we’re going to take a look at Sword Art Online and see what it says about virtual relationships and the way they form.
The entire series of Sword Art Online revolves around community. From the opening moments we see that the original 10,000 copies of the game were bought out by members of the gaming community, and when the game became real, it was large factions of players that kept the overall societal structure running fairly smoothly. Now, say what you want about Sword Art Online as a series, but the series does a good (if somewhat cursory) job at explaining how and why people joined together in the virtual world of Aincrad.
The first relationship we see in the world of SAO is one formed out of one person’s need for assistance. Namely, Klein requesting Kirito’s help in learning the mechanics of the game. It’s not as if Klein couldn’t figure out what to do on his own, but he wanted the companionship that a mentor could offer. From the early stages of the game to the eventual last raids, his relationship with Kirito grew from one of a teacher-student dynamic into brothers who would die for each other. From Reddit to Discord, I have examples in my personal life about friendships that began as I was looking for advice about a certain subject or topic, and found a person willing to guide me. While the anonymity of the Internet can add an element of danger, it often actually serves as a way to bypass the initial awkwardness barrier that occurs when you meet someone for the first time in real life. It’s not a substitute for face-to-face interactions, but it does help to make beginning a relationship that much easier.
Self-help isn’t the only way that friends are made, however; mutual interest can also bring people together. I think we all have that one friend that we initially met through a hobby, such as sports, books, games, or even anime. Hobbies and other obsessions tend to have a uniting power that can bypass social preferences and prejudices to create a level playing field for everyone within the group to come to know one another. In SAO, Kirito and Asuna met as the players prepared to fight the first boss of the game. Neither of them had any prior knowledge of the other, and their partnership was formed partly out of necessity, but they had a common goal: to survive. Their journey past the boss and into their respective paths pushed them apart, but they always found some common interest that brought them back together; by the end of the series their relationship had deepened into a lasting love for one another. Can the Internet solve all problems between people? No: even people who share interests can be vastly different and absolutely hate one another, but the Internet communities provide a space to bring one’s interests to the table a bit quicker than in a physical environment, prompting discussion and interaction between people who might otherwise never meet.
While interests and help are great ways to start a friendship, sometimes you want someone who understands you. Life is hard enough battling your own struggles and challenges, but without anyone to share those experiences with, the onset of isolation and depression can become very real. This was the struggle of Sinon in the second arc of Sword Art Online: past and present pains had taken their toll on her, and she only found respite in the world of Gun Gale Online. Her existence as a sniper in-game had given her a reputation for superior skill, but the nature of her relationship with the game often left her isolated.
Enter Kirito, who began playing the game in order to enter a tournament, but his relationship with Sinon took a turn that neither of them had expected. Originally partnering to learn the ins and outs of Gun Gale, the pair soon found common ground over past guilt associated with the deaths of hostile attackers. Their shared pain allowed them to connect on a fundamentally deeper level than most relationships, and the struggles they went through together allowed them to find peace.
Internet anonymity can make abuse and abhorrent behavior that much easier to conduct, but it also gives hurting people an outlet from which to share their pain. Whether it be through vlogs, blogs, art, music, or simply talking with people who’ve undergone similar trials, online community brings people together and allows them to bare their souls without fear of social condemnation or discrimination.
In the end, can we conclusively say that the Internet is the best place for people to meet and thrive?
There are benefits to both Internet communities and relationships in the physical world, and a lot of these overlap. In the same manner, there are cons to both physical and virtual communities, whether it be hostility, bullying, or discrimination. Neither one is inherently worse than the other due to the medium of communication, but they each should be approached the same way: with honesty and respect. Communities are made of people: be the type of people you would want to associate with.