I updated the last article with the following warning. I wanted to preface this one to ensure all readers are aware: I recently watched the second half of the series and I wanted to add warnings for sensitive viewers. Episodes 17, 18, and 24 could be triggering. This is especially true for episode 24 which has what I’d consider a rape scene. Episode 17 has strong sexual harassment and 18 walks even closer to the line of assault; in both cases threats of rape are present. Viewer beware.

Episodes 1 – 14 are perfectly safe and I would consider them safe for children of all ages.

Now that you’ve watched the first 3 episodes of Sword Art Online as I recommended to you last time, let’s have a look at the second episode right now. This is one of my favorite episodes because it hits on several aspects of the MMO community  all at once. This will be a bit longer than the last post, but there’s so many good points to cover in this episode that it’s worthwhile.

In this episode, the players will confront the first boss of the game. Up until now, no one has beat any bosses. This means it hasn’t been proven that the players can actually win the game, so many haven’t tried. It also didn’t help that several groups of advanced players went ahead to try to defeat the boss and didn’t return. The community is left not knowing if these players are still out there leveling or dead already. However, one raid leader has decided it’s time to get everyone together and prove to themselves that they can beat SAO.

Maintaining Our Identities

sitThe last episode touched on how players might view friendships in the virtual world. This same thing comes into play once again in the second episode. Diabel, a leader in the community, has decided to gather a raid to beat the first boss. In doing so we get to see how players chose groups: bands of friends form smaller groups in order to be part of the raid while the loners are left out because they didn’t know anyone. In the end, two of them band together: Kirito and Asuna. These two will be the main characters throughout the rest of the series and will develop along much different paths, divided on their value of groups, guilds, and friendship.

Playing in a virtual world alone allows us to be ourselves without showing it to anyone. For me, I’d always seemed to naturally maintain the two identities as very separate. I was Lorimar in the game and I was Chris outside of it. The two were not the same because I saw the former as my fantasy. This doesn’t mean my behavior wasn’t characteristic of who I really was. It just means I enjoyed maintaining that separateness of my alter ego.

Kirito is the loner in this case and I had the impression he preferred it for reasons not so different than my own when I played Guild Wars. Throughout the episode (and the series) he’s adamant about playing alone. He clearly doesn’t maintain 2 separate identities and this was true before he became stuck in the game. He was simply shy about getting to know other players and becoming friends with them.

Then there’s Asuna, who seems even more shy than Kirito early on. She wears a hooded cape. She puts as much distance as possible between herself and Kirito when he sits next to her. She’s suspicious of his motives. At first I attributed this to the fact that she was a girl, but the episode tries to imply this isn’t the driving reason even if it’s part of it (there’s many good reasons a girl would not want to reveal her identity to other players). Asuna eventually reveals that she’s just hiding her fear and emotions. She doesn’t want to lose to the game, knows she needs  friends to survive, but doesn’t know any players she can trust. I think this isn’t uncommon for new players in MMOs.

How do you maintain your identity in MMOs? I think the story gave an interesting portrayal of the different kinds of players out there. There are those who are in the game with real friends and those who join the game alone in order to make friends. Then there are those such as Kirito, a loner with friends but who prefers to play without them. These players have their role within the MMO community.

The Beater

Kirito, our main protagonist is named the Beater …or beta cheater.

CheaterHow do players view beta testers in the community? A lot of people see it as a form of cheating, especially in MMOs. The infamous World of Warcraft Public Test Realm sparked this debate many years ago. If guilds could just beta test new raids before they hit live, they boosted their chances of achieving first kill status. I view it as cheating, but not because these players want to cheat. It’s kind of non-traditional since I don’t think their motives are to exploit the game in unfair ways; PTR is available to everyone. Unfortunately, Blizzard has made this part of the game because they need players to test the content. There are other players in the community who also view it as a form of cheating while some think of it as fair game, a way to advance their knowledge of the game and as a way to fulfill their role in the community. Where will players get all those juicy secrets if not for the information brokers? We have to admit it: cheaters make the game interesting in many ways and they play their role in shaping the overall community.

So how do we treat beta testers? I think we’ve all seen them treated with contempt on various sites and forums by “purists” or just envious players. Yet, just as in the episode, beta testers often eagerly supply the community with all sorts of information about the game. They write our guides. They build our Thotbot’s and other game databases. They compile those ever so useful sticky-threads on our forums. They are loved about the same as they are loathed.

EgilIn SAO, however, the stakes are higher than they’ve ever been for the gamers. People can actually die. Those beta guides are more important than ever. If I were in Aincrad, I’d be very lucky to know a beta tester, since my life depends on that kind of information. Kibaou, a rabble-rouser filled with anger and envy blames the beta testers for leaving other players behind. Sound familiar? It’s the age-old hardcore versus casual war. The lower level and higher level players blame each other for the current state of affairs.

There is a sense in MMO communities that the advanced players are often leeches on the community who abuse it; sometimes they hoard information from players or even resources (camping spawn points). They take and they take, rousing the suspicions of lower level players and sowing resentment. I think this happens less in western MMOs than in eastern, but I’ve played very few eastern titles to get a real feel for how this dynamic affects the community. What do you think?

At the same time, it’s the advanced players who drive the community in many ways. For example, in SAO it’s Diabel’s leadership which inspires the players to kill that first boss. It’s Egil’s leadership which keeps out the in-fighting so they can stick together. It’s the Guide Book which was given as an in-game item for free to all players. These are good examples of the ways in which those elite, advanced players give back to the community. This episode gives a pretty accurate depiction of how players manage all these things within the MMO community and especially shows the ways in which we are interdependent. The experience as a whole consists of these things. So the next time you see a Diabel or Egil in your MMO, thank them and buy them a virtual beer!

Of Kobold’s and Awesome

Kobold LordThe raid is on and it’s time to take down the big boss, Kobold Lord. Diabel is barking out orders to the raid as each group executes them and gradually chip away at the boss’s life. The advice in the Guide Book proves to be sound so far and the raid is working together very well to win the battle. Several key topics crop up during the encounter which are immediately recognizable to any MMO gamer. First is the role of the raid leader in rallying the troops. This requires planning and tactics, charisma and competence. Good raid leaders are often hard to find and often hard to appreciate.

winNext we get to the funnest and bestest aspect: the epic feeling of combating a powerful boss in a video game. The scene plays out in high drama with the horde of players running headlong at the horde of kobolds as they clash and battle it out for victory! They set-up attacks on each other, block, slice, parry, and execute.  The size of the boss enlarges the scene and literally illustrates the scope of what’s at stake. The big, red, evil, talwar-wielding Kobold Lord trying to smash the smaller, ill-equipped players. This is the essence of raiding, this epic encounter made of pure fantasy which exhilarates; gets our blood rushing and our hearts racing! For any of you who have enjoyed raiding in an MMO, you know how awesome this feels and how exciting it is to be in the company of dozens of players acting out a universal fantasy as heroes!

Loot to Die ForThen there’s the abuse of power as Diabel tries to save the killing blow for himself in order to get a special loot drop …and there we arrive at the second key topic: greed. So powerful is the draw of epic loot that Diabel risks his life for it. Are gamers really this blindly greedy? Under the mask of the virtual world, I think we’ve all been blinded by loot to the detriment of others. Thankfully we don’t really die because of it, but it’d be interesting to know how many of us would act like Diabel if we did.  At the end of the fight Kibaou blames Kirito for Diabel’s death, and then the raid disintegrates into argument, yet a few moments ago they were united in victory. In this scenario Kibaou’s wrath might actually be justified given that someone literally died, but it serves to highlight the fragility of raiders as a group; how prone we are to falling apart at the slightest hint of trouble and how we knit-pick and finger point.  Kirito’s reward turns, as they say, to ash in his mouth; the bitterness of winning an item after being accused of cheating the group is real. And it sucks.

Still, the good stuff rules the day despite these flaws in the group and I think this is true of our MMOs. There’s the value we place in our virtual accomplishments. Powerful Kobolds and dragons may not be real, but that sense of accomplishment certainly is. We value that sense of heroism, that sense of relevance that we obtain in the virtual world. MMOs provide this sense of personal accomplishment abundantly. This allows us to write our own virtual mythology which we use to recreate our virtual selves. For Kirito, he adopts the title of Beater in order to build up his personal story in Aincrad. He knows more than all the other players, has gotten farther than any beta tester. His skill in combat is superior to the average tester …and the community would do well to recognize that, or so he says.  From that moment forward he will be seen and known as the black swordsman and players will be wary of his approach.

The Will to Win

Asuna's IdentityThis theme  makes it’s appearance in this episode and runs silently throughout the entire series.  As mentioned already, players up until now haven’t beaten any bosses and few have even tried. We see again this divide in the community between beta testers and advanced players on the one hand and newbies and lower players on the other. The question of who has the will to win is raised when Diabel musters a raid; when Kibaou reveals he didn’t use the player guide to succeed but instead blamed advanced players for leaving him behind; and when Asuna confesses that she’s only in the raid because doesn’t want to lose to the game. We learn that many players have decided to stay safely within the walls of the Town of Beginnings to avoid death and this too will recur in future episodes.

So what does it mean to have the will to win in the ordinary sense? In our MMOs, players divide on this question in different ways. Who among us desires to venture into the deeps at all costs? Who prefer to enjoy the safety of towns and avoid all risks? Keep this question in mind as the next episode explores this in some depth and shows us how different players enjoy game within the MMO community.

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