What would you do if you suddenly discovered that your favorite video game – normally an avenue for escapism and cathartic release – had real-world consequences for each of your actions? What if it’s your own life on the line, and if you die in-game, your real life is forfeit? That’s the kind of dilemma that the players of Sword Art Online, a new Virtual Reality Massively Multiplayer Online RPG, face inside this summer’s anime of the same name.
In early 2022, the first fully immersive virtual reality interface, called the Nerve Gear, is released to the public, which is a helmet that intercepts signals to and from the brain at the medulla oblongata. Doing so allows the device to artificially stimulate the user’s five senses and translate the user’s thoughts into speech and action inside a virtual environment. Once a user has linked into the Nerve Gear, their conscious mind no longer controls their physical body and they cannot process external stimuli.

Sword Art Online, also referred to as SAO, is the first VR MMORPG created for the Nerve Gear, designed by the inventor of the Nerve Gear himself, Kayaba Akihiko. Previous applications had been very simple interactive exercises and educational tools, but SAO was the first program to truly tap into the vast potential of virtual immersion within a fully rendered world. However, as idyllic this all sounds, it turns out that everything was a trap, and the moment the game launched on November 6, 2022, ten thousand people were taken hostage in what would become a horrifying death game.

Kirigaya Kazuto, aka Kirito, is one of those players trapped inside the game. He was one of a thousand lucky players who originally participated in the game’s beta test, so he isn’t as helpless as most people, but he’s just as susceptible to the game’s ultimate rule as everyone else: die in the game, and you die in real life. The Nerve Gear uses controlled microwave pulses to transmit the very signals that help it to create its virtual environment, but if its safety protocols are disabled, a powerful microwave burst can be emitted that destroys the user’s brain. In-game death and premature removal of the Nerve Gear appliance can both trigger this burst, and by the end of the first month following the game’s go-live, two thousand people have perished.

The players all exist within an enormous 100-floor tower called Aincrad. To be freed from their shackles, they must win the game, or in other words, conquer the 100 levels and defeat the final boss. SAO works like pretty much any other MMO today – defeat monsters for experience and loot, and get parties together to fight elites and raid bosses. However, since the game’s death penalty is… well, death, one can’t just carelessly run out and farm mobs. Plus, there’s an issue of limited resources – the game’s servers automatically adjust things like spawn rates in response to player activity – so the players start out at a serious disadvantage.

Kirito uses his past experience as a beta-tester to get a head start on leveling and quests, but other players begin to express discontent towards beta testers for selfishly hoarding key information and leaving other, inexperienced players behind to fend for themselves. Kirito makes a choice to villainize himself, deflecting their hatred off of the other beta testers and redirecting it towards him. The players derisively dub him a “beater” (the portmanteau of “beta tester” and “cheater”) and though he helps save lives and paves the way for others on the front lines, he has little choice but to hide in public and solo his way through the game. Only a few other players – namely Klein, Asuna and Egil – see the truth behind his actions, and they are among the few friends he has in game.

Within the world of Sword Art Online, the advent of the Nerve Gear technology and the SAO VRMMORPG can be seen as the harbingers of a transhumanist, cyberpunk era, where technologies can allow humans to develop beyond the limits of their physical being, whether through extended life, or expanded physiological, psychological, and intellectual capabilities. It can also be said that the transhumanist movement intends to bring about the artificial evolution of mankind through the use of technology, but Sword Art Online also explores the downside to using technology in this way through the exploitation of the physical hardware and the moral ambiguity of actions that take place inside of a virtual environment.

Besides the actions of one man imprisoning the minds of ten thousand people, take, for example, one popular aspect of MMOs, the Player-vs-Player game, or PvP. Those who use PvP to indiscriminately kill other characters, or PK (Player Killers), are also quite common and many people feel absolutely no qualms about running around ganking other players. So, what happens in a situation like the one in SAO, where PKers are only killing avatars? They’re not actually murdering the player per se – it’s the Nerve Gear that’s delivering the fatal blow, and that’s the fault of the man who trapped them in the game to begin with, right?

However, the possible benefits to integrating such technology into daily use may outweigh any of these potential drawbacks. Imagine the potential for medical applications where a person can dive into a virtual world rather than use anesthesia or post-op painkillers, since the signals for pain would be intercepted by the virtual interface. Another possibility is to use virtual space for training in dangerous tasks – while muscle memory may not be developed, the necessary mental and psychological discipline could be honed in this way without putting the body at risk.

The author of the Sword Art Online light novels, Reki Kawahara, does explore what life might be like if such technologies were integrated into daily life. Another series that he wrote, Accel World, arguably takes place in the same world as SAO twenty years later, where everyone has a man-machine interface installed and is connected to a universal network with virtual capabilities. There, the physical and virtual worlds are nearly inseparable as virtual HUDs (Heads-Up Displays) and their associated UIs (User Interfaces) can be manipulated with physical gestures.

Transhumanism isn’t just about hooking a computer up to your brain and plugging directly into teh intarwebs though. Cybernetic implants and nanotechnology with biomedical applications are also possible paths towards post-humanity. We’re already well on our way with artificial hearts, limbs, and other biomechanical implants that we use today. The worlds of Ghost in the Shell, AD Police, and Appleseed are a few examples where mankind has fully embraced the transhumanist ideal, where all these technologies have fully matured and the dilemma comes dangerously close to the other end of the spectrum – at what point of cyber augmentation does a human stop being a human, and can an artificial intelligence itself become human?

The science fiction of yesterday is becoming reality today, so it’s very possible for all of this to become real within our lifetimes. If you were given the choice to artificially augment body or attach a computer to your brain to be networked into a fully immersive virtual world… would you do so?

Joe Chan is A-Kon’s Director of Marketing and PR as well as a regular contributor to the Crunchyroll newsletter. He likes to think he has a pretty good grasp on all the anime that’s out there, but in reality, he’s forgotten more than he’ll ever remember.
This article was originally published in the Crunchyroll newsletter on September 03, 2012. Reprinted with permission.