Spoiler alert: This article contains spoilers for the first two seasons of Sword Art Online, which are available to watch on Netflix. If your interest is piqued, be aware that it should be rated at least a PG-13 for violence throughout the series and a few scenes of minor nudity appropriate to that rating. If any of that is too offensive or likely to cause you to sin, don’t worry: the article will still make sense even if you haven’t watched the show.
In our world there are people who want to experience other realities.
It’s not hard to see why a world with rules different from our own is appealing to people; I can only imagine what I would do if pain was not a factor in the choices I made, or if death were merely a momentary lapse in control time after which I just landed back on the nearest safe plot of earth. But I don’t have to imagine too hard; there’s Call of Duty, Super Mario Bros, and many other video games that show how my actions in the game world differ from the choices I routinely make in the real world.
A few weeks ago, the virtual reality headset Oculus Rift was released in its final form to the public, followed by Valve’s Vive; Sony’s PlayStation VR system will probably also be released this year. And all throughout film and literature, virtual reality pops up in titles like The Matrix, Lawnmower Man, and Brainstorm. It even forms major plot points in sci-fi TV shows like Star Trek.
Sword Art Online is one such story; it explores a virtual world in a way that questions the connection between this world and the next, contemplates consequences of actions inside that virtual game, and displays human nature in its rawest form–both good and evil. This story draws a number of direct parallels to our own world, and to the afterlife promised to us by God.
In Sword Art Online (dubbed “SAO” by fans), a boy named Kirito becomes disillusioned with the world he lives in and feels isolated from other people. He joins a “beta test” for a virtual reality game and becomes so enamored with it that all he can think about, day and night, is the game. Kirito even says he felt more alive in the virtual world than the real one. But when it comes time to play the real game, the creator, a man named Kayaba Akihiko, makes it so that the players cannot log out—and the device that allows them to experience the world by connecting their nervous system to the computer will kill them if their avatars die inside the game. Kirito quickly becomes one of the game’s strongest players, fighting alone on the front lines in order to defeat all 100 levels of the game in order to escape. Eventually he learns that he cannot beat the game alone and he and his friends work together in order to succeed. In the end, he faces down the final boss of the game, who happens to be the game creator himself, and fights a duel to the death with everyone’s freedom at stake.
Rules of Other Worlds
Kayaba Akihiko created “Nerve Gear” and “Sword Art Online,” as well as the Cardinal System that ran it—something like a physics engine that determines the laws of the world and how everything within the system is allowed to interact.
But after the players log in, in a grandiose and god-like fashion, he transports all the players to the beginning town of the game. He appears in the air as a giant, floating, cloaked figure that materializes from blood dripping through a force field that is keeping his audience captive and explains the new rules. He announces that no one can log out, or get to the real world, unless they beat the MMORPG-style game. In essence, he has changed the rules and overriden part of the Cardinal System.
The new rules of the game become much more sinister: If your character dies in Sword Art Online, the technology that interfaces with your real nervous system will kill your real body. Likewise, if you kill a player in game, you are also killing their true body. The icon above the head of a character who commits crimes (such as theft or murder) against other players in SAO will turn orange for a time, going permanently orange if they continue their misdeeds in order to warn other players.
God created our world. Genesis 1:1 tells us this is where it all began, and we get to see in the first few passages how God started setting up some ground rules–the “Cardinal System” of our Universe, so to speak. He determines where the light will be and what will govern it, where the fish and the water go, where the man and woman will live and what their jobs will be. Then we see man sinning, after which God gave us the ability to die. Murder in SAO separates man from society, but sin in real life separates us from God. Just like an icon turning orange for those who would harm other people, our souls are stained when we commit sin. According to Romans 6:23, the punishment for sin is death. By sinning, we die spiritually and must face the torment of being without the presence of God for all eternity. And like the characters in SAO, we cannot get to our bigger reality until this one ends.
Breaking the Rules
The creator of Sword Art Online (the game) can obviously change the rules of the game at will, as shown by his actions at the beginning of the story and his interference in the game throughout. Kayaba cheats the rules for and through the players; he gives Kirito the only instance of the dual-wielding skill that is unavailable to any other player.
Kayaba also posed as one of the players in his own game, but without letting anyone know he had done so. As the player Heathcliff, Kayaba even led the most successful guild in Sword Art Online by making his own avatar indestructible.
God also has seen fit to bend or even break the “rules” of the universe He created. God works similarly through people, giving them “skills” that they and no one else could possess. He gave Samson’s strength; He caused Elijah to run faster than a chariot; and He performed all the miracles of Jesus and the apostles. Each one is a break of the regular rules. And God doesn’t simply stop at breaking the rules for players. He has broken the rules of the universe itself. He stopped the sun in the sky at Joshua’s request, and made it go backwards to assure David. He caused and prevented dew for Gideon. He performed plagues, split the Red Sea, and gave food, water, and military victory to the Israelites. God even wrapped himself in flesh in order to walk among us.
God chooses to break the rules to show Himself more powerful, awesome and wonderful than we ever saw Him before.
Two Worlds Connected
For Kirito and his fellow players, any actions they take in SAO will affect what happens to their flesh-and-blood bodies in the real world. Our situation is the same, and yet the opposite: What happens to our flesh and blood bodies will affect what happens to our spiritual, born again bodies.
If someone in SAO tries to take off the Nerve Gear in real life, they would die. If someone died in the game, they would die. But if they cleared the game, they would be free to log out of the game and their real life body would be saved.
We already talked about the rules for our salvation; placing faith in Christ’s work through the power of God. The reward is rebirth, an eternity with God in a new universe. But the penalty is eternal torment, as we give up the presence of God. In both cases, high stakes connect one reality to the next.
Some actually like playing the game as a bad guy.
Rosalia, for instance, is a character in SAO who thought that it was stupid to believe Kayaba’s declaration. “So what if we kill someone here?” she says. “There’s no proof dying here means you’re dead in real life.” This is a popular cant for non-believers of any stripe- the “YOLO” philosophy, that our actions in this world do not matter. The result of that belief in the world of SAO was guilds that specialized in killing other players. In our world, too, people commit crimes and hurt one another because they don’t believe in the consequences that the Creator of our world warned against, proving that it’s the same for us, too.
Those who believed in a life after the game tended to react differently. In particular, a character named Griselda believed in the consequences, and that clearing the game would save them. She and her husband joined SAO together. According to her husband, she was once a weak, submissive woman. But in the game, facing death and danger, she blossomed into a strong and intelligent person—the leader of a guild.
Belief in God changes people just as dramatically. We become fundamentally different from the person that once inhabited our skin. Those that once knew us can hardly recognize us for the people that we’ve become.
A Saving Word
Our decisions cause big consequences for the people around us. The beta testers and people fighting on the front lines of new levels in SAO would collect information to pass on and disseminate throughout lower levels and to new players. They take a real personal risk to gather the information that will help others succeed in surviving the world. This parallels how missionaries carry the Word to places in our world that have not heard about the Gospel, trying to prepare them for what lies ahead. Missionaries regularly travel to dangerous places in order to bring God’s word to the people to bring them salvation in the afterlife.
Kirito finds that what drives him the most is that if he (or someone like him) doesn’t use his special abilities to beat the game, then everyone is going to die. His inaction could result in catastrophe for thousands of others. He even contemplates just dying to end his own struggle, but then he would be powerless to help his friends and loved ones who are still trapped in the game. Paul felt this same struggle when he confessed that he longed to be with Christ in glory, but would persevere to finish Jesus’ work by telling people as much as he could about Jesus’ work before he was taken to be with our savior.
Kirito: A “Type” of Jesus
To help his desire to save others, Kirito was given the ability of dual wielding, a specialized skill accessible only by the fastest player and designed especially by Kayaba Akihiko for the one who would be the Hero of the game. God’s designated Hero for our reality is Jesus: Kirito and Jesus both live with great concern for those around them, often performing amazing deeds in order to protect and save them. Jesus’ miracles healed the sick, his words protected others from death and condemnation, his righteous anger burned against those who would try to abuse others or keep them from God. Kirito often found himself protecting players from player killers, beasts, and bosses; he sought after and imprisoned those who would do murder inside the game.
And, like Jesus, Kirito actually died in the game during a final confrontation with Kayaba, disguised as another player. In both instances, the Hero of the story fights back against death itself. For Kirito, the goal was to save people from the death game, but Jesus came to save people from death itself. Kirito came back to life, despite all the rules of the game, in order to win his duel. He cared too much for the people trapped inside the game to not at least taking Kayaba down with him. By killing Kayaba’s avatar, the people were saved—in both the game and reality. And when our savior died, He defeated death in this world and the next, being raised again to save us in both worlds.
This Truth in a Headset
The virtual world in Sword Art Online, much like our own sinful reality, has a way of drawing out strengths and weaknesses within ourselves that we never knew about. Virtual reality is a technological step towards even more escapism than we presently have access to; but instead of escaping reality, we can see it as it is: a reflection of our own current reality, and the reality to come. How we react to our sin and the temptation we face affects us in the next world, just as the decisions made by characters in SAO could be catastrophic in their next world.
In our current reality, our rules and our goals have been set before us. We have no respawns or extra lives to fritter away in this life before we face the “treasure” (or lack thereof) we’ve sent ahead for ourselves in the coming world.
So be aware of the person you let yourself become in this reality, because it will be reflected in the next. Be aware of what you see as important. Because life is beautiful and full of joys, but as Kirito says, “It’s definitely not a game.”
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