New Forms of Power: Reflecting on Sword Art Online

Sword Art Online is a popular anime part of a sub-genre in which a protagonist, disempowered in the real world, enters another world (e.g. video game, time traveling, fantasy world, etc.) and often becomes a powerful and central figure in that world.

On one level, this sub-genre is simply about escapism. On another level, people’s tendency to create worlds in which their particular talents and skills are valued actively reshapes this “real” world. So, for example, while a few generations ago the particular mix of skills and personality traits that make up a successful film maker, rap artist, YouTuber, or gamer didn’t necessarily translate to any real-world clout, it is now a means by which thousands of others may listen to particular person.

Furthermore, once established, these worlds tend to be self-perpetuating as others seek to attain the success modeled by those who have shown what the world. Though, they may also pass out of fashion, as for example military leadership which once (and still in some societies does) played a central role in a political power has been overtaken by skills once upon a time unheard of (e.g. social medial campaigning).

It may be observed that escapist tendency to create bubbles, to the extent that it preserves the overarching structure of power, is really just shuffling around chairs. But there are material consequences to creating worlds in which some skills and not others are valued. There are also material consequences to creating worlds in which some vices are tolerated or encouraged. This is not only true because people get sucked into these bubbles, but because inevitably they are not air tight and those who rise to the top of them may gain the means to have a much wider impact.

The irony therefore is that the escapist may get exactly what they want. We must therefore be careful in our fantasizing.