Sword Art Online II Episode 3: Fake improvements?

So I guess this has been the best episode so far, but does that actually make it good?

I’ve heard some complaints that we’ve been spending too much time in the real world this season, but I don’t fully understand the sentiment, after all, episode 2 was basically one long action sequence in GunGale Online. Personally, though, I like this pacing, as the show is actually dedicating time to introducing us to Sinon on a human level rather than on a haremette level. Last episode didn’t do that so well, but here we get a clear outline of her problems and her motivations for playing GunGale.

So it turns out that Sinon has a phobia of guns, just making a pretend one in your hand is apparently enough to¬†practically paralyse her with fear. This would be fine, (well, not really, I’ve heard of bad phobias but not THAT bad) except she clearly has no trouble seeing guns in GunGale, the hyper immersive virtual reality game. Ah, but no matter how realistic they seem, they’re still fake guns, right? There’s no danger. Thusly, GunGale is perfect therapy for her phobia, as stated by her internal monologue. Except, the bully who threatens her with a gun shaped hand is showing her, well, a fake gun. So why isn’t she effected by the guns in-game?

The first episode clearly stated its philosophy on gaming as it relates to realism- that the only difference between the real world and the virtual world is the amount of information your senses can perceive. Nothing about psychology was ever mentioned, so I take the default stance to be that SAO believes that the virtual world doesn’t affect you psychologically. However, Sinon’s arc implies that there is a psychological difference- her gun phobia is not triggered in the game. This is not only contradictory both narratively and thematically, but it underlies a much deeper problem with SAO if you were to ask me. This show is not content with the idea that there are any inherent negative effects that gaming can have on a person.

Sinon’s arc seems to be set up to demonstrate a possible positive effect of gaming, that is, gaming as therapy. However no problems or criticisms against this solution or alternatives to GunGale are offered. Coupled with the contradictions, SAO demonstrates its need to make gaming look positive in almost all respects. The only problem with gaming is the people who inhabit these virtual worlds, villains such as Sugou and Death Gun. (apparently the arguably most harmful villain, Kayaba, gets a free pass) To me, this only seems to reinforce gaming’s already exclusionary culture. The only criticisms I can see are aspects of how GunGale’s gameplay works, or how the technology isn’t up to snuff even in this future (oh dear, not even our fancy enough headsets are enough to stop the crazy villains!) if the show offered more useful, thematic criticisms as well as the positives, I would have no problems with this.

I’m also very suspicious of Sinon’s character. She strips of her jacket and skirt for seemingly no reason, then the camera very pointedly refuses to gaze at her slightly more exposed body in any lechterous fashion. This is good, as the camera tended to do that a lot in season one and it was pretty degrading then, but in that case, why have her strip off at all? The scene almost seems to be drawing attention to the fact that it isn’t gazing at her lecherously as it proceeds to give us an insight into her personal trauma. In other respects, the writing is just as bad (Sinon still pleads and whimpers for someone to ‘save her’ before cutting to Kirito on a motorcycle, etc) so is the show trying to address the problems with the original by adding fake feminism? The camera is still lecherous in other respects, the nurses boobs and Sinon’s crotch in previous episodes, so I am not sold on the idea that the author really matured since the previous two arcs- then again, this could all be an entirely anime original thing, in which case that last statement is moot.

I appreciate that some of the surface level, almost superficial problems are being fixed. Less Kirito, less fanservice, more real world scenes, and other attempts at trying to be actually mature rather than gritty mature in the way it’s handling Sinon’s character. For now, however, I’m not convinced that SAO’s underlying issues have really been addressed. All that will really happen is that the series will be less unpleasant to watch, but still equally flawed in all the same ways. Tread lightly, show, I haven’t forgiven you yet.

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