Management: While my overall opinion of Log Horizon is quite positive, this essay is, by no means, meant to be a comprehensive review of the series, but rather, an articulation and analysis of what I feel are its most integral and interesting themes. Much of this essay draws implicit reference to Modernist Political Philosophy, from Thomas Hobbes in particular, what with his conceptions of the state of nature and his views on the origin of power, though this is, by no means, a total affirmation of on my part of everything Hobbesian.
Here are several ideas that Log Horizon brought up that interested me enough to jot them down in a somewhat organized essay form.
…and my axe.
Speaking as a former avid MMORPG player myself, when it comes to MMORPGs, or Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games, there are two general aspects of MMORPGs that I suspect people keep coming to them for.
First, then, is the aspect of RPG. I mean, for your average MMORPG player, who wouldn’t want to be part of some heroic triumph over beasts of Legend or Lovecraft, or serve at the honorable behest of some high lord or princess as one of his or her confidants, respectively. Hell, why stop there? Why not be the sole hero, or the sole confidant?
The ends of RPGs are thus. Immersion is the RPG’s aim. Empowerment is the RPG’s name. Those who play the roleplaying game are allowed to lose themselves in fantastical and brave settings, brave new worlds to conquer or become a part of, new narratives of which to consciously carve out as one’s own, like a knife to a landmark. This all still begs the question of why MMORPGs. Why are just plain old RPGs not enough for MMORPG players?
Last, then, is the aspect of MMO. Now, I’m not going to say that all people who enjoy MMORPGs are of a certain, peculiar nature, but people that play them tend to have… certain interests or display… peculiar idiosyncrasies. I’m, of course, no exception. Yet it needs to be said that neither certain interest nor peculiar idiosyncrasy denote, by absolute default, anti-sociability.
Players are people, and people, boiled down, are social creatures. As social creatures, we want social reference, desire social interaction, crave social reference somewhere with someone, whether that be in the form of a companion or even a competitor. More often than not, as “certain” and “peculiar” probably denote, this demographic of interest and idiosyncrasy comprise the minority in the general population. Moreover, this demographic is relatively sparse and widely distributed amongst towns, cities, and countrysides. And yet remarkably, the digital worlds of MMORPGs bring these relatively sparse and widely distributed people together into one forum, which even there can be divided into even more numerous subforums, guilds, in other words. The result is a community, some being tighter than others, a culture where dividing associations melt away in perceived gravity of mine and thine due to the time spent playing together, the bonds of fellowship forged through virtual combat and craft. A band of brothers… of sorts.
And while it happens to embrace the certain and peculiar, this culture is a human one, prone as much to reaction to common scenarios as much as any other culture out there. As, aforementioned, a former avid MMORPG player and, not previously mentioned, a student of the humanities, I find this MMO aspect, the human aspect, rather fascinating. Blip to the infamous “Corrupted Blood Incident.”
In 2005, Blizzard, the makers of World of Warcraft, or WoW, introduced new content for its clients to partake in. Said new content came in the form of a high-level raid dungeon. As an added obstacle to the usual raiding fare, those attempting to complete the dungeon had to contend with a built-in debuff dubbed “Corrupted Blood.” Those afflicted were forced to endure a significant health degeneration rate, damage enough for the qualifying high level characters to provide an extra challenge, but nothing that made the dungeon itself impossible to complete. Now, the developers intended that this debuff stay within the dungeon’s confines. A glitch, however, brought it to the outside world. Worse still, the condition was pathogenic. With no cure save death, and almost instant and often inevitable mortality for low-leveled individuals, previously daily routines of game play were disrupted, the sight bodies of players lining the streets and alleys of previously busy population centers. At some point, they became all but abandoned. The people who chose not to wait out for a developer fix sought refuge in the remote corners of the countryside. Some players actively ran about spreading infection, while others, most interestingly, set up sanctuaries staffed with dedicated healers.
The dimensions pointed out by public health analysts about this event in relation to real-world pandemics are informative studies, sure enough. But what truly fascinated me about the incident wasn’t the spread of the debuff per say. It was how people acted in response to this unexpectedly catastrophic ordeal. If an apocalyptic-esque event such as “Corrupted Blood” could cause even players, in the wake of societal breakdown and reversion to semi-primitive conditions, to form communities, even just ad hoc ones, as a means of countering it, think of what players would do if another difficulty of a similarly unexpected but more severe nature were to befall them? One that, for instance, couldn’t be easily remedied with a log-out option? Perhaps enough to form permanent societies? An interesting social experiment, no?
Enter Log Horizon, that ridiculously catchy Engrish refrain from the Opening Song “DATABASE,” and the virtual world of Elder Tales made real. Instead of focusing on that oh-so-compelling drama begot by the genre of MMORPGs, the sudden realization of people dying when they are killed, the show focuses instead on the bigger theme, the bigger picture amongst the chain of events this show’s own version of an “Apocalypse” produces.
Flung against their will into uncertain settings, cut off from their real-world relationships, everyone finds themselves in the nearest equivalent of the state of nature, in other words, what roughly amounts to anarchy, with every man for himself. Trying desperately to find the security that they individually have trouble providing themselves in terms of pondering, person, and/or possession, currently guildless players, or adventurers, scramble to join guilds to fill that gap, and many more casual guild members end up strengthening their existing guild ties, to protect themselves through both the force of arms and the fear of repute. And in order for these guilds to protect adventurers, and more so for those guilds that seek to exploit adventurers to the most profitable extent manageable, they need to grow larger and/or more influential. Out comes the dynamic of rich and poor, stronger and weaker, master and slave, few guilds overshadowing the smaller, less influential ones, in addition to the myriad guildless adventurers. The smaller, less influential guilds and guildless adventurers, as a response, stray from directly challenging the might of the larger, more influential guilds. And so we end up with a situation not too different from the petty fiefdom claims of the past, or the gang turf wars of the present.
Power, People, and Politics
What these three dialectic relationships of rich and poor, stronger and weaker, and master and slave have in common is that they are all power structures. By power, I mean the capacity of one party to impress their will on another. Power itself is often simplistically attributed to concrete individual force. Pit two adventurers alone against each other, and a disparity in power becomes clear, one besting the other as a result of perhaps higher level or superior tactics. Such power’s a handy thing for self-preservation during duels, and defeat enough opponents, and you may develop enough dread status to scare others from accosting you. Better yet, you can accost others into doing what you want. Thus, power’s just as much an abstract force, a matter of perception. Now, match ten adventurers to one, and the scales of power might be different from before. Match fifty to one. A hundred. Pit an adventurer, any adventurer, against half of all adventurers in the world, and chances are, even in an MMORPG the latter will be the more powerful. Power, therefore, ultimately resides in the people.
Power, therefore, is of the people. The largest guilds have gone so far as to absorb smaller guilds into their body politic. And this, all of this is indeed a matter of politics. Such is a major reason why many guildless adventurers sought membership into guilds, and why many guilds sought the membership of guildless adventurers. The power to protect. The power to dominate. The power to persevere. Politics is the process of power distribution.
Politics as much explains the early actions of adventurers in Log Horizon as it does the Round Table Alliance of Akihabara, Akihabara being a metonymy, and its dealings with the League of Freedom Cities Eastal.
The Round Table Alliance of Akihabara
Despite many adventurers quitting their states of nature for membership into guilds, the state of nature remained nonetheless, evolving from every man for himself for every guild for itself. Fortunes ended up being so much better for the few while so much worse for the many. Individual adventurers and smaller, less influential guilds now had to deal with parties of that much more power than before imperiously bearing down. In a world full of uncertainty save for the one unspoken law of might making right, many adventurers and smaller guilds find themselves huddling in the sanctuary of their city, where in-game built policing mechanisms prevent the more blunt attempts at coercion. “Blunt” is the operative word, as loopholes around this mechanism begs for abuse. Worst forms of oppression, among them what amounts to slavery for profit, killing for sport, and, in the source material, even sexual assault, being left unchecked. Humbled by bitter experience, but even more so humbled by the fear of bitter experience, adventurers waste away idle and afraid, merely subsisting, merely existing. A living ghost town of wretched souls who can’t even commit suicide because their circumstances won’t allow it.
And so at the convening of the conference that would lead to the Round Table Alliance’s conception, assembled from all walks of adventurer life, the major combat guilds, the major craft guilds, and the most prominent small guilds who also stand in on behalf of the guildless, its members sought a solution to this damning dilemma. But here political issues arise, issues of reluctance from a few of its representatives, the combat guilds mainly, towards an agreement because of their positions as the most fortunate few. Regardless of their personal feelings towards the deteriorating situation in Akihabara, these guilds remain some of the best off out of everyone in terms of security due to the relatively large amounts of power they wield, plus the power people perceive from them, power all the same. Any laws legitimate that spring from this conference must not only be legislated to overrule the unspoken might makes right, but they must also be enforced in place of it in order for people as a whole to take them seriously, and only the major combat guilds have the capacity to act as executors of the law. Any enforcement of laws of legitimate kind require of these combat guilds both the obligation of their power and a forswearing from utilizing their capacity afforded to them by power to do whatever they can to pursue their own separate interests. An agreement that cedes the freedom to exercise that power, that sullies the gravity of their guilds’ image, can be seen as tantamount to betrayal of both their security and the security of its members.
So it is important that, while every representative at the conference agrees that something must be done to alleviate the city’s situation, they also have to make sure not to lose out on too much power relative to every other guild. On this supposedly vaulted round table, where all who sit are equal in status to the other, something must be said to adequately convince everyone that, one, everyone would significantly lose out if an agreement wasn’t made, two, that everyone would gain significantly and equitably if an agreement were ratified, and three, that such an agreement was out of the common interest. As his feared role as the Villain in Glasses, Shiroe of Log Horizon does both by blackmailing everyone from accessing their guild facilities and guild treasuries and raising the possibility of war from an adventurer-harassed People of the Land, Nonplayable Characters, or NPCs who, in the aftermath of the “Apocalypse,” gained sentience, intelligence, personable sentiments, guaranteeing collective physical and economic security, and reaffirming the Round Table Alliance’s founding principles of city restoration, player prosperity, and human rights.
League of Freedom Cities Eastal
In the wake of the “Apocalypse,” not only did individual NPCs end up gaining the sentience, intelligence, and sentiments that constitutes what we’d normally define as persons, whole political systems came alive as well in all their intricate nuances, among which includes the League of Freedom Cities Eastal, a confederation comprised of different city-states each headed by a noble, or Lord, represented in its totality by the hereditary High Lord Cowen and his family. The High Lord saw in the rising Akihabara a worrying threat that he initially sought out to relieve through titles of nobility and an invitation to join the League, and many independent Lords sought out exclusive and favorable trade deals to strengthen the economies of their individual territories.
But behind these simple acknowledgments of an existing power structure are the League of Freedom Cities Eastal’s and the Round Table Alliance of Akihabara’s deliberations regarding the response to the Goblin King’s Invasion of The League. Left alone, The League would suffer devastating losses in life and material. Among the representatives present was an open secret consensus that the most efficient and effective way of dealing with this crisis would be the mobilization of one Adventurer Expeditionary Force from Akihabara. Adventurers in even small numbers, after all, were unmatched in firepower and fighting prowess, and with the added benefit of being immortal. Problematic issues would arise, however, should The League formally enlist this aid. A reckless request would result in mountainous and, likely, unpayable debt The League would dangerously assume from Akihabara for its services. The League must not be seen as subservient to Akihabara. Problematic issues would also arise should Akihabara honor The League’s formal request. While extremely interested in protecting and preserving the integrity of The League’s lands and citizens, a reckless acceptance might lead The League to dangerously assume Akihabara will be at their beck and call as one would associate with domesticated hounds, whereas adventurers could hardly be called. Akihabara must not be seen as subservient to The League. And because of these two irrevocably assumed stipulations, negotiations were close to a break down. The Round Table Alliance would not act save in the defense of its own city while the League of Freedom Cities would fall to a disquieting contingency plan of sacrificing an entire city-state, people and all, as bait to draw all the Goblin King’s forces into a limited enough area to engage in a huge and costly pincer assault.
A solution that would yield the most benefit while reducing loss to its most acceptable, the keeping of the aforementioned stipulations, or the preservation of the existing power structure, in other words, came in the form of Princess Lenessia Eruarte Cowen of Eastal. The speeches given, actions taken, and the presence commanded as a result of the dignity perceived from a princess allowed her the opportunity to directly recruit the Adventurer Expeditionary Force from the consensus of each individual player in the defense of homeland, under the Akihabaran principle of adventurers as autonomous agents, all the while freeing The League from any formal obligation for reward or compensation.
The Rise of Civilization
And so, from one inadvertent social experiment in-game to another social experiment in in-game literature, we have the rise of primitive communities and complex civilizations, respectively. Above all else, what is to be appreciated from Log Horizon its deft drafting of the workings of power, politics, and people.
So let Sword Art Online have its power fantasies. Let .hack//sign have its personal introspection. Log Horizon is the story of humanity overall. It’s freaking rise of civilization… told through the backdrop of an MMORPG setting.