Log Horizon: Game Mechanics and Human Rights

Management: This essay is meant to be less of a review and more of analysis of the show being examined. It contains plot spoilers for the Log Horizon anime.

Human rights, at least as they were initially conceived, trace their origins back to the Age of the Enlightenment. Enlightenment philosophers were attempting demonstrate an objective value in humanity that, if not altogether rejecting the existence of a higher power, can stand independently from reasons of religion (i.e. Humans were God’s chosen people). Many rulers of old based their legitimacy to lead on divine law (They were God’s chosen rulers), which to some Enlightenment thinkers could be tantamount to tyranny. Europe was also recovering from the bloody religious wars that took place just before the Enlightenment, their traumatic memories spurring advocacy during the period itself for the separation of church and state.  What the Enlightenment philosophers came up with in response to the supposed irrationality of religiously-motivated oppression and violence was the concept of the law of nature, divorced from divine mandate. Core to every fiercely debated Enlightenment interpretation of the natural law was entitlement drawn from rationality. Humans are rational beings. Because humans are rational beings, they are inherently and universally entitled to certain rights. These rights were natural and inalienable.

It is by this understanding that it is unreasonable for natural rights to be violated arbitrarily by other rational beings, and provides a justification for rational beings like human ones to take up arms so as to have these rights establish respect.  John Locke believed that men were entitled to the rights to life, liberty, and property in his Second Treatise of Government. Thomas Jefferson reinterpreted these rights for men as the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in the American “Declaration of Independence,” the official reason for the American colonies’ separation from the British empire. This document would become one of the inspirations for the later French “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen,” the official manifesto of the French Revolution. Decades later, like the American one before it, the French document became one of the blueprints for the “United Nations (UN) Declaration of Human Rights.” The reasoning behind human rights is grounded in theories concerning  natural rights that were originally formulated in the Enlightenment era. The designation of rationality and the entitlement that comes backseat with it expanded overtime, being applied first to white men, and then to all men, and then to all men and women… to all humans.

Quite apart from the more typical low-brow affairs that trapped in a fantasy world isekai shows busy themselves with, Log Horizon also concerns itself with the topic of natural rights in a video game. In typical isekai set-up, Log Horizon’s real-life human players are trapped in the MMO world of their fantasy playground, attempting to figure out how to get by in their familiar yet unknown surroundings. In not-so-typical isekai fashion, Log Horizon’s trapped player characters (the “Adventurers”) find themselves arguing around a round table of whether NPCs (the “People of the Land”) also possess natural rights. At its core, natural law dictates that the Adventurers, by their nature as humans, hail from entitle them to certain rights. These natural rights exist under the understanding, whether designated by a God or not, that human beings exist for their own sakes — as ends in themselves, to paraphrase Immanuel Kant, the late Enlightenment figure. However, the Adventurers know that the People of the Land, by their nature as human pixel fantasy facsimiles, were created by real human game developers. We, the audience, know that NPCs in MMOs  are not exactly human. They are a digital resource for players for engage with for their entertainment. The People of the Land were not originally created for their own sakes, but for the Adventurers’.

It’s not totally unexpected then that some Adventurers have continued treat the People of the Land as mechanics to objectively exploit. As they rob their goods and even take their lives, these particular Adventurers prejudicially continue to regard the People of the Land with the chattel-like mentality that they always understood their existence by. By their original nature as NPCs in a fantasy MMORPG, the People of the Land were created to serve as the property and playthings of the Adventurer player base. In light of these cases of exploitation and the larger round table discourse on natural rights in the anime during the Akihabara round table discussions (from protecting Adventurers from being exploited by other Adventurers to protecting the People of the Land being exploited by Adventurers), what’s the rationale then to claim that the People of the Land should be accorded the same freedoms, dignities, and protections as the Adventurers? Why should the Adventurers People of the Land natural rights even when they were not exactly created as human beings in the first place?

The show begins by focusing on the perspectives and plights of the Adventurers, the characters that the audience would be able to most immediately identify with. Dislocated from their previous lives and families and with no foreseeable hope of being able to return back home, the Adventurers to replicate the previous systems and comforts they’ve known from their old world inside their new one. The existences of the People of the Land are only nominally acknowledged at this point, being only treated at this stage as the player resources that they’ve always been understood to be:  the more traditional vendors of services and wares or the more novel targets of looting and other depredations.

As Shiroe, Marielle, and friends discover how cooking functions in their new world and sell the fruits of their discoveries on the market, they note the kinds of people lining up for their food. Their clientele consists not only those Adventurers who have gone by without a delicious meal in so long. They also include those People of the Land who are curious and delighted to try something that shakes up their diets.

The show follows this simple observation up by gradually introducing the direct perspectives of notable People of the Land characters to the audience. On a macro level, the nearby People of the Land polity of the League of Freedom Cities of Eastal infiltrates the Adventurer polity of Akihabara with spies to search the intentions of their new neighbors, a development that Shiroe takes note of. Eastal treat diplomatically with Akihabara, first to enlist its aid against a massive scripted goblin invasion, and later to establish amicable relations between the two states.

On a micro level, the audience is introduced to the direct perspective of one of these People of the Land characters, Lenessia. She is portrayed aside from the pretensions, intrigue, and politics of her realm as this cynical, indolent, and self-deprecatory individual ambivalent about her in-born status and responsibilities as a princess. She cares about her people despite these reservations, and takes her duty to protect them despite her lazy, selfish, and cynical disposition. She also vocalizes an important point about the Adventurers in relation to the People of the Land.

During her attempts to rally the Adventurers in Akihabara to protect the her realm against a massive scripted goblin invasion, she remarks at how rational the Adventurers seem in a crowd when analyzing the looming threat. During her speech to them, she admits the at the thought of her peers attempting to manipulate Adventurers into fighting for them as though they were they just resources and property for the People of the Land to rely on. Far from the stereotypical artifices that constitute the decorative roles that female royalty often occupy in fantasy worlds, Lenessia demonstrates equal complexity with Shiroe and the other Adventurer protagonists, and far more complexity as a character than the many Adventurers that mill about in the background.

That the People of the Land and the Adventurers share both a common desire for good food and a common capacity for dehumanization that the latter group is just as barbaric, exploitative, ignorant, sentimental, empathetic, and rational as the former. People of the Land can be just as cruel to the Adventurers (i.e. exploiting them for free protection) as Adventurers can be to each other (i.e. exploiting them for cheap labor). At the same time, the People of the Land can be just as conciliatory and compassionate toward the Adventurers (i.e. Lennessia’s honesty to the Adventurers) as Adventurers can be with themselves (i.e. Akihabara punishing slavery-esque practices). Given the rationality demonstrated by both groups in the show, it seems like a easy argument to advocate that natural rights belong to both Adventurers and People of the Land.

Unfortunately, that argument runs into a problem upon contemplation of the root word of natural: nature The Adventurers were originally humans from the real world, and the People of the Land were originally NPCs from a made-up one. Human-seeming in mannerism and appearance as many of them are from even the non-human customizations of some Adventurer avatars, the People of the Land don’t possess the same real world human pedigree as the Adventurers. Humans, after all, according to Enlightenment thinking, are supposed to live for their own sakes.

The argument behind the Enlightenment interpretation of natural rights is that rights apply to those that are not only rational, but also those who were created to be ends in themselves. It has been long been argued that humans deserve natural rights because they were created to be free-thinking individuals. NPCs were originally created in their explicit forms not to have sentience or free will, but to be exploited by human players for the resource of their entertainment. Even if the NPC People of the Land were rational like the human Adventurers, and even they bore agency now like the human Adventurers, some may be tempted to continue denying them the same rights as Adventurers on the virtue of their origins of being the property and playthings of players: once chattel, always chattel.

And yet the NPCs of Log Horizon, like the world of Elder Tale itself, have far exceeded the intended parameters their original programming. The pronounced silence of these game developers in shaping this organic evolution of worldbuilding elements, game mechanics, and NPC sentience suggests a new law of nature, different from the old one, that supports the People of the Land having rights. The sudden rationality of the People of the Land, like the sudden ability to invent steam engines and own private private property, are just part and parcel of this natural evolution. To continue labeling The People of the Land, including characters like Lenessia, Non-Playable Characters would ignore the myriad concrete examples of them demonstrating their complexity, agency, and overall personhood — their personalities, their worries, and their aspirations. The actual logic of natural rights, as Enlightenment thinking understands it, was designed to the accommodate for the absence of God’s formal and direct hand over His creations.

Assuming that my argumentation thus far has made a compelling case, beyond gut instinct, that Adventurers and People of the Land both possess natural rights, we can now extrapolate from conclusion that both the Adventurers and People of the Land are entitled to fight back against those that threaten their natural rights. It is the natural right and even the inherent duty of the rational, as per the Enlightenment thinking in both its English, American, and French contexts, to instigate a restorative revolution when the status quo is found to be in violation of their agency. After Marielle of Crescent Moon concludes her report to the Akihabara round table discussions about Adventurers and People of the Land alike enjoying their culinary discoveries, Shiroe of Log Horizon notes that the personhood of the Land of the Lustrous makes them not only capable of enjoying good food.

It also makes them capable of resisting the Adventurers on a systematic level in response to being mistreated. The consequences of that level of resistance of which would prove disastrous to the Adventurers. They, after all, rely on the People of the Land for their services and wares. Upon mention of this view, Crusty of D.D.D. immediately agrees to join Shiroe’s scheme of setting up an Adventurer government in Akihabara.  The Black Sword Knights and Honesty, initially skeptical resistant to Shiroe’s to form a government for the intent of policing player behavior, quickly follow suit behind D.D.D. And so, as part of its official platform, the newly formed Akihabara Round Table Alliance would actively respect the natural rights of not only other Adventurers. From human players to former NPCs, it would also respect and defend the rights of The People of the Land.

4 thoughts on “Log Horizon: Game Mechanics and Human Rights

  1. I’ve never read a more lucid explanation of why Log Horizon should be considered a great series. This post absolutely nailed it! It’s also no exaggeration to say that my faith in humanity is a little greater than it was when before I read this post.

    No. I’m not kidding.

  2. Pingback: Other Posts to Crow About – 2018 Week 21 Edition – Crow's World of Anime

  3. Pingback: [Anime News Network Article] “‘Gekokujo’ and Revolution in Ascendance of a Bookworm” | therefore it is

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