5 things MMOs can learn from anime

I’ve been on a large anime kick for the past few weeks, catching up on series I never got around to watch initially. Thinking about it, and why I like it, I came up with 5 things anime does well that could benefit MMOs in general.

1. The mundane and the magical should be merged, not kept separate.

You are a fifteen year old kid, chosen to pilot an immense robot. Yet day after day you also go to school, talk on your cell phone, walk home, and live a normal life. One of the most attractive things about anime is the sense of magic breaking in, and being as much a part of the world as your day to day activities. Whether it’s an eighth grade student becoming a Shinto God, or a police force that uses Giant Robots instead of cop cars, Anime combines the most outlandish fantasy with the real world.

MMOs are too involved in making very generic settings, with no sense of a world breaking into our own. It’s just never-never land, even famous IP like Star Wars or Star Trek. A dragon is much less powerful on a high lonely mountain than he is loping around our city’s streets. Though not anime, there was a reason why Godzilla always came to Tokyo.

2. People are connected.

One thing I notice while watching an anime is how few Dirty Harries there are. The solitary hero is rare, as opposed to heroes who act in concert with each other, either to directly fight or indirectly support. It might be a cultural issue, as group harmony and consensus are as vital to the national character of the Japanese as rugged individualism is to the Americans, but it’s there. No one is alone.

But in MMOs, we are all alone. There is just a single player. They rarely ever talk to players as a band, except when offering grindy guild perks. It’s a collection of self-contained individualists with no cohesion. If you are a wizard, what school did you come from? If you are a paladin in what unit do you serve? Why do they always ask just you? There is little connection between players: each does his own chores and once in awhile joins up to do chores too big for them. The sense of being part of something is missing.

3. There is power in subversion.

The most powerful anime take a theme and subvert it. Anime is very stylistic and often conservative, but those same conventions can be used to provide devastating effects on the viewer. Alien Nine takes the “gotta catch em all” spirit of Pokemon, the capturing and taming enemy creatures alongside a friendly creature and turns its upside down: the main character is terrified of her “partner” and they are being used to recapture things that want her dead possibly as part of a lab experiment. Shadow Star Narutaru is one of the most infamous anime ever made. Magical girls and powerful creature protectors are common, but imagine that limitless power given to bored, cruel, hateful, confused, and vulnerable teens who wreck havoc in the world.

Even minor subversions have power. Lyrical Nanoha StrikerS had a scene where one of the rookies was being chewed out by the main character. When asked why, they flashed to a scene of her having to go through intense physical therapy after one of the magical girl battles they had, and it’s a poignant scene.

MMOs though are all convention and no subversion. They are ripe for something which uses the conventions of killing mobs, experience gain, and other things and inverts or subverts them for commentary, for a richer experience, or to force a new way. In anime all it takes sometimes is something as simple as giving robots teeth. (NSFW) I’m sure MMO conventions can be altered in many ways.

4. Ambiguity is good.

Not everything needs to be explained. Some of the strongest anime deliberately choose to leave mystery in to allow you to form your own stories. Not every piece of landscape needs an NPC with a few lines of flavor text to give us lore. Haibane Renmei never explains why Rakka came to the town, or why they need to follow so many rules. Why can’t they use new clothing, or have money? Some of the film’s most powerful scenes just happen, and we know little more than the characters do.

But that makes the world so much richer, because it allows us to think and create our own stories. Ambiguity is not laziness: it’s not saying to kill ten rats with no reason why. But it is introducing objects with purpose but keeping that purpose mysterious.

5.  The world has cracks.

Embrace imperfections and difference.

Wabi-Sabi is probably impossible for a non-japanese like me to define with any real skill. But as an aesthetic, it permeates Japan. It takes pleasure in the rustic, the transient, the item used. A lot of anime is fantastic, but takes place in cracked, used, worlds. Look down at the streets in an MMO sometime. Can you see cracks in the stones where grass pushes through?

Haibane Renmei elevates this to an art form. Old Home where the Haibane live is a desolate, abandoned dormitory. Half the rooms lie unused, and the roof is in poor repair in some of the wings. But it is beautiful because of that, because the flaws make it real. Swords in an MMO never are chipped. They don’t lose some of their jewelry in the pommel, and armor often looks so outlandish that it’s impossible to imagine a person moving in it, let alone be protected by it.

It’s a reflection on mortality, and it’s ironic that MMOs in game rarely show wear over time, when the games themselves are transient, lasting barely a decade for even the best.

I’ll follow this up with 5 things MMOs should not learn from anime, because like everything in life, it has its downsides.

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