The Healing Power of Gaming in Recovery of an MMO Junkie

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For the past couple years the isekai genre — stories about being trapped or transported to video-game worlds — has been dominating the anime, manga, and light novel marketplace. Into the middle of this boom enters Recovery of an MMO Junkie, a show that similarly takes a look at people and their interactions in a virtual world. However, MMO Junkie’s appeal in this genre is its divorce from the concept of trapping its characters in its world. Rather it focuses on examining the multi-layered relationship between our online and offline lives. Recovery of an MMO Junkie revolves around Moriko and her progression of healing through the MMO Fruits de Mer. Gaming, and MMO’s in particular, offer a unique way to both interact with other people and explore different identities and characters in a relatively safe environment. Over the course of the anime, we see Moriko explore the world of this game through the avatar Hayashi, make friends, and gain the confidence again to create meaningful offline relationships. These unique characteristics of MMOs helped Moriko reach a level of growth that she may not have been able to reach any other way.

“It is in playing and only in playing that the individual child or adult is able to be creative and to use the whole personality, and it is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self.”  

— D.W. Winnicott in Playing and Reality

Donald Winnicott was a prominent psychoanalyst, particularly interested in how the action of playing can affect our conception or building of a sense of self. Play is something that we have all participated in and continue to well into our adult years. If any of you have watched children playing or remember the games you created when you were little, you’ll remember the ease at which children can construct games and stories out of nothing. Give them a stick, and they’re a knight fighting off a dragon. Give them a box and they’re flying through space in their own spaceship. Children’s minds can come up with the most interesting stories and games, but if you look closer you’ll see that their games are highly structured. They come with rules, backstories, and specific character roles. In their mind, they are in fact constructing a creative space where their self-imposed rules become safe-guards wherein they can explore different realities and stories. And when the game ends, they go back to being their pre-game, or real-life self.

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We see this happening in adults as well, but for us we have more tangible creative pursuits like hobbies, cosplay, LARPing, art, and video games. Part of the appeal of play for many adults and children alike is a sense of escapism from the real world, which becomes particularly apparent when we look at online gaming. In an essay entitled “The Managed Hearthstone” the authors make the point that “while approaches centered on escapism from the alienation and ‘disenchantment’ of everyday life remains generally true, it is additionally true that online gaming also represents an extension of everyday life” (166) Systems like the in-game economy or even marriage system in some MMOs can begin to feel like they mirror that of the real-world. Another of Winnicott’s theories was that of “potential space,” or a space that is between our inner self and our outer reality. It is in this space where play becomes the most effective at helping a person develop their true self. Monica Whitty and Adrian Carr in their book Cyberspace Romance: The Psychology of Online Relationships make a more general connection between Winnicott’s theory of “potential space” and the internet. In it, they propose that “in being a potential space, cyberspace would hold the possibility for psychological growth.” (61) An MMOs ability to both mirror the real-world and provide a fantastical place built on anonymity creates an environment where a person seeking an escape from reality could also find the potential for personal and lasting growth. However, before we get more into Moriko’s growth, we have to look at what she is potentially trying to escape from.

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We come into the beginning of the anime series after Moriko has quit her job at a large company. She comes home, tosses the flowers her coworkers got her in the trash, and flops on her bed. Moriko has made the decision to become a NEET, or in her words, “an elite NEET”. Her story is something a lot of women face in the Japanese workforce, and it stems from how Japan has structured and encouraged the culture around work since the end of World War II. Namely, the concept of Japan Inc. This is the social and economic system on which the immense success of Japan during the 70s and 80s was built. In Anne Allison’s book, Precarious Japan, she explains a little of how this system is set up: “Starting at school, this system carried over into work and marriage and was clearly mapped by a gendered division of labor: women were to be managers of the family and home, and men were to give their all to the workplace.” (21) If women did go into the workforce, they often took on part-time or non-permanent jobs and were expected to quit after they had their first child. At the time of writing her book (2013) Allison notes that 70 percent of all women workers were irregularly employed. (5)

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I wanted to make this point because further in the book she quotes a women who discusses the effect this system had on her work life: “In Amamiya’s case, it was the uncertainty of labor and life rhythms…and the estrangement from ongoing human relations (not called by name at work and treated as disposable labor) that crippled her sense of self.”(15) For Moriko, we can see some of this sentiment pop up in the nightmare she has in the hospital. In the nightmare, Moriko is running against the flow of a crowd of faceless office workers. This crowd could be a reference to the Japan Inc corporate system and salaryman culture where employees, especially female employees, aren’t given the recognition they deserve for the amount of work that they do. We see through discussions with Sakurai and Kowai that she was often kept late at the office covering for her managers. It was one of these times that she begins crying on the phone with Kowai. At another point, she tells Sakurai, through the avatar of Harth, that she wants to quit her job. It’s this unhappiness, this loss of self, that spurns Moriko into becoming a NEET that favors the social atmosphere of Fruits de Mer over real-life interaction. But it is also here that she begins to recover to the point where she can begin making face-to-face relationships again.

“Those who find it difficult to relate to others in face-to-face situations, due to social anxiety or lack of ‘normal’ social skills, generally appear to find the internet a better place to relate and they emerge with better a self-concept and ability to relate face-to-face”  (76)

Witty and Carr in Cyberspace Romance

In general, Witty and Carr have found that the internet has great benefits socially for people with social anxiety or trouble relating to others in the external world. This is supported by a 2014 study done by Kowert, Domahidi, Quandt who found that “these social affordances (i.e., visual anonymity, asynchronicity) allow socially inhibited users to overcome the inhibitions that are typically experienced in face-to-face communication and…help to strengthen pre-existing friendships and potentially generate additional levels of social support that may not have been possible without the social accommodations provided by the online gaming space.” These researchers make a good point and it is something we can see happening in the development of Moriko over the course of the anime. We see evidence of her social anxiety whenever she leaves her apartment. In the convenience store, she has trouble talking to Kanbe until he brings up the fact that he also plays Fruits de Mer. She can be seen agonizing over how to word an email to Sakurai to the point where she has to take a break from the game in order to concentrate. She is similarly nervous about her date with Kowai until Sakurai confirms for her that he is a good person. However, in-game she is much different person, and this has a lot to do with the nature and freedom anonymity affords.

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Anonymity offers MMO players a particular opportunity to relate to other people in a different way than other online platforms: the creation of an avatar. In the beginning days of online role playing, many of the games were still text based and behind those words people were able to create new identities and explore different persona’s in relative comfort and safety. Witty and Carr note that these conditions, in particular among the online dating community, allowed people to “devise an entirely new attractive being, one that has a good job, a self that earns huge sums of money, and is well educated.” (49) In some ways, these are their ideal selves, the kind of person they are either working towards or want to be but can’t obtain. In other instances, they create fantastical characters who may hold certain ideal characteristics but not wholly be their ideal self. In most instances, however, we can see connections between certain people’s avatars and their true selves. Or, in Moriko’s case, we see an avatar that holds characteristics of her ideal self that begin to integrate themselves into her real, offline self. By playing as this character of Hayashi, she is also playing with different potential identities, and this begins to facilitate her healing.

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Moriko’s creation of Hayashi is an interesting look into her personality and insecurities. The most notable of his characteristics being that he is in fact a male avatar. Playing the opposite gender in an MMO or video game in general is nothing new, and gamers can have a variety of reasons for choosing to play this way. However, in Moriko’s case, I think we can see a somewhat deeper meaning behind her choice that goes back to the origins of her trauma: loss of agency. As a woman in the Japanese workforce, agency and recognition is something that seems to be denied to her. She is scarred by the fact that she is a faceless and replaceable employee and so chooses to quit and chooses to become an “elite NEET”. Furthermore,she chooses to play as a male avatar to regain some power or agency in her online life, something a female avatar may not have given her. Sleepy Insomniac, an anime Youtuber, in the latter half of this video, presents a similar view, in that Moriko’s creation of Hayashi allows her to hide her emotional baggage behind a fairly average looking avatar. He goes on to theorize that her growth with Sakurai stems from the connection she has already formed with Lily which helps Morkio overcome her anxiety around him in person. It is my view, however, that the origins of this growth go much deeper.

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We see a similar, though smaller, progression when it comes to Sakurai’s character arc. In episode eight, we see some of the origins of Sakurai’s own issues and recovery. It is revealed that he was adopted and when his adopted parents passed away, he was left with their large house and a sense of loneliness. In an effort to both escape from this environment and form the social connections he’s lacking in real life, he joins an MMO during his college years. It’s here that he meets Moriko and her previous avatar. This environment of anonymity and social connection allowed both Sakurai and Moriko to support one another even through real-world problems. In his creation of his gender-swapped avatar Lily, it looks as though he is trying to both make more social connections and provide support to people in the way that Moriko did for him. Her cute appearance and support class lends to this theory, allowing her to be a more desirable teammate for many players. However we also see a little of his reflected personality in his love of dressing up Lily in all the available outfits, something that goes hand-in-hand with his bright pink keyboard in real life.

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If we go back to Carr and Whitty’s book, I think they offer another interesting insight into what may be happening here. One of their other findings through the course of their research was that “many of the male participants in this study believed that by disguising their identity they could be more emotionally honest and open.” (14) This goes along with two other theories of social interaction online: the disinhibition effect and benign disinhibition. The disinhibition effect says that people can me more likely to reveal secret emotions, fears, or wishes online. Benign disinhibition is the finding that some people become extremely kind online. The anonymity of online relationships reduces the perception of real-world consequences which allows people to feel safer about sharing deep emotional matters with one another. This can contribute to a growth in their support network which leads to emotional and personal growth for the individual. Moriko and Sakurai feel safe talking to one another about their issues, and through their relationship, they feel more comfortable joining a guild and even trying new things outside the game. The guild and Sakurai become Moriko’s support network, giving her a jumping-off point for more complicated relationships such as Kowai and real-life Sakurai.

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Referencing Winnicott’s theories of play, Whitty and Carr point to the “potential space” of the internet as “a space where we can develop psychologically to integrate love and hate and to create, destroy, and re-create ourselves” (61) This is exactly what is happening with Moriko in MMO Junkie. It is through the creative space of Fruits de Mer that she is able to play with the character of Hayashi, trying out new ways of acting and being in a different environment. It is here that she grows her support network through her guild and especially through Lily/Sakurai. It is also in the context of the MMO that she gains the confidence to step out into the real world and create lasting face-to-face connections with people. At the end of MMO Junkie we get a scene where Sakurai and Moriko walk down the street hand-in-hand while the reflections of their avatars look on. Some have said this is a reference to Moriko moving on from her NEET, gaming lifestyle, but I also like to think its Lily and Hayashi looking on in satisfaction at Moriko’s level of personal growth, something they played a part in helping her accomplish.

~~Thanks for Reading!~~

Book Sources:

  • Cyberspace Romance: The Psychology of Online Relationships by Monica Whitty and Adrian Carr; published: 2006
  • Precarious Japan by Anne Allison; published: 2013

 

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