In 2014, the anime/manga series No Game No Life did a rare thing. It envisioned a world where power didn’t come in the form of violence, wealth, or social privilege but from cleverness, intelligence, dedication, and skill. I know, right? Madness. I mean, who could rule over such a world? Where is there a class of people who can dedicate themselves wholeheartedly to overcoming challenges, finding exploits, and generally bending the rules and intricacies of any system to their will in order to overcome any disadvantage and triumph over any odds? Well, there’s gamers. But life isn’t a video game. Or is it?
No Game No Life stars a pair of sibling gamers, Sora and Shiro, who have dedicated their lives to one thing and one thing only: winning at games. As proper shut-ins with almost no IRL contact with anybody but each other, they have few social skills to speak of, but when it comes to contests of skill and strategy, the two of them never lose. After beating a mysterious opponent in an online chess match, they suddenly find themselves transported into a fantasy world where wars have destroyed every other social class, the meek have inherited the “Earth”, and all conflicts are now settled exclusively by games under the laws enforced by a literal god. Wouldn’t that be nice?
As hardcore gamers, it’s normal for us to feel like we were born into the wrong world sometimes. A disproportionate amount of us suffer from learning disabilities and other psychological issues that make us off-putting to others, anxious and self-conscious in our own skin, or otherwise unfit to thrive in a civilization that stresses the importance of social ritual, attractiveness, and status above almost all else. On the flip-side, these same “disorders” often give us exceptional abilities in abstract and logical reasoning, which ironically only increases suspicions. Can’t have folk going around doing things logically. It scares people.
That is to say that society on the whole makes little sense to us. But games? Games operate on rules and principles that can’t be broken by normal means. When two people face off in a video game, they’ve each had equal opportunity to learn the rules, build their characters, work on their skills, etc. The player with either the most skill at it or the most knowledge to use to their advantage is most likely to come out the victor. For the most part, any worthwhile video game world is fair; they treat everybody the same, unlike real life. As Shiro points out in the very first episode, “this world is just a crappy game”.
The idea of NEET gamers given an opportunity to thrive in a world where games are law is an interesting premise and No Game No Life plays it to the hilt, illustrating the nature of human neurosis with a classic fantasy escapism setting. The initial reaction to this brand of nerd wish fulfillment seems to be that it’s preposterous, but the more you think about it, the more sense it makes. Gamer Empowerment Theory (as I’ve dubbed it) states that we have within us the ability to utilize the same abilities we use to bend virtual worlds to our will in the real world, but simply don’t.
Just consider for a moment the dedication it takes to master the upper echelon of a game like Street Fighter. The training muscle memory, the memorization, the counting of animation frames that go by in fractions of seconds, analysing the psychology of an unseen opponent based on their avatar’s visible patterns, and the flawless execution of all of these elements under the pressure of a worthy rival attempting to impose themselves on you all culminating in extremely brief contests of virtual skill; if you can master that, you can master almost anything given the same level of commitment.
But that’s the thing about gamers/geeks/otaku. We don’t commit to anything that isn’t awesome. Other things are boring and filled with other people who like things that are lame and are obsessed with the personal lives of people they’ve never even met. I, for one, don’t have time for that shit. We work because we have to (IF we have to) in order to put food in our bellies, a roof over our head, and to indulge in entertainment that lets us forget how screwed up everything is and be who we want to be, even if just for a little while. Everything else is just a waste of time and energy, right?
More than anything else, dedication to our hobbies is what makes us geeks, but what if our hobby was world domination? What if we studied and practiced group psychology, politics, mechanics, economics, social etiquette, and other practical arts with the same vigor we do with video games and applied our capabilities to things other than beating Dark Souls using a Rock Band guitar controller? Considering the incompetence of the people currently in charge, it’d be too easy. Not even worth the challenge. Very Easy Mode.
But that won’t happen, of course, because real life sucks and Dark Souls is awesome. That’s how we are. But back to the anime. In the alternate reality of No Game No Life there are myriad races in contention with one another and each of them has magical powers that they can draw upon to use to their advantage in the contests. All except humans, who are at the bottom of the barrel, bordering on being nonentities.
But being put at a colossal disadvantage against overwhelming odds is what old school games were all about. People still beat Battletoads and Ghouls and Ghosts and found a way to put a whuppin’ on an insanely overpowered Mike Tyson back in the day. Like everything else in life, you’ve just got to learn to spot and recognize the patterns and then exploit them.
One of the show’s themes is strength in weakness. Power and natural ability will give you a heady lead, but can quickly become a crutch when it comes to the long game. Those who earn their capabilities through untold hours of experimentation, research, and paying attention to the smallest details rather than just coasting on what they were born with are capable of a level of focus that the strong and gifted aren’t. According to Sora, “humans are stupid and lowly creatures”, but within that simple fact and the fact that we are capable of recognizing this lies a nearly infinite potential to get better and to keep getting better. Nerds get this on some subconscious level and as a result we don’t take any success for granted. We go all in.
In one of my favorite scenes from No Game No Life, the protagonists are challenged to a virtual reality game in the alternate universe that very closely resembles modern Tokyo from our universe. Upon arriving in what appears to be the real world, the two go full hikikomori and break down immediately, paralyzed by anxiety.
They were supremely confident in a fantasy world where they felt like life was just a game, effortlessly multi-tasking and running their kingdom like it was a game of Civilization, but as soon as they were put back into realistic surroundings, they melted into pitiful wretches incapable of doing anything with themselves. They have to remind themselves that it’s just a game with a setting that resembles real life like Persona, Stein’s Gate, or Akiba’s Trip (a scene complete with character cameos) to even be able to function again.
And that’s the paradox of gamer empowerment: even though we are fully capable of incredible feats of mental concentration and hand-eye coordination when it comes to fantasy fun, there’s something in our heads that simply will not allow us to apply this potential to real life. The uncontrolled chaos of human interaction is our kryptonite. Being surrounded by people whose actions routinely have no discernible rhyme or reason is too much for us to ply our trade as it triggers our innate anxiety, the annoying little brother of fear, the mind-killer. The best we can do is eke out a living faking it just long enough to get back to what we really want to be doing.
That’s not to say that lessons I’ve learned from a lifetime of gaming aren’t applicable to real life. There’s this new time clock at my work that was placed right next to the old one. The old one has good old-fashioned buttons and the new one is a touch screen that doesn’t seem to work well so everybody avoids it and the frustration that comes with it. So every day at shift changes there’s a line at the old time clock while the new one sits by itself like a giant mousetrap waiting to ensnare the fingers (and time) of any fools who dare touch it.
A normal person sees the mousetrap and avoids it, but a gamer just sees free cheese and a challenge. If what we’re trying isn’t working, we try something else until we’ve mastered the problem. After a minute or so of playing around, I found that if I use only the tip of my fingernail rather than my fingertip on the touch screen, the new time clock works just fine, and now this gamer gets a free pass to the front of the line every day while everybody looks on, baffled. A little experimentation goes a long way, and looking at the big picture I may have just taken the first of many steps in bringing No Game No Life’s theory of gamer empowerment to fruition in the real world. Soon I shall rule this realm. See you in the White House, n00bs.