The Unprogrammable: The border between “Simulation fiction” and “simulation fantasy”

Since first watching the Digimon: Digital Monsters series in 1999, I’ve been fascinated by the appealing science fiction and science fantasy behind the series.

But with growth in the application of virtual/augmented reality since that time, the number of works of fiction which dramatize virtual/augmented reality has greatly expanded.

One thing I’ve noticed is how a growing number of anime series are set in the drama of players logging into and playing inside MMORPGs. Most often, these series are intended as vehicles for the accompanying MMO franchise, while others are more interested in dramatizing the impact of the MMO – and the means by which the MMO is accessed – impacts the players’ offline lives and relationships.

But it is in this setting that one can find an interesting two-fold phenomenon:

  1. even though a debatable majority of MMORPGs like those depicted in these anime series are “fantasy”-oriented, the series themselves rarely lend themselves to what would quantify as “fantasy” plotlines; and
  2. it technically would not take much for such an anime series to cross the threshold to a “fantasy” plotline, only needing some event or manifestation which does not arise from, but interferes with, the MMO setting.

As far as genres are concerned, the specific niche occupied by works like Sword Art Online, Log Horizon, the .HACK series, Accel World and others which have straddled the fence between fantasy/sword-and-sorcery and science-fiction genres should be allowed to occupy their own specific genre of fiction. These works involve the trappings of sword-and-sorcery fantasy, except that they take place on a real-world-located server or network of servers which allow for programmed (and programmable) “acts of magic” or defiance of the laws of physics to take place.

At the same time, the configuration-centric and usually gameified mechanisms of the virtual world may serve as the means of propulsion and motion for the plot, the presence in-world of artificial intelligence with self-operative autonomy and the means of accessing magic adds a degree of unpredictability and complexity which pushes this niche away from too much of an overriding real-world basis.

It is this combination of a virtual world hosting a sword-and sorcery setting with autonomous AI which makes the border between “simulation fiction” and “simulation fantasy” such a seemingly-random, but critical border.

Breaking it down

With the above, I’m saying that we should understand and appreciate this border within our fictive depictions of virtual reality.

Through works of simulation fiction, we understand that MMORPGs demonstrate the capacity of our ability to program fictional universes of our own making into a virtual existence, to have control over how a virtual universe operates and affects the players, and – in the instance of our losing control over the functions of this universe through bad code or security flaws – how we try to correct errors in the universe through the coding of solutions or the “patching of the hull” of the MMORPG universe.

But through works of simulation fantasy, we could entertain the thought that MMORPGs could have moments in which an agent or event can manifest inside the MMORPG environment without originating from an outside player or being coded as an NPC, agents which are not programmed nor programmable by human fingers but which will affect the human players in mysterious, indelible ways.

And we could entertain the fact that a work from the former genre transforms into the latter as soon as that non-programmed agent, that uncontrollable force, enters the picture.

It could be an alien, or a highly-evolved and suddenly self-aware AI, or even a ghost of a dead player?

What else would potentially constitute the “unprogrammable” in a programmed environment?

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