I can’t seem to count how many times I heard the phrase “reality and the game are separate!” while watching Netoge no Yome wa Onnanoko ja Nai to Omotta (or just Netoge for short). For those unfamiliar with the show, Netoge is a light novel adaptation following high school student Hideki Nishimura and his Alley Cats Guild friends in their Net Game Club. Hideki Nishimura and Ako Tamaki, the central protagonists, have strong, differing views of how they exist in and outside of their MMO of choice, Legend Age. Ako sees the world of the game and “reality” (let’s call them the digital world and the physical world, respectively), as one in the same. Hideki sees it as the opposite: that the physical and digital worlds are separate. Although I don’t think either of them really hit the issue square on the head, and the show tends to skirt around any conversations about this that could be pretty cool or enlightening, I’m actually inclined to agree with both Ako and Hideki to some degree.
It’s pretty easy to hop on board with Hideki’s claim that the physical and the digital are separate because, in some sense, this seems like a pretty basic observation. Legend Age is a game in the world of Netoge, and it would be pretty difficult for someone to argue that the two are literally the same. It would be like someone trying to argue that, say, Runescape’s world of Gielinor and the physical world are the same thing, which they quite clearly are not. Hideki’s attempts to separate the physical and the digital goes beyond simple geographic, tangible differences, though. When Hideki says that “reality and the game are separate,” the implication is that all aspects of the physical and digital worlds are separate—physical, emotional, and otherwise. To Hideki, relationships in the digital world are in their own category that is distinct from those of physical world relationships, and can go about as far as simply being friends. Anything beyond a relationship of that nature is out of the question for him at the outset of the show.
While Hideki has numerous reasons behind his attempt to keep the two worlds separate, his biggest push for this arguably stems from a traumatic past attempt at a romantic relationship in Legend Age. After falling in love with another player in Legend Age, Nekohime-san, and proposing to her, she reveals to Hideki that she is actually a guy cross-playing as a girl character. After some soul searching and a year of solo play, Hideki comes to the conclusion that he can’t truly trust people to that deep of a degree in online games, and that the digital and physical worlds must be kept separate. Hideki does end up marrying his guildmate Ako, though, and he makes his point by saying that for him, he no longer cares if they’re actually a guy or a girl in the physical world. As long as they’re cute in-game, that’s all that matters to him, since he chooses to keep the two separate.
Since we see that Hideki has made a conscious decision to not put any significant stock in the physicality of the people playing Legend Age with him, then we can look at Hideki’s perspective on his relationship with Ako: in Legend Age, Hideki and Ako are a married couple, but outside of the game, Hideki perceives the two of them as merely friends (though later, he does begin to develop feelings for Ako). Another way to phrase or consider this is that, to Hideki, it is Rusian, his Legend Age avatar, who is married to Ako (by this I mean Ako’s in-game avatar, which just so happens to share her physical-world name), and since the physical and digital worlds are separate, that has no actual effect on his physical existence. Interestingly enough, Hideki keeps hold of this separation of the two worlds even as he develops his own romantic feelings for Ako in the physical world—he does ask Ako to be his girlfriend at one point, and he is able to do this because his feelings for Ako have developed separately from his feelings for her in Legend Age. It is this separation of feelings that allows Hideki to ask Ako out, despite his statement of “reality and the game are separate.”
We have a fairly good idea of where Hideki stands on the idea of online identity by now: that you can have relationships with people in the digital world, but those relationships are separate from those that develop in the physical world. Though I would not necessarily say that Ako’s perception of online identity is the exact opposite of Hideki’s, it is vastly different in that she sees no distinction between the physical and the digital world. Again, it should be clarified that Ako also does not believe that the two are physically the same. She does realize that Legend Age is a game, and that its world is not physically the same as the physical world. She does believe, however, that relationships in the physical and digital world have no separation.
One way to look at Ako’s perception of online and offline identity is to start with the basics and consider her Legend Age character. While the rest of the Alley Cats Guild crew’s avatars are seen in the first episode to be either completely different (Akane and Kyou) or somewhat different (Hideki) from their offline, physical selves in appearance, Ako’s avatar is basically indistinguishable from her physical self. To further this, Ako even used her actual name for her Legend Age avatar, making both her physical and digital representations “Ako.” Since she made her in-game avatar indistinguishable from herself in name and appearance, we see that Ako essentially sees no distinction between the two worlds.
Ako’s fusion of the physical and digital worlds comes especially into play when it comes to matters regarding herself and Hideki. Since Ako sees physical and digital selves as one and the same, that also extends to her relationships in the two worlds, as well. Since she is married to Hideki (or Rusian, as she is apt to call him) in Legend Age, Ako perceives that the two of them are married in the physical world, as well. It’s not just a semantic thing, either; she literally believes that the two of them are married. She believes this so firmly that when Hideki eventually asks her to be his girlfriend in the physical world, she refuses because, as she states, “going from wife to girlfriend [is] a demotion.” Ako’s refusal for a standard boyfriend/girlfriend relationship in the physical world does not come from a lack of emotional feelings for Hideki in the physical world, then—it comes from an overflow of those emotions.
So here, we have a bit of an impasse. Ako and Hideki are both invested in their relationship in their own way. It is clear that they both have a sense of romantic attraction for one another, but they both view the status of their relationship differently due to how they view their senses of self in the physical and digital worlds. Hideki has romantic feelings for Ako and wishes to pursue a romantic relationship in the physical world, beyond the marriage that they have in Legend Age, which he feels is completely separate from a potential romantic relationship they could have in the physical world. Ako has romantic feelings for Hideki as well, but from her perspective, these feelings are already satisfied because of their marriage in Legend Age, which she perceives as the same as being married in the physical world. Because of their conflicting ideas about online and offline identity (and because of plot magic), the two of them are prevented from pursuing a more typical physical-world relationship.
Now, like I said earlier, I don’t think either Ako or Hideki are necessarily 100% right or wrong about their own perspectives on the matter of identity. To me, both of them hit on aspects of online and offline identity that, when combined, make up a sense of how I approach the topic of the blending or separation of these identities. By that same turn, though, I think both of them also have some perceptions and ideas about these matters of identity that I think miss the mark. So let’s talk about those a bit.
Let’s just go ahead and address the most obvious point to take issue with: Ako’s all-encompassing “reality and the game are the same” perception. I don’t have an issue with the idea of the physical and the digital world having some overlap in regards to our relationships and identities (as I’ll talk about in a bit). What I do take issue with is the extent to which Ako takes this overlap, namely her thought that since she and Hideki are married in Legend Age, they are married in the physical world, too. I’m pretty sure that shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, considering that Ako’s disproportionate confusion of the physical and digital worlds is basically Netoge’s main driving plot point. I probably shouldn’t have to explain why this idea is bonkers, but just because you are married in an online game does not mean you are married to that person in the physical world, as well, and vice versa. Though online relationships could certainly get to that kind of actual emotional level, it does not make it a legally binding agreement akin to a marriage in the physical world. Along those same lines, I can’t say that I fully agree with Hideki’s claim that “reality and the game are separate” to the degree that he seems to argue. Part of this is because, as I just mentioned above, it is entirely possible that people can form meaningful bonds and relationships through digital world interactions like Legend Age and other net games. Really, though, Ako and Hideki’s differing viewpoints are supposed to be polar opposites here, because were they not, it might not stir up the same kind of conflict that Netoge wants to evoke through its story.
If you step back from these polarized viewpoints that Netoge presents through Hideki and Ako and instead look at them as sums of different, smaller viewpoints, there is quite a lot of interesting details that we can gather from each side’s perspective. Really, though, a lot of this comes down to one’s own perspective of online and offline identity, and how each person is going to have their own specific way of approaching these identities.
So, for example, I do think that it is entirely possible for someone to keep “reality and the game” separate. As online games currently stand, it’s easy to pick a game up, dive into an MMO, and experience it as a solo funfest, using your avatar not as a conduit to communicate with others, but just as a vehicle for experiencing the game. You could easily pick up, say, Maplestory and solo your way through the game, completely ignoring everyone around you, despite the fact that it is, by nature of being an MMO, a social game, to a degree. But if you want to keep things separate to the degree that you don’t communicate at all with others, you can do that! You could also pick it up, join a guild, make friends, and enjoy the game that way without having any relationships built up beyond those of friends in the game which don’t carry over and affect your life in the physical world.
By contrast, it is also entirely possible for people to experience the game to the degree that “reality and the game” are one and the same. Much like how you can pick up an MMO and approach your avatar as little more than your way to get around the game, it is also entirely possible for players to become largely invested in their avatars and treat them as extensions of themselves. By using one’s avatar as an extension of one’s self in the physical world, online games can potentially open up further possibilities for forming meaningful bonds that players might not have the opportunity to form otherwise. Both Ako and Hideki invest themselves in their avatars to differing degrees, whether they register it or not, and one good spot to examine this is during the brief time in which Hideki’s account gets hacked. During this time, the hacker attempts to have Ako engage in “couple’s talk” with him while using Hideki’s avatar of Rusian. However, even though they were only engaging in conversation through text, Ako was able to discern that Rusian, at that time, was not Hideki. That kind of discernment came about largely because Ako had come to know and understand Hideki as a person almost exclusively through their interactions in Legend Age via text. In this sense, Ako and Hideki’s investment into their avatars in Legend Age was so profound that it was clear when their avatars were not representing their proper selves, per se.
Even the other Alley Cats and supporting characters in the show represent their own degrees of investment in their online identities. For example, despite having a harem of admirers in-game, Yui (Nekohime-san) has no actual interest in developing any hugely meaningful relationships in-game, and seems to view it as more of just a fun thing to do and an escape from reality. To a degree, this seems to be the case with Kyou and Akane (Master and Schwein), as they both seem to play the game mainly with the game itself in mind, but they do work to make meaningful relationships with their friends and guildmates.
Though I would say there are a few exceptions (like if you’re married in the game, you’re married for real), I would ultimately argue that there really isn’t a right or wrong way to approach identity in the physical and digital worlds and their potential overlap. As Netoge seems to show, there can be as many perspectives on it as there are MMO players, and it really boils down to how much you want to actually invest your personal self into your online games. Although Netoge never seems to go as far as I wish it would with discussions of online identity and the overlap of the physical and digital worlds, I do think it does a good job of presenting its viewers with a variety of perspectives on how people approach their forays into online games. I wouldn’t really say that Netoge is a great show (because it definitely has problems that weren’t pertinent to this particular discussion), but I do think it gives us a lot to think about how we approach the relationships and bonds we can form in these different worlds.