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True love: Hardcore gaming in The World God Only Knows

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When you think about a good genre to examine the life of a video-game fan, you probably wouldn’t consider a Japanese comedy about a boy trying to get girls to fall in love with him. That is the premise of The World God Only Knows, a manga and anime series whose second season is currently airing on Crunchyroll. While the show is lighthearted, it also delves into the life of a hardcore gamer.  

Keima is a high-school student who is obsessed with dating sims, text-driven "visual novels" that are rarely seen in the West. He takes pride in his ability to seduce any virtual lady, and people online know him as the “God of Conquest.” He accidentally joins forces with Elise, a demon girl on the hunt for souls trapped in the bodies of his classmates. The only way to free the souls is for Keima to charm the girls and capture their hearts. It's not as bad as it sounds, as his romances generally translate into helping them overcome their emotional baggage. In other words, the game is now real.

One of the best aspects of this show is that it actually portrays its protagonist as an unadulterated enthusiast — sometimes even a dangerously obsessive one. Ever since Captain N: The Game Master, the protagonist of most gaming-themed series tended to be an everyman who we're suppose to believe loves the hobby because he mashes buttons on a controller for a few seconds each episode. By contrast, Keima lives and breathes video games.

 

In The World Only God Knows, it's rare that Keima isn't playing his PlayStation Portable. His eyes stay glued to the screen during classes, while eating, and even in the middle of important plot points. He complains about how he’ll never buy a title from a particular developer again, only to shift his stance to never buying a special edition from it again. Keima actually despises his new job, as the “crappy game” of the real world gets in the way of his virtual utopia.

The World God Only Knows

But this devotion has consequences. His classmates consider him a nerdy recluse, both to his face and in passing remarks. More disheartening is that while he aces all his tests, Keima doesn’t exhibit any interests beyond gaming, and his teachers have given up on him.

The demon girl Elise acts as Keima's dimwitted and insultingly doting sidekick, but eventually, even she asks him if he ever worries that he’s wasting his life away playing video games. His own mother at one point tells herself that he’s “a good person at heart, but everything else is rotten.” Keima claims that he’s fine with his lifestyle, but his reaction to getting derided by one of his classmates shows that he definitely likes the escapism the medium provides. “The real world is full of contradictions," he says. "Nothing good ever happens when I try hard in the real world.”

That isn’t to say Keima is a wholly negative portrayal of our hobby. For instance, he treats rooting out demons from the girls like detective cases. His talent is a sort of manipulation, but he genuinely admires the drive to succeed that his classmates have and doesn't lust after them. While the dating-sim logic he uses to romance them works more often than it should, it at least shows an ability to think critically and predict cause and effect.

The World God Only Knows

One episode in particular stands out. Keima is trying to finish a game that freezes at one spot unless he picks the exact order of choices that will let him pass. Keima works through dialogue trees and puts up with game-breaking bugs based on the belief that it’s not the heroine’s fault that her title sucks, and someone should stick it out till the end. It’s a nice way of showing how players will play through games to the end, even if they know they are awful.

The World Only God Knows isn’t the first anime that studied hardcore fandom, and the very Japanese humor and commentary on dating-sim cliches may make it too niche for Western audiences. Using the genre, however, allows the show to examine the appeal of video games that other formats wouldn't be able to. In real life, Keima is an unlikable dweeb. In "the World God Only Knows," as he calls gaming, he is a beloved champion.


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