You know that feeling where you’re watching kids run around, laughing, and it brings you joy? Or perhaps when your best friend is celebrating a promotion at work, and you feel happy for them? Or, say, when you watch a romantic comedy, or an underdog story, and when the couple kiss or the protagonist overcomes all struggles, you fistpump and/or cheer? There’s a term that encapsulates this feeling, this emotion, which comes from the polyamory circles, and that term is “compersion,” take to mean, “Joy at the joy of others.”
To some degree, one could say that all romantic comedies operate off of our desire to see the couple hit it off, but while some romantic sub-genres (see Harem RomComs, as per my write-up on Nisekoi) work more off of wanting the story to take its “natural pathway,” some shows, such as last season’s Netoju no Susume (or either “Recovery of an MMO Junkie” or “Recommendation of the Wonderful Virtual Life” in English), really do bank on us feeling compersion for the characters, and desiring them to be happy, because our own happiness depends on it (to some degree, don’t get too crazy here).
(This is a Things I Like post, it’s not a review, but more a discussion of the show and of ideas that rose in my mind as a result of watching the show. There will be spoilers for the entire show.)
But wait, how can we feel compersion for people who don’t exist? Why do we feel joy about a story that is not only technically over before we visit it, but where the outcome is a foregone conclusion, as is the case in most romantic stories? Well, luckily for us, the subject matter of Netoju no Susume is actually conducive to answering this question, and is the second prong of this piece. For those who need a short primer, Netoju no Susume revolves around a woman in her thirties who quit her job and is now a NEET (Not in Education, Employment, or Training), who spends her days playing an MMORPG (think World of Warcraft), and the person she meets and their relationships for one another. Oh yeah, she’s playing a man inside the game, and the man she meets outside the game is her female partner inside the game.
Right, people who don’t exist, right? Before we go further, I’d like to take an aside and mention I’ve played in roleplay chatrooms since late 1999 to late 2004. I know multiple couples who met online, going as far as crossing continents to marry. Some of these couples are still facebook friends of mine. I am also familiar with instances where the couple meeting offline had caused a relationship to implode, people who faked their deaths to avoid revealing the truth to one another or because they were emotional vampires, and yes, even people who lied about their sex and gender online. I’m no stranger to internet romance. The question of trust is paramount, but then again, which relationship is it not the paramount question in? And before we close this extended aside, I’d like to note that I was quite happy with all the realistic touches the series interspersed to how such interactions work, both between people, and inside the participants’ heads.
So, here we are. Virtual people. How much of a difference is there between people we meet online, to characters who exist only within a story? Let’s take back. You know the “I was only playing at being a bully!” line? Or, “This person, that has those emotions, it’s not really me?” I’m going to spoil it to you all right here, rather than go through more paragraphs: It’s always you. Now, you’re not just the you of one interaction. You’re the you that is respectful to your parents, but also the one who keys your neighbour’s car. The person who stops to feed stray cats? The person who doesn’t mind honking to people crossing the street slowly? The person who tells himself he could’ve done better if only he tried? You, you, you. It’s always you. It’s all you.
Speaking of “virtual selves,” or “unreal selves,” let’s go for a couple more cases, starting from the more far-fetched to the less far-fetched one. There’s at least one theory that in dreams, all the characters you engage with actually stand in for your own self. Even if that theory doesn’t have much to recommend it, and the value of one’s sleeping dreams (as opposed to daydreams) is questionable. But it brings to mind some theories on how the Self is formed – not through how others perceive us, but through how we perceive others’ perception of us. And so, the “virtual self” is made real, and the others, who are always virtual to us, are real in how they shape us.
The other case would be books. Once more I’m going to go to a quote. “We get out of books what we put in.” Books tell us things about ourselves. It’s a question whether what we get out is what the author put in, but it’s immaterial here. Some of the things we felt but didn’t accept. Other times, a mask we wear might shift as a result of a book. But even to just see the book in different ways, to analyze and relate to the characters, already demands a certain point of contact between us and them. We can’t actually gain much out of characters we share no points of contact, no perspective, no masks with. Gatchaman Crowds is a show I love deeply. One of the reasons I like it so much is how many different angles you can approach it from. My first write-up on the first season approached it from the perspective of masks. Masks are like identities. Masks are like other people. That is to say, masks are a prism through which we approach things, and through which others approach us.
But approach is not the self. There’s still only one person underneath. That’s you, remember? This is very relevant to people who try to convince themselves of something, such as our two protagonists in the anime. Sakurai, the man, tries to convince himself that he can detach himself emotionally from Moriko (the real-life woman), while Lily (his character) can still remain sort of emotionally involved with Hayashi (Moriko’s character). He tries to tell himself those feelings of warmth and camaraderie he felt while playing with Moriko aren’t for her, but for her character. But just as Lily is him, Hayashi is Moriko. There are no two sets of people here, just two sets of masks, worn by a single set of people.
Moriko, well, she presents one face to the outside world, one that is withdrawn, after being burnt, while being thankful of her online friends. I don’t even need to spell it out here. Moriko needed the support she now receives online from the people who surrounded her at her old job. Not getting it, she had to run away. It’s not two people who act differently based on the social context, but the same person who is freed to act differently based on the support they receive – based on the mask they are presented from without.
So, compersion? I guess I’ll tie it up for those who still need it. I’ll be using another old idiom to do so, obviously. “You need to love yourself before you can love others,” or “You need to love yourself before you can accept others’ love.” In light of this piece, both of them are sort of the same, aren’t they? It’s all about masks. You love others because you love how you see them in yourself, and how you see yourself in them. You love fictional characters and gain joy in their joy, because there is only one joy. Because you see yourself in them, and see them in you, or in a mask you could wear. You feel joy, because it is joyous. There is no separation. There is just joy.
Compersion is used as a word that is opposite to jealousy. What is jealousy if not the inability to reconcile others with yourself? The claim that their masks and your mask, or your “real” face, do not actually align?
There are no virtual people. You’re always you. And the characters you love, and love loving? Are real in the only way that matters, as a mask to mirror you, and as an object of your directed emotions.
So, dear readers, how do you relate to the reality of fictional characters? How do you relate to your virtual friends? What do you think about the similarities and differences between these two groups?
With the above piece done, I’d like to take the space for a couple of other things. First, the blog had gained its donation goal (to cover the costs involved in running it over the past 8.5 years), and I’m thankful in the extreme. To all donors, readers, commentators, and friends.
Second, you’ll note that the promised Anime Season Preview post did not materialize. I realized I need at least two weeks to get it done, and I just couldn’t find the time. Also, while I think I added a different approach and depth of research to the analysis than most, it didn’t feel like content unique to me, and it became dated very quickly. I chose to spend my time writing posts that are “Guy-pieces.” This is the first such piece I’ve written in about a year and a half, and such pieces fill me with joy for years to come. Expect more of them, soon.
Now, I’d like to say that while I covered two topics in the above piece, I also wanted to cover the topic of “Adult Romance in Anime,” but I chose to not have another piece that takes over 3,000 words, and that topic more than merits its own space. I’d like to say that watching this show filled me with warmth and joy, and I enjoyed it. The side-characters didn’t get enough space, the voice acting and animation weren’t anything spectacular, and the plot took to pausing to not run into the conclusion too quickly. And yet, the show delivered on its two protagonists, and as someone with much experience both in online romance, and MMORPGs, both the characters involved felt real (again, except for a few moments where they were turned into pre-teens to stop plot progression), and the world around them felt real in its virtuality. I can easily recommend this show to all audiences.
Finally, if you’d like an older, and exquisitely-done story about online identities and romance, check out Veritgo’s USER mini-series. It’s darker, but also hopeful. It’s about the days of IRC-esque roleplaying rooms, and it’s just really good.
P.S. Thanks to Itai, my friend who introduced me to the term “Compersion.” I like it. It’s useful, and pretty.
I agree that it’s very useful to have a word for the concept of taking joy in others’ joy, but I’m not sure the neologism “compersion” is really the best term with which to discuss it in a serious or academic context. In fact, we already have a word for this very thing: “mudita,” taken from the Sanskrit word for joy. (Of course, I realize that to most readers “mudita” is no more recognizable than “compersion,” but when in doubt, I always tend to go for the word with the most precedent.)
Well, usage will decide. I think “Compersion” being more English sounding is going to win out, and it’s getting support from an existing community.
But! I am glad to learn of yet another word that can be useful in said manner. I mean, it’s not like having synonyms, all stolen from other languages, is something English is short of ;-)
Also, glad you liked the piece. A bit messy, but drawn with broad strokes, and we need to take the rust off in some way. Also migraines and such. So I’m glad it worked out! :)
Cool article and topic matter! I was really fascinated by how the main characters pour all their ideal selves into their in-game avatars, not feeling they’re like their characters at all (but they’re able to see the other like that)
Which is why I thought it was really symbolic at the end when Lily and Hayashi, their “reflections” separated from them as they finally go off together, stepping forward to begin a more intimate relationship. It’s not that they’re completely detached from their avatars, but they’re at the point where they no longer feel they could only be comfortably close by relying on their online personas, their “ideal selves”. It’s now “Moriaka and Sakurai first, who also have intimate relationship online as Hayashi and Lily”, and not vice versa. The two are gonna be just fine as they accept their real Self, because as Moriko says, Sakurai already accepts her for all she is. Mirrored so by how we see Lily breaking the mirror and taking Hayashi to walk the opposite direction.
I hope that made sense! I enjoy interpreting MMO Junkie from a Jungian self perspective. .
[…] Netoju no Susume – On Compersion and Virtual Identities – Another MMO Junkie analysis, this time looking into the phenomena of empathy for and identification with fictional characters, and how this influences both the audience watching the series and the how the characters within the series navigate their online relationships. […]
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