Recently, IBM has announced that they will be creating a VR MMORPG based on the hit anime Sword Art Online, called Sword Art Online: New Beginning. It’s the first major step into making fully immersive virtual reality games, like those shown in anime and science fiction books. While players won’t be placing their consciousness into the game and “live” it, it comes pretty close, with a VR headset, full body motion controls and a 3D body scan that transforms your real life appearance into your avatar.

It’s all very cool for gamers, but this game could be the key to helping a lot of people, especially  Japan’s reclusive population labeled the “Hikikomori.”

What are Hikikomori?

Some of Japan’s adults and adolescents are abandoning friends, family, work, and society, choosing to live as hermits in their bedrooms. Hikikomori in Japanese means “pulling inward; being confined,” which properly shows the attitude and actions of these people. A few hikikomori are able to work in their isolation, but most rely on parents or spouses to support them in their self imposed isolation. Most believe that people become hikikomori to escape the pressures of life or that they feel a lack of purpose in working or going to school, so they turn to entertainment and isolation.  

This withdrawal from the outside world is gradual, with people slowly losing touch with friends, avoiding social interactions, and gradually dropping away from the outside world. Many fill their days reading manga, watching shows, surfing the internet and playing video games instead of having to deal with the hassles and pressures of the world. During this time, they slowly lose important social skills and stop contributing to their society.

Hikikomori are becoming a huge issue for Japan, economically and culturally. While numbers vary, some experts believe there is about one million hikikomori in Japan, accounting for 1% of the population. That may seem like a small percent, but this is one million people who aren’t taking care of themselves, placing additional burdens on others and on Japan’s already struggling financial system.

How Can Sword Art Online: New Beginning Help?

Many hikikomori purposely avoid physical interactions, but are comfortable with limited online relationships. This includes talking in a chat room, playing online games, or being on social media. They feel comfortable because it maintains a disconnect between them and the rest of the world. It’s easy to talk with somebody online because it’s through a computer monitor and without any type of pressure. If they don’t like what is being said, they can leave and do something else.

To bring these isolated people back, it has to be a gradual process, just like their journey to becoming hikikomori was. They can’t be forced back into normal life because they’ll simply retreat back to isolation, so they need to be coaxed. With IBM’s VR game, it helps bridge the gap between the real world and isolation. With player’s avatars reflecting their real selves and being able to interact with others, it can help people re-develop their social skills and ease back into a social life.

Help Them Get Healthy

A major problem for hikikomori is that they develop both mental and physical ailments as a result of their isolation. Their lack of exercise, proper nutrition and adequate sunlight, coupled with depression and other mental diseases, leads to serious health problems. To solve this, both mental and physical problems need to be addressed. In fact, there is evidence that solving mental health issues directly correlates to improving physical health.

Sword Art Online: New Beginning can give hikikomori the ability to develop meaningful relationships with others and even get the help they need. This game could be a tool for therapists to reach out and meet with hikikomori in a setting of their choosing. They can work through their problems and slowly make progress to returning to normal life. Alongside this ability, the game runs on motion controls, meaning players will get some exercise, which will help them feel better about themselves and get endorphins pumping in their blood.  

More Work To Be Done

A single video game isn’t going to bring all of Japan’s reclusive population back, but it’s a step in the right direction. Just like Nintendo’s Miitomo mobile app, it gives hikikomori an outlet to communicate without feeling pressured. It will be a long process until these people are brought back to society, but companies are getting the right idea. A big obstacle to helping these people is that they and their families are ashamed to talk about it and won’t get them help. If companies can help hikikomori slowly come back, it might give hope to their families and friends and provide them with tools to help their reclusive loved ones.

What do you think? Are you excited for Sword Art Online: New Beginning? Do you think it will be useful to hikikomori? Let us know in the comments below.