Escapism and Healing in Recovery of an MMO Junkie

By: Alex Henderson December 22, 20172 Comments

SPOILERS: Detailed discussion of the entire Recovery of an MMO Junkie series.

Recovery of an MMO Junkie is a bit of a misleading title. Looking at this romantic comedy by name and genre alone, it seems at first to be about its geeky protagonist, Morioka Moriko, getting pried away from her addiction to online games and finding happiness (and perhaps some good ol’ romance) in the real world. Instead, MMO Junkie gives us a story about finding happiness and fulfillment through online games, using their safe zone of community and anonymity as a foothold to regain emotional confidence. More importantly, it gives us Moriko herself, a complex, flawed, and likable female protagonist who provides valuable representation for adult women with geeky interests, as well as a moving personal story about anxiety and recovery.

The series opens with an exhausted Moriko arriving home after quitting her office job, collapsing into bed looking utterly drained and dejected. Moriko soon settles into her new unemployed existence: she signs up for Fruits de Mer, an online swords-and-sorcery RPG, where she designs her in-game avatar to be “the perfect hot guy” and sets off into the brightly-colored virtual world of level grinding and dungeon raiding.

A young man wearing a long jacket and armband stands in an open field. He lifts his arms to the sky, smiling. Subtitles: "Nothing makes me feel more at home than an MMO!"

Soon the downtrodden, anxiety-stricken office drone we first met gives way to a much more expressive, comfortable, and happy Moriko. This is largely due to the community she finds online, particularly through her friendship and mutual crush with the healer character Lily. By the magnetic pull of internal rom-com logic, Lily’s player—a man named Sakurai Yuta—and Moriko run into each other on the street (literally) and shenanigans ensue.

The romance that blooms over the course of the series is sweet, but it’s just one aspect of the show. At its heart, MMO Junkie is Moriko’s story of recovery, from the distraught emotional place where we first found her to one where she begins to regain her balance, with one foot in the real world and one foot in the virtual.

Anime is rife with geeky, introverted characters, be they comedic caricatures or beloved self-aware nods to the otaku fandom watching. Moriko immediately stands out in that she is a geeky anime protagonist and a thirty-year-old woman—an underrepresented demographic, despite the number of adult women that love the medium as well as video games. Though it’s the source of a lot of self-deprecating humor, Moriko’s combined status as a stay-at-home gamer and a woman in her thirties never makes her the butt of the joke. Even though she’s a mess and she knows it, the audience is always encouraged to laugh with her rather than at her.

Moriko is a flawed, dynamic character, a rare case of an anime woman who is permitted to be a human disaster without camera angles or character design clamoring to make her cute or sexy. Nor is Moriko just the cool geeky girlfriend to an otaku protagonist or a one-note joke character, but the hero of her own story.

A woman lays on her bed, hugging a cat-eared body pillow. She is smiling wide and blushing. Subtitles: "I'm just so happy."

Whether you’re looking at online discourse about how adults don’t belong in fandom or the glut of series about nerdy teenagers, there’s a perception that geekiness must halt at a certain age. There’s also a perception that women can’t geek out as much as men/boys in the first place, or that their geekiness is somehow less valid, or incorrect. Moriko’s sympathetic portrayal as an adult, geeky woman coping with anxiety is refreshing, and it’s plain to see why Moriko’s story has resonated with so many people.

Finding Moriko in the state she’s in when the series starts, it’s immensely rewarding watching her slowly gain confidence and happiness through her deep dive into her new hobby and the relationships she forms there. As Sakurai says late in the series, an MMO is a place where you can be alone, but not lonely—an introvert’s dream, and the ideal space for Moriko to escape after being ground down by her stressful working life. Not only is Moriko’s story a moving tale about the healing power of fandom spaces, it’s a rare feminine twist on the narrative of finding a new home in a virtual world.

That she finds this new home while playing a male character is significant as well. As Dee speculated in the AniFem premiere review, MMO Junkie doesn’t spend any time actually exploring gender identity, but it does explore gender presentation through both Moriko’s real-life and Lily’s online interactions with others. This adds a unique element to the narrative of online escapism.

A woman with long hair wearing sweats kneels on all fours as if cleaning something on the floor, wearing an expression of comical horror. Large text splashes across the screen reading "The thirties! And a woman!"

While Moriko wanting to play as a cute guy character may not be an expression or exploration of her gender identity, it’s still a relevant detail that tells us about her character and backstory. Being a woman in the real, modern world is a large source of Moriko’s anxiety. She’s insecure about her age, as shown by self-deprecating jokes about her being “an old maid” and ever-comedic flashes of text that horrifically read THE THIRTIES.

The societal expectations of performing feminine beauty have worn her down and made her insecure about her appearance as well. She nervously scans the makeup aisle at the drugstore as she prepares for her date with Koiwai, snarks at her flaws in the mirror, and apologizes to Sakurai for not being cute enough. With a digital persona, Moriko doesn’t have to meet these expectations, and she can quite happily sit, unseen, in sweats and a baggy shirt.

She also doesn’t have to worry about unwanted attention from male players, which is a problem in the game that Lily experiences (ironically while being played by a man, who generally wouldn’t have to deal with that in real life). Lily’s harassment only stops when she enters a fake relationship with Kanbe, a male player. Moriko, though sympathetic when she hears about this, is glad she’s avoided it by playing with a male avatar.

A pink-haired girl looks flustered and overwhelmed as the rest of the frame is filled with text bubbles in Japanese. Subtitles: "Hey, hey!" "My waifu!" "You're so cute, Lily-san."

Although Moriko chose to play as “the ultimate hot guy” for fun, the online persona she builds also reflects deeper worries. Her desire to hide her true identity online speaks to perceptions about adult women “not belonging” in geeky spaces and implies Moriko is aware of them and wants to avoid being judged or chased out by her new online friends. When one of her guildmates guesses she’s in college, Moriko is so mortified that she agrees, creating an increasingly elaborate false history in order to keep her true age, gender, and NEET status concealed while still being able to talk about her problems with her friends.

This conflicting desire for acceptance and connection while also retaining anonymity is a familiar struggle to a lot of people who socialize online, but it’s not a narrative I’ve seen embodied in these specifically gendered terms before. It adds a layer of nuance and social commentary to the otherwise shenanigans-based plotline of Moriko playing a guy online. Not having to deal with the pressures that come with cultural expectations of feminine beauty or society’s entitlement to women’s attention is as much fantastical escapism as fighting monsters in a magical land.

At the bottom of the image, a woman in a winter coat faces away from a man, her head down. The man stands on the opposite end of the frame, also wearing a coat and looking up in shock. Above them is a simplified image of the woman wearing a sweats and looking anxious. Surrounding her is an army of text boxes pointing at very parts of her figure. There are too many to list, but they say things like "Zero femininity," "No real fashion sense," "Unwanted hair," "Doesn't do the laundry," and so on.

This vein of seriousness and melancholy is mixed in with MMO Junkie’s humor from the very beginning. Moriko has nightmares about being swept up in a faceless tide of corporate employees and fed to a machine, and reacts in panic to the alarm that would usually wake her for work. When she interacts with the real world, her clear instinct is to retreat deep into a shell of self-deprecation and shyness, becoming a ground-down version of herself that’s very different to the effervescent, emotive person she is in front of her computer.

The show’s opening credits are full of imagery of Moriko being alone ad seeming lost, somehow outside the world of normal human interaction and not quite sure how to get in. These glimpses into Moriko’s old life and the isolating stress and anxiety she deals with daily are heartbreaking and believable. But from this low point, Moriko grows and gradually finds her feet in the real world, using the reserves of strength and positivity Fruits de Mer has given her.

A close-up of a short-haired woman's face in profile. She is looking up slightly and appears determined. Subtitles: "I'm going to take a step forward."

Moriko finds joy in her online friendship with Lily and the other guild members, but she also starts having more positive face-to-face interactions thanks to Fruits de Mer. For example, the clerk at the convenience store where she goes to buy gift cards strikes up a conversation about the game, which he also plays. It’s a moving little scene about two people self-consciously but delightedly coming out of their shells over a shared interest, as Moriko engages in one of her first comfortable offline interactions since she quit her job.

By gaining confidence and advice from her online friends, she can later enjoy going out on a date, and having the safe space of the MMO to come home to afterwards allows her to ground herself and work off her anxiety. When she wants to reconnect with an old online friend, she summons the courage to call somebody on the phone—something she was terrified of at the beginning of the series.

It’s not a miraculous turnaround by any means, mind you. At the end of the series, Moriko still struggles with anxiety. However, that makes Moriko’s personal arc even more realistic and resonant. One relationship, online or offline, cannot “cure” severe self-esteem issues or social anxiety, but it can help form a support network and a comfort zone from which one can try and grow.

By diving into the virtual world and the community therein, Moriko found the happiness and stability needed to begin putting herself back together. Through the safe space of online friendships, Moriko could connect with people and regain some social confidence, eventually leading to a point where she can become emotionally intimate with Sakurai.

A close-up of a young man in a cloak and a young woman in a round hat with pink bows on the side. Both are blushing and laughing.

The ending is not a “happily ever after” so much as the hopeful beginnings of something new, both for their romance and for Moriko herself, who resolves to move forward and do her best. The phrasing “I want to get better so that Sakurai-san isn’t embarrassed to be with me” leans towards the narrative that Moriko’s only trying to recover so she can be attractive to a man, but there’s a sense that this is her self-esteem issues talking rather than the doctrine of the show itself. (It also helps that Sakurai vocally accepts and supports her current lifestyle, so even if he does serve as a motivating force for her, it’s still framed as a decision she makes on her own.) Recovery of an MMO Junkie is very much Moriko’s own success story, encouraging the audience to laugh and cry with her, and cheer her on.

Moriko was a likable character from the get-go, but this personal arc makes her an important one, too: it argues that stories about finding family and healing in fandom and hobbies know no gender or age limit; it never shames her for her interests or anxieties; and it shows that recovery is possible even if everything initially feels hopeless. It’s an important message for everyone, but especially for women who face the same problems and pressures as Moriko and rarely see themselves represented in fiction in such a sympathetic, nuanced, and funny way.

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