Love it or hate it, it can’t be denied that Sword Art Online grew into one of the largest anime phenomenon in recent time. Set in a world similar to ours, it attempts to explore the intricacies of developing technologies and the consequences of ultra-immersive virtual reality (to varying degrees of success)

One of my favorite characters in the entire series is Sinon, and her debut made her seem like a strong, independent, sophisticated character that would be unbound from Kirito’s harem. Of course, in that aspect I was completely wrong – she did eventually degrade into just another name in Kirito’s list of girls that fawn over him, but her strong start and background can’t be overlooked. She remains as one of the most sophisticated characters in Sword Art Online to date.

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One of the things that define Sinon’s character is her incredible fear of guns. The show doesn’t hide this either – it explicitly shows an event that traumatized Sinon to the point where a simple finger gun can send her nerves running. Clearly, there is something seriously worrying about her reaction, especially considering how we were introduced being the amazing sniper she was.

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So let’s break down Sinon’s psychological issues, and see what happened, what she did to mitigate it, and if it worked or not.

What happened to her, anyway?

Sinon’s aversion to guns didn’t come out of nowhere. She had a traumatic experience that kickstarted her fear of guns. She was put in a situation where she was forced to react to an armed robber threatening her life by taking his gun and shooting him. Despite still being incredibly young, Sinon pulled the trigger and knocked away the attacker – which was, as we would probably agree, a pretty rational reaction.

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However, this event left Sinon traumatized and with a fear of all firearms. She did shoot someone, and the mental image of that continues to haunt her until the present day. The mere sight of a gun would stir up emotions, and memories of that event would all come back to her in a violent flood.

Evidently, this is a clear sign of PTSD – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. To grossly oversimplify, PTSD is a serious cognitive disorder where an individual fails to mentally recover from a terrifying event. These events can vary from a car accident to witnessing natural disaster to being physically abused by somebody else. Thus, when a stimulus that reminds the individual of the event comes into play, they will undergo stress related reactions, like panic attacks, immediate retreat, or in some extreme cases, fainting on the spot.

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Sinon has clearly developed a very deep fear for the pistol that she used to kill the attacker – she can’t disconnect the idea of guns to the fact that she had to end someone’s life, complete with memories full of blood and gore. The fear of guns, weapons, and armed citizens is called Hoplophobia, and it is extremely difficult to deny that Sinon does have this phobia. At least in the real world outside of GGO, guns are a massive trigger for her, often resulting in a panic attack. Such an emphasized reaction is clear that the event at the post office was incredibly traumatic, and left an impression on her character that she struggled with for the majority of the series.

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These disorders have a serious impact on Sinon’s psyche, to the point where it interferes with her daily life. Thus, she started playing GGO – Gun Gale Online, in an attempt at exposure therapy. That was her answer to the problems – to literally face them. In the process of doing so, she became one of the most feared, talented snipers in the game’s history, even though she didn’t believe in herself.

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So, what is exposure therapy?

Exposure therapy isn’t fictional – it’s an actual real-life treatment. Specifically, it’s a cognitive behavioral therapy technique, and it involves gaining control over the trauma by slowly reintroducing the scenario and the stimuli involved with it to the person so that they can gradually be desensitized to them. If one is haunted by a memory, having it slowly recreated will give them control over the experience. Thus, when they are re-exposed to the experience in real life, their previous mental exercises will assist in how they perceive the event, and therefore, how they react to it.

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Exposure therapy is often used with patients that have PTSD or an extreme phobia, and it takes an incredible amount of commitment and bravery to see the treatment through to the end. Most of the time, progress seems slow, but small steps add up in the end. The commitment is an extremely important aspect to the therapy, as leaving mid-way may sometimes undo the progress done and may traumatize the patient even further.

Here, we see Sinon undergoing her own exposure therapy. She knows it too – she’s doing everything a single step at a time, from a safe distance, until she can finally be accustomed to guns and firearms.

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Gun Gale Online takes place in an entirely virtual universe – nothing there is truly real. This acts as a reassurance to Sinon as it reminds her that no matter what, it’s all a game. She can’t actually kill someone in the virtual world, and there are zero consequences to shooting others in the face. This allows her to take things at her own safe pace. She can play however often she likes, and train with whoever she pleases.

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However, the fact that it’s all virtual can also act as an unhealthy crutch for Sinon. It’s no lie that in the world of GGO, her fear of guns is entirely invisible. She’s shot pistols and sniper rifles as if she were born with them in her hands. Despite that, when bringing it back into the real world, she remains frail and afraid at even the sight of a model gun. She keeps a fake pistol in her drawer to ‘test herself’ once in a while, and even after becoming an incredible online gunslinger, she still struggled to hold the pistol in her hands without experiencing a nauseating panic attack. The fact that she confined her exposure to guns in a world where the real her didn’t exist likely slowed down her treatment immensely – which is why it took Kirito’s intervention to get her to the next step.

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Did Sinon’s exposure therapy work in the end, though? The show’s plot speaks for itself – it absolutely worked.

With a little push from Kirito, Sinon did overcome her fear of guns, and a large part of that was because of her experiences in GGO. She learned about specific gun types, models and even their origins, all in hopes that through exposing her to the things she was most afraid of, she would become desensitized to it. Although it is unclear in the show exactly how long she has been playing GGO for (Season 2 Episode 14 hints at the accident taking place 4 years ago – so 4 years can be used as our rough estimate), her commitment to bettering herself is clear. The fact that she played GGO enough to become one of the best players speaks for itself.

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We do not see Sinon’s initial experience to GGO, but only what came after it. Our first introduction to Sinon was her incredible fight against ‘The Behemoth’, and her talent shines there. Sinon is already incredibly experienced in the scene. With no fear of guns, heights and massive enemy forces, she disposes of her enemies in an intense firefight. Clearly, at this point in time, she has become one of the most competent players in the game, even giving Kirito a run for his money a few times.

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Thus, we can assume that Sinon has been playing A LOT of GGO, dedicating time and effort into undoing the mental trauma that the event put on her.

The events involving Death Gun and Kirito did crank up the ‘exposure’ meter to levels where Sinon was visibly uncomfortable, but all of it was necessary for her to overcome her fears. It’s evident in the show that the events in the plot acted as a massive stepping stone for Sinon’s confience – after her confrontation with Death Gun, she was visibly much more comfortable with guns, even in the real world.

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However, despite Sinon’s results, the fact that she did exposure therapy on herself is worrying. Self-conducted exposure therapy is extremely risky – since the process of the therapy is entirely reliant on the person themselves, they may be going about it incorrectly. In the worst case scenario, Sinon’s trauma may have been reignited and she may actually have left GGO feeling worse than before.

Thus, in normal situations, it’s much better to consult an expert about exposure therapy instead of trying to pursue it on your own. Like a surgery, it is an incredibly precise procedure, with even the smallest of missteps resulting in devastating consequences.

In real life scenarios, Animal Planet had a show exploring the impacts of exposure therapy in their series “My Extreme Animal Phobia”. In the show, real people with traumatic experiences with animals are forced to face their fears at a rapidly increasing rate of exposure. With only a few days to complete the program, people who had traumatic memories of certain animals had to undo their negative thoughts by an extremely intense program of constant exposure to their worst nightmare.

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Being forced to face your biggest phobia, especially one that stemmed from a traumatic experience, seems impossible. And indeed, it’s no easy feat – many times participants broke down into tears and struggled to continue. Only with the encouragement of their loved ones and the guidance from a trained professional were they successfully able to complete the program, and as a result, overcome their fears.

There are clear parallels between Sinon and the participants in the show. Both had a traumatic experience in their youth that led to an incredible fear of a certain stimulus. Pre-therapy, any sort of encounter with the stimulus would lead to wild stress attacks that were so extreme that they would interfere with their daily lives. However, through gradual exposure of what they hated most, they were able to desensitize themselves from the stimulus and they disconnected the specific trauamtic experience with all experiences in the future.

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They regained control of their lives.

Conclusion

Sword Art Online is a pretty controversial show in that some hate it and some love it – but it can’t be denied that it does have its moments. Personally, I think Sinon’s character arc was an absolute treat to go through, and I have no doubt that other struggling with intense internal conflict with something they hate or fear will find something to love about her character.

She’s strong, independent but not flawless. The fact that her strength came from effort and not talent is really moving – especially considering that the effort was all for overcoming her weaknesses and bettering herself as a person.

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It’s just a bit of a shame that all of this was discarded in favor of her being one of ‘Kirito’s gals’.

This has been An Idiot’s Guide to Sinon’s’ Metal Issues – The Tragedy that Created GGO’s Best Sniper – but hey, don’t take my word for it. I’m just an idiot.

 

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