For the uninitiated, Bofuri: I Don’t Want to Get Hurt, so I’ll Max Out My Defense is a 2020 anime series, based on Yuumikan’s light novel series of the same name. The series revolves around Kaede Honjō, a young woman who, on the urging of her friend, joins the VRMMORPG NewWorld Online. Taking the guise of a character named Maple, Kaede decides that the last thing she wants is to feel pain while playing. As such, she takes the role of a shield user, and dumps every status point into defense. With her invincible build and a ton of creativity at her disposal, Maple sets forth to tackle the challenges that await in NewWorld Online.

From the very beginning, the series stands as a love letter to the MMO experience.  Costume designs are top notch and reference several types of MMORPGs.  Kuromu’s bulky physique is reminiscent of western MMOs like WOW (and some npcs in MMOJRPGs), while Kanade’s “effeminate” design is similar to the designs of male characters in MMOJRPGs like Aura Kingdom.  Even the oft-memed level-grinding and fetch quests were made to be very atmospheric, capturing how calming and rewarding these activities can be when you’re in the right mood.

Yet this is all just a backdrop to the blissfully chaotic core of the show: breaking the game.

A girl with black hair sheepishly smiles as she scratches the back of her head.

Forum post discussing BOFURI. The user's avatar is Koro-sensei from Assassination Classroom.

Forum post discussing BOFURI. The user's avatar is Ichigo from Bleach.

To add my own “mom experience” to the mix, my favorite thing to do in Aura Kingdom, besides impersonate Erza Scarlet by keeping the equip menu open so I can change weapons mid-fight, was, indeed, to put most of my own points into defence while primarily using a mix of wounding (basically poison) attacks and the game’s equivalent of Pokémon’s Drain Punch, which absorbs HP from the enemy.

Fun times. Not quite as overpowered as Maple, but still, fun times.

Not only does Maple’s overpowered build keep the game’s administrators on their toes, her energy proves to be infectious as her guild fills with creative players who explore similarly ambitious builds.  The shenanigans Maple and her friends get themselves into, from friendly competition with other guilds, to simply chilling and hanging out, prove to be a delightful exploration of the quirky fixtures in the game world. That’s to say nothing of the way the cast toys with scripted events, because why stop with mucking up the game’s competitive balance? In this light, the series plays out as a surprisingly laid-back series that focuses on exploring and with NewWorld Online’s underlying gameplay systems.

In fact, specifically, MMORPG fans have offered high praise to BOFURI for its embodiment of a notably chill, “non-toxic” gaming community, asserting that games are, first and foremost, about having fun — which is true. The point even became a central theme in commentary across the internet, from YouTube content creator Geoff’s video on the art of worldbuilding, to several of the ringing tendorsements from Anime Feminist, and beyond.  The idea that Bofuri “fights back” against toxic gaming culture paints an incomplete picture, though, as part of what makes BOFURI so impactful towards this end comes about through the way the series harnesses gaming’s resilient, yet lesser-known traditions of positivity.

Gamers, themselves, have always been the greatest forces in the effort to foster a more positive gaming culture. Unfortunately, such efforts often entail grappling with problems left unsolved by society, while often being victims of those same or similar circumstances.  In this light, the defiant optimism captured by BOFURI becomes all the more inspiring.

A boy with black hair, wearing black clothes, runs along a river at sunset.

Sword Art Online

It’s become somewhat of a sport to dunk on Sword Art Online for being unrealistic in its approach to peoples’ gaming experiences. But, as a young person who used gaming as an escape from reality, I found the emotional core behind it’s main character to be immensely relatable. Once upon a time, I used video games to escape from a world I did not understand, as Kirito did, and as many others have done.

As a college student, I simultaneously grappled with culture shock and a social disability after a childhood of being told I was neither truly “disabled” nor truly “working-class.”  Like Kirito, I was going through an identity crisis. Having grown up with JRPGs, the familiar, similarly-styled, high-fantasy world of Aura Kingdom allowed me to express a form of identity on my own terms.

In retrospect, perhaps Kirito was a bit of a bad influence, as my emulation of his solo-playing delayed my attempt to join MMORPG guilds.  However, SAO didn’t single-handedly cause my tendency towards isolation, I would not have found his character to be relatable or worthy of emulation if I wasn’t already down that path.  As a now-mature adult I’m of the opinion that mirrors, in all their messy and flawed glory, have their place in fiction.  Rather than seeing Bofuri as “better” or more “realistic” than SAO, I’d rather see them as two sides of the same coin.

A girl with black hair stares blankly from a giant white puff as a stunned woman stares.

Even edgelords can have some fluff, as a treat.

BOFURI shows a side of the coin I agree is underexplored in storytelling media around gaming, it shows how, while gaming may often attract loners, it’s also primed to provide community.  On Elsword, for example, recruiters for guilds are often found within the game’s public plazas. In another MMORPG, though, a lurker encouraged me to post my jokes and comments to a more active chatbox. MMOs, especially, actively encourage this type of open and positive community.

And really, this is where the strength of gaming communities becomes truly apparent, especially for those who find themselves isolated in reality. They’re a rare slice of society where it becomes socially acceptable to ask complete strangers for help, or even strike up friendships with someone one may know through little more than a username and an avatar. This virtue is exemplified in the world of BOFURI from the very first episode, which sees Maple receiving help exclusively from total strangers, who are happy to lend advice and teach her the ropes.

Needless to say, though, such a large congregation of strangers rarely comes without its problems.  Bofuri is subtly self-aware of this, as these issues are indirectly addressed through the characters of Mii and Kuromu.

-image of Mii large guild first appearance-

Mii is perhaps the most fascinating character in BOFURI, as she’s one of the few individuals who embody a popular negative trait of many gaming communities. Specifically, she places an outsized emotional stake in victory.  It’s become widely accepted folk knowledge among gamers that toxic gamers act, well, toxic, as a way to cover up or compensate for similar insecurities.  Rather than depict Mii as the stereotypical, outwardly toxic gamer-bro stereotype, though, she undergoes a story arc that focuses exclusively on her internal conflicts.

Gaming is naturally a form of play that encourages one to role-play.  In many cases, gamers use the medium as an opportunity to play out what they believe to be their ideal selves, or alternate versions of themselves that they, for whatever reason, can’t embody in reality. For example, some like to play the part of the villain, others as smooth-talking rogues.  In Mii’s case, she plays the role of a strong and valiant leader, a persona that quickly falls apart when she’s shown alone, especially following a failure.

Episodes 8-9 of the BOFURI anime show the depths of how much Mii struggles to maintain her persona, and how failure nearly breaks her.  In episode 8, after losing Sally in a failed pursuit, she burns down part of a forest in frustration, before breaking down into tears, crying “I can’t do this anymore!”  It’s at this point that it begins to dawn upon the audience that the grand speech she gave in a previous episode was little more than false bravado. Visual hints about this fact are dropped in earlier appearances, but this proves to be the point where her mask crumbles to dust.

Profile of a woman with red hair who stares sadly ahead of her.

The pressure’s getting to her

Numerous studies have shown that using games to boost confidence through roleplaying actually has many benefits, especially for individuals with disabilities.  Still, that isn’t to say that is an instant or fail-safe panacea to one’s ills. Self-improvement requires work and a healthy support system, something Mii begins to take steps toward finding over the course of the series.

In this light, it’s quite apt that the first characters that Mii is  shown to rely upon, and the first characters who end up seeing a glimpse of her insecure side, are Misery & Markus.  Both of these characters are openly insecure of their own faults despite their skills, which are strong enough that they are the only ones whom Mii trusts to fight at her side in a showdown with Maple. They’re kindred spirits who, both within the context of the series and in reality, make outstanding confidants, especially when there’s a layer of mutual trust involved.

Indeed, No gaming community is complete without it’s support-groups, and without the types of gamers I like to call the “helpers.”  Mature players who make it a point to promote a healthy community.  Virtually every functional guild and chatroom has at least one person, if not several players who fill the role to different degrees in some way, and come from as many backgrounds as there are troubled and dysfunctional gamers themselves.

Headshots of a black haired girl with a red scarf and a brown-haired woman with a blue top.

Among the oldest examples of this could be found in the moderators of yore, the pre-twitter days, on fan-made forum websites.  For example, when I played the online game Millsberry, a former online advergame by General Mills, I frequented a forum moderated by a woman known as “Becky.” She organized pretty much everything about the forum, she chose assistant moderators, organized contests and activities related to the game, and mediated activities run by other members.

A stereotype that heavily-online individuals in these spaces were middle-aged men living in their mother’s basement has pervaded public consciousness for years.  However, not only do “heavily-online” individuals often form the backbone of many online communities, they’re far more diverse than most assume.  Disability, old-age, gender/nationality, all of these could be contributing factors to someone’s screen-time.  In-fact Becky was a housewife in her 50s.  She and a small group of other individuals from wildly varying backgrounds were regular and recognizable names in the forum’s general chat, with an invested interest in maintaining the community they’ve built for themselves.

Many of these forums were originally built for the purpose of sharing tips and answers to particularly difficult puzzles, they were started in the spirit of collaboration and helping each other.  This was a necessity for many of the classic games with insanely obscure puzzle solutions such as Myst.  Naturally, many of these help-and-problem-solving forums would evolve into full-fledged communities where it would be commonplace to chat about everyday (IRL) life in the “general” chatboard.

A blonde woman in yellow pajamas gazes sleepily at the camera. She's surrounded by white puffs.

Magical Girl Rising Project

Nemurin from Magical Girl Rising Project offers another example of what the most heavily-online individuals are often like

As the gaming medium itself progressed, it became possible for proper communities to be found within the games themselves.  In MMORPGs like Aura Kingdom and Elsword, these “helpers,” like Becky in her forum’s general chat, often spend much of their time lounging around the guild hall, taking time to hold affable conversations with anyone who passed by, or even lending a hand with homework. Nowadays, the role is becoming increasingly filled by streamers, who tend to interact with viewers in their chat, and even dish up doses of friendly life advice when needed.

These “helpers,” of all ages and backgrounds, are often motivated by their awareness of the problems & potential problems within gaming communities.  BOFURI represents this mindset perfectly.  Kuromu, one of the players who helped Maple learn where & how to buy custom gear, and now one of her guildmates, admits his worries on how trusting his younger guildmates are.  He describes himself as a ‘veteran,’ a veteran who only wants his new friends to enjoy their time in the game, and as such believes he’s gotta look out for them.  It’s his responsibility as the more experienced gamer to protect his friends from “the jerks in the world,” as there are many in the chaos that is online gaming.

A red boot rests on barren turf. Subtitle: "Still, there're a lot of jerks in the world."

Distant side-view shot of a brown-haired man wearing red. Subtitle: "Being a game veteran, I've gotta watch over those guys."

Distant side-view shot of a brown-haired man wearing red. Subtitle: "I just want 'em to enjoy the game, that's all."

Pretty much every gamer will reach a point where they begin to think, at least a little bit, like Kuromu.

Rather than address toxicity by addressing it directly, BOFURI focuses on the positive. It shines a light on what gamers do in the game to maintain their community in a refreshingly light hearted, yet incredibly faithful way. For example, it’s particularly apt for Kuromu to explain his motivation for looking out for his guildmates in the aftermath of a level-grinding montage.  Because of this, the whole seventh episode is one of the best representations of gaming life, not in spite of the fact that “nothing is happening,” but because “nothing” and everything is happening all at once.

Because at the end of the day, we all do, indeed, want to just have fun with the game’s systems together.