The world is dedicated to franchising, and every day it seems like a popular new game sweeps through the cultural landscape. Major brands exist not so much to create consumers as to consume audiences. Tech billionaires and acclaimed “geniuses” have become a new breed of celebrity and influence everything from entertainment to politics. The things they produce can often blur the lines of reality as they attempt to re-create it in interactive 3D online forms. Those who participate in the new reality can assume whole new lives for themselves, with their options being seemingly limitless.
I’m talking about Yu-Gi-Oh!, by the way.
Created in 1996 by Kazuki Takahashi, Yu-Gi-Oh! began as a manga in the pages of Weekly Shōnen Jump, the famous anthology that’s also been home to series like Dragon Ball, One Piece, and Demon Slayer. From there, Yu-Gi-Oh! blossomed and expanded into a ludicrously popular trading card game, an anime series that was treated in America for a time as Pokémon’s heir apparent, and all manner of merchandising. To this day, new sequel series are rolling out, and the recently released Yu-Gi-Oh! Master Duel was downloaded over 10 million times within a little over two weeks of release.
However, it’s the original story that most resembles modern life. The world Takahashi invented was definitely reflective of the late 1990s tidal wave of new toys and branding — one chapter takes place in a mega fast food chain, while another centers on the lust for a new pair of sneakers. There are also ones that focus on Tamagotchi-esque digital pets, superhero comics, a monster-based board game, and so on. Considering the plot typically dealt with young student Yugi Muto becoming “Yami Yugi” thanks to the Millennium Puzzle (and spirit of an ancient pharaoh) that he possesses, new trends provided new scenarios for Yugi to tackle unscrupulous people in “Shadow Games.” But it also felt meditative on the hyper-consumption of products, as a generation oohed and ahhed at the latest gadget before promptly forgetting it by the next chapter.
It was in chapter 9, though, that Takahashi introduced the card battling game that his manga would be most known for: Duel Monsters. (It was originally called Magic & Wizards, a title that doesn’t quite have the same impact, especially in a world falling in love with critter collecting franchises like Pokémon and Digimon.) It’s a fairly simple formula for a game, akin to Magic: The Gathering in its basic mechanics.
In the beginning of the anime, Yugi and most of his best friends at the very least dabble in it, as do a majority of the people he encounters. It would take a while for Duel Monsters to become the main focus and the narrative currency of the story (Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Monsters would be the name of the popular anime in Japan, with a lesser-known “Season 0” having covered some of the earlier bits). But when it did, its presence would overhaul the series while also building on the foundation of a population seemingly put in a trance by new gadgets and devices on a weekly basis. And the society it would reveal seems analogous to one we experience today.
The most obvious connection that Duel Monsters has with the real world is in the collecting of the game itself. In the manga and anime, the trading card game is widely beloved and played by school kids and the very wealthy alike. Its fan base in the series is not only broad but ravenous, turning the story into almost an omen for the real-life near-riots that the card game would cause (the first episode includes an elderly man being beaten up for his cards). Recently, desires for rare cards have caused auction rates to balloon to cartoonish proportions, and celebrities are more willing than ever to brandish their collectibles for social media clout. Rare cards — Yu-Gi-Oh! or otherwise — have become a status symbol, and suddenly the image of fictional tech prodigy Seto Kaiba carrying around a shiny briefcase full of cards doesn’t look so outlandish.
Speaking of Seto Kaiba, the presence of anime-haired Silicon Valley gods pushes the rules of the universe further than any government could ever hope to. In the story, Kaiba is an orphan turned conglomerate leader, skilled in not just developing games and electronics but in playing them, too. And while I’d never compare him to a Zuckerberg, Musk, or Bezos — Kaiba is actually likable at times and charismatic — the fascination fictional people have with him and his wealth and talents is certainly reminiscent of what the tech elite commands today. He also wields enormous, almost logic-skirting power. For a bit, he’s able to turn an entire city into a haven for a card battle tournament, similar to how the Walt Disney Company can effectively own an entire district.
Kaiba’s not alone: The Duelist Kingdom arc of the series introduces Maximillion Pegasus, the creator of the Duel Monsters game and a mythic figure. Though obviously more flamboyantly evil than moguls like Walt Disney (even as they share an obsession with “toons”), Pegasus also has the capabilities to turn his franchising dreams into whole realities for fans to lose themselves in. The Duelist Kingdom tournament takes place on an island in the Pacific owned by Pegasus, and its specific purpose is to provide a place for gamers to live out their fantasies and do nothing but duel one another. Like The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, Galactic Starcruiser, or even the planned Super Mario theme park, it’s a place that thrives on escapism (“What if you didn’t have to worry about anything other than interacting with the brand you like?”). The fact that it has a big castle in the middle is just a fun parallel.
The way Duel Monsters can be played seemed like science fiction in the late ’90s, when the anime debuted, but now feels like something that we’re actively working toward. While you can play with just the cards, the series has introduced massive boards that allow you to summon 3D computer generated monsters that move and perform attacks at your command. These giant arenas were later taken mobile with Kaiba’s Duel Disk, a piece of equipment that you clip to your arm and place cards on (and, most important of all, it looks absolutely rad). That way, even when you’re on the go, you can summon your Dark Magician or Blue Eyes White Dragon for a quick game.
None of this is too far removed from both the achievements in augmented reality and the metaverse arms race that simultaneously appears both ludicrous and increasingly inevitable as more and more major companies latch onto it. While we can’t yet bring Pokémon into the real world, the massive success of something like Pokémon Go ignites a market for introducing computer-generated components and spectacle into actual environments. Go’s developer is also working on a new digital pet game where you have to take care of and protect little critters. In the planned game, “every creature is unique,” meaning our relationship with augmented reality has the potential to change as it’s developed. Considering that people formed such intense connections with their Tamagotchi that they actually requested physical graveyards for them when the pets died, it’s not a leap to assume that many more will inevitably discover their “heart of the cards” in beasts formed through computerized inputs.
Finally, the social aspects found in Yu-Gi-Oh! come to dominate its effect on the world. Not only is an entire industry built around watching and obsessing over people playing in the fictional world (in the same way that we turn Twitch streamers into the 1%, and card game championships become huge events), but whole identities are crafted through your approach to the game. Characters like “Insector” Haga and “Dinosaur” Ryuzaki and “Bandit Keith” Howard all achieve varying levels of infamy because of their ability to win games and how they treat their opponents.
Their personalities are often grating and their tactics defy Yu-Gi-Oh!’s ethos, but in “no publicity is bad publicity” fashion, they fit in. Haga throwing Yugi’s Exodia cards off the side of a ship — a ship, by the way, full of hundreds of duelists that could very well see him — is barely different from the scandals fueling subscriber counts of internet celebrities. Even before Duel Monsters was introduced in the manga, the openly malicious behavior of the people Yugi ran into and the pride they took in other people’s bewilderment meant that it was a world that ran on the inherent idea that questionable people often did awful stuff for attention. However, because it’s a shōnen manga, a genre often built around the triumph of powerful good over evil, they get their karmic retribution. The real world is a bit more complicated and chaotic.
Yu-Gi-Oh! didn’t outright predict the future. But it did come at a time when the building blocks of many common aspects of modernity were laid down. In a story about people latching onto an all-encompassing entertainment trend, one so massive that it influences how society itself functions, we find the roots of many of pop culture and the internet’s prime hubs. And there will likely never be a return to a world before Facebook or YouTube or Disney, companies and brands that in the last 25 years have altered how we consume media and how we interact.
At the end of the manga, Yugi duels the pharaoh that he once shared souls with and wins, eventually deciding that his own journey could begin because of his victory. He’s spent the series facing off with industrial magnates, gaming fanatics, schoolyard bullies, and his spiritual other half, so it’s time to just do Yugi for a change. It’s an optimistic and humane ending befitting of its genre, but it also turns any kind of societal growth into a purely personal choice (at the end of the anime, Kaiba sets off in a wonderfully ludicrous jet shaped like his favorite card). Like the other manga it shared a home with, Yu-Gi-Oh! posited that no obstacle is too organized or too overwhelming if one has the talent and strength to persevere. There were few systemic issues but rather aberrant forms in the general stability, ones that could be overcome with power and friendship.
But in real life, the monstrous forces that we’ve conjured require more than one person to defeat, and the Seto Kaibas on the hilltop show no signs of consistent good will to round out their emotional arcs. The things we develop, enjoy, and need come with the caveat of filling the wallets of the filthy rich. We might not all be collecting Blue Eyes White Dragons, but Yu-Gi-Oh!’s world is one we can’t escape.