February 28, 2012 by jamtime
The Role of Fantasy in Videogames: A Reappraisal
In The Role of Fantasy in Videogames: A Reappraisal, Liam Murray and Jahn Maher assert that that a “lack of appreciation for the significance and potential of Fantasy has consequences for the design of compelling videogames.” According to them “the majority of videogames [today] … display a mechanistic repetitiveness in conception, development and production” As a remedy they “encourage designers to look again at Fantasy as a source of renewed creativity” and “advocate the adoption, among game developers, of a poetics of Fantasy as a critical practice… to endow their creations with greater depth and richness.” They argue that “fantasy [is] an underlying structuring element capable of energising the creative evolution of videogames” and that “a deeper insight into the creative potential of Fantasy is an approach that makes games better, i.e., more emotional, more meaningful and consequently more engaging.” They also argue that “far from weakening the ludic nature of gaming it is the playful (and playfilled) nature of games that [will] reap the greatest rewards from a deeper appreciation of Fantasy.”
Murray and Maher make the case that fantasy and play are intrinsically linked. They argue that according to the definition proposed by E. Wick in the Encyclopaedia of Psychology… that “fantasy ‘stimulates creativity which develops what is not (yet) and it acts as the psyche’s balancing mechanism offering the person a self help tool to achieve emotional equilibrium’ (Wick 1984, p.193),” fantasy and play share a similar function of “testing various scenarios before they emerge in the world.” They further claim that “play is imbricated with the myth making processes of Fantasy… [and that]both … are situated in an archetypal dimension of the human unconscious.” The article deals with two archetypal figures –The Hero and The Shadow.
According to this article, game makers would do well to model their protagonists after the mythological role of the Hero. They contrast the classic heroic journey structure “beginning in a state akin to innocence and ending in a return to point of origin having survived a series of physical and psychological trials to attain the ultimate reward” with that of “the ubiquitous shoot-everything-that-moves hero [which] is a product of Western culture.”
One way in which they argue games could be enriched through the conventions of the Hero archetype is through difficulty. They argue that “historically, culture has put a high value on difficulty and complexity [as can be seen] …in legend and folktale”; however, “unlike the heroes of legend, the gamer never quite seems to complete the task/quest with comparable Herculean finality. The game concludes (if there is a discernible conclusion) without resonance, drama or catharsis, above all without emotional closure.” The article explains that “the experience which the player sought and failed or only partially succeeded in finding was the Fantasy.” The article cites GTA and Final Fantasy as series’ “which base their appeal on satisfying the Fantasy cravings of the player” and then rather strangely cites World of Warcraft as a game “which frustrate those same cravings” further claiming the game lacks “the sophistication of either GTA or Final Fantasy.”
Although I find the connection they draw between the hero’s journey and the difficulty of the game rather fascinating, the rest of their assessments are rather unsubstantial. Statements like “unlike the heroes of legend, the gamer never quite seems to complete the task/quest with comparable Herculean finality” and “World of Warcraft, despite its technical merits does not possess the sophistication of either GTA or Final Fantasy” are wildly subjective and left unsupported. Their criticism of “the ubiquitous shoot-everything-that-moves hero” of Western Culture is intriguing, however they rather strangely make a far more compelling case for this figure later in the article.
The second archetypal figure which the paper examines is the Shadow. “The Shadow is the opponent with which the Hero has to contend.” According to Jung, the Shadow is a “figure [which] represents all the content which the conscious mind seeks to bar from consciousness.” Jung describes “the threatening nature of the Shadow [as] a function of conscious repression and a refusal … to acknowledge that there are appetites, desires, lusts and ambitions held in the unconscious seeking expression and release.” The Hero’s encounter with the Shadow is “an encounter with a personal knowledge of one’s less admirable capacities” and as Jung theorizes this offers us “a means [of] inner growth.”
Despite their prior criticism of “the ubiquitous shoot-everything-that-moves hero,” the article uses this idea to demonstrate the cultural function of first person shooters. “In First Person Shooter games, the interaction with the Shadow is basic; kill or be killed.” The first person shooter forces players “to immerse themselves in violent fantasies” in order to confront the Shadow. “The player [becomes] aware of violent and sadistic tendencies occurring on the level of Fantasy, where it is psychologically safe to give them expression.”
A similar argument is made in defense of the “scurrilous” nature of GTA. They argue that the characters of GTA all have a certain appearance. “They are heavy featured, dangerous, coarse in their looks and behaviour.” They argue that “the player’s behaviour is deliberately and consciously scurrilous” and that “this scurrility is a key feature of unconscious Fantasy.” GTA allows gamers to “become the Shadow.” They go on to make the rather interesting case that while “society pretends to react against the depictions of violence in GTA, [they are] in fact, reacting to the implied criticism of its own lethal capacities.”
Although they acknowledge that Rockstar Games probably “did not have such an artistic or critical project in mind when they created GTA” they continue to point the franchise as a model of what games should be trying to accomplish through fantasy. Their ultimately conclude that “the goal should be to develop more meaning driven games which will exploit the deeper potential of Fantasy and play.
Liam Murray, John Maher. “The Role of Fantasy in Videogames: A Reappraisal.” Eludamos. Journal for Computer Game Culture 5.1 (2011): 45-57.