Saturday, April 11, 2009

Video Games and Dreams - 3

In the last essay I tried to establish a connection between the overall experience of a dream to the overall experience of a video game. Using the term mandala as an all-encompassing unity of design, visuals, plot, controls, etc., the argument was that our relationship with both activities has numerous overlaps. Since both are dealing heavily with the unconscious, there isn’t much concrete to point to but it was worth the effort. The more conscious aspect of these mandalic experiences are built out of archetypes. Like game designs, an archetype is a formless system or structure that induces a predictable behavior in a person.

The universal nature of archetypes is the reason that absorbing an artificial or dream from another person is potentially beneficial. Jeremy Taylor, the dream therapist whose work was mentioned in Part 2, explains, “The language of the dream is our original native tongue, a common language shared by all human beings…this universal, cross-cultural, common language of the dream is also shared by the world’s mythology and religious texts and rituals.” Jung referred to them as the permanent remnants of evolution past in our unconscious. Religions are often filled with them such as characters who sacrifice themselves for the greater good or Kings who use their power for selfish reasons. They do this because they induce a typical reaction in people, something that becomes much more noticeable in dreams because it is the person themselves behaving. As Joseph Campbell once commented, “A myth is a public dream and a dream is a private myth.”

How do people relate to archetypes in dream work? Although Taylor describes several methods for group dream therapy, the main technique is to have everyone go around describing their dream then have people respond. Each person then describes what they would think the dream was saying if they themselves experienced it. Hearing the rephrasing of the dream will often allow a person to experience a personal breakthrough or the undoing of a repressed memory. Selective amnesia is typically a defense mechanism used by your brain to help you get over traumatic events. Constantly thinking about and remembering abuse or trauma inhibits growth and makes living difficult, so your brain simply covers it up. Although generally healthy, in childhood the amnesia defense gets problematic because the corrective forgetting and behavior adopted often no longer works when you’re an adult. Fighting back against bullies may be necessary at some point, but learning that not everyone is a threat is important as well. Over-compensating for insecurity induced by trauma is necessary for healing, but it becomes problematic once the person has matured and is still behaving in the same manner.

A great deal of these cases involve sexual abuse, which is sadly more prevalent in our society than anyone will ever admit, but it can apply to pretty much anything. A woman shared a dream about a giant balloon animals filled with water while cowboys rode them, always about to fall over on a fence that will make them pop. She personally felt the dream was cute and playful so she had everyone act it out in the group. As everyone assumed the positions however it became obvious that there were extreme sexual overtones and repressed memories at work. The surprising thing was that experiencing the dream and seeing the subject’s shock at realizing the truth ended up unlocking repressed issues for other people in the group. The fragility of the balloons and their precarious situation, the cowboys riding them, the spiky fence are all archetypes generating this shared experience.

Another dream involved archetypes that were about transformation. A woman dreamt a large demon demanded she sacrifice her daughter to it. The dream had been about patriarchs, men forcing her to do things, and the demon was another manifestation of that. She fought the demon, only to discover that it was turning into her father. Taylor calls this the Willing Sacrifice archetype, breaking out of the trance of fear and submission to change the force that govern us. Although the dominating archetype changed form several times in the dream, from cop to professor to demon to father, it remained in essence the excess control men had in her life. The child, though connecting to her daughter, also has an archetypal meaning for people. It is the “as-yet-unrealized creative energies and possibilities” of a person, the part of the woman that wishes to grow beyond these dominant forces.

Another key element to working with archetypes is that their meanings come in layers. The child in the previous dream was on some levels her daughter, another her hope for growth, yet another a creative idea, and on some levels it was just the stress from that day. I don’t think there could ever be authorial control of the meaning of an archetype, the person engaging with it reflects on the experience and generates that meaning themselves. While their behavior may be instinctual and predictable, the ultimate message is still going to be all their own as they discover things about themselves.

In terms of video games, I’m not sure many people expect to uncover trauma by blasting through an FPS, but the archetypes at work can still generate reflection about ourselves in a safe and non-threatening manner. A griefer, presuming they ever pause to wonder why they like to mess with people so much in games, might stumble on a self-reflection they otherwise would not. A person who takes games way, way too seriously might do likewise when they stop and wonder why they feel the need to be in control so much. Taylor justifies this self-discovery by explaining, “These ugly, scary, dark, powerful, sexy, violent, irresponsible, dangerous dream figures are vitally alive parts of my own authentic being, and you know what – they aren’t so horrible after all.” The notion of thinking of games as dream simulators proposes that playing these dream simulations and having these alien experiences may be able to do cause a similar acceptance of the self through universal archetypes.

Much like the range of human experience and game designs that induce them, archetypes are essentially unlimited in their number. Since Heather Chaplin’s rant declared that everyone is making games for “stunted adolescents” and that most games are “male empowerment fantasies”, this seemed like a good way to narrow the focus. Rather than try to invent something new, I figured it would be best to rely on what we’re all familiar with. I picked up a copy of Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette’s King, Warrior, Magician, Lover: Rediscovering the Archetypes of the Mature Masculine and will go through each archetype he outlines and apply it to games. Since they never distinguish who wrote what, I’m going to refer to Moore as the author when quoting.

What are the archetypes of a male empowerment fantasy?

Moore breaks the male psyche down into four different modes of behavior: King, Warrior, Magician, and Lover. Each one is an archetype that we aspire towards and connotes certain forms of behavior. We have these archetypes in us throughout our development and their expression changes as we become more mature. The King archetype in a child, for example, seeks to establish order in its life by being bossy and also yearns for praise from other sources of order in its life. When the archetypal expression remains juvenile, it cannot recognize the value of other people or that they themselves may not be the best source of order in their lives. Proper development of this matured archetypal expression involves building on top of the boy psychology. We take the impulses we have as a child and channel them, manage them, and transform them into more positive behavior. When they become negative is when they drop into their juvenile qualities. Presumably what Chaplin is upset about is the way that games are relying on this natural behavior from males while only encouraging their most juvenile expression.

Continuing with the King Archetype, Moore explains that it is often expressed in men by their reconciliation with authority. Someone will have a dream about meeting an Emperor and bow down before them. It is the organizing archetype, the role upon which all other archetypes of the male mind conform. Moore explains, “The King is anti-chaos, they organize the world and they do this to manifest fertility and blessing. Expression of the life force, the libido, the will to live. To make life possible.” Doing so means recognizing the value in the other aspects of your own personality and the people around you. The expression of the King in its most mature form is “a sense of being a centered participant in creating a more just, calm, and creative world.”

In terms of game design this finds expression in a variety of ways. The ability to create order in a chaotic environment would be the underlying principle and it finds expression in many games. In SimCity or other management games we turn a wild landscape into a city and watch it prosper. Bulldozing hills, creating roads, and managing the economy are all activities that make up the King Achetype. The life-giving properties come from watching this world prosper under our control, giving us a greater sense of accomplishment. RTS games feature a similar concept with the added complication of enemy forces. These must be purged, the chaos taken away, so that our expression of order can be more solid. You can also see the archetype expressed in some FPS titles that don’t use endless spawn points. Being able to kill every single enemy in a level expresses the psychological desire for things to be safe, orderly, and all because of us. Games that allow this kind of conduct typically rely on the plot to assure us that we are helping others while the sim variation of the archetype builds that sense into the rewards.

Easily the most complex and prevalent in video games is the Warrior Archetype. This archetype revolves around two key tenants: discipline and consequences. They are flexible in their tactics which comes from razor-sharp evaluation of any situation. Moore writes, “what enables a Warrior to reach clarity of thought is living with the awareness of his own imminent death….this awareness leads him to an outpouring of life-force and to an intense experience of his life that is unknown to others.” Expressing the warrior archetype is to feel the thrill of engaging in conduct that, should you fail, will be painful. It is the expression of dominance, often subservient to the need to create order coming from the King archetype, and it is rewarding precisely because of real risks being overcome. The archetype is expressed negatively in two basic ways: acts of passion and acts without passion. The overly hostile and aggressive expression is a consequence of insecurity. The passionless expression often manifests itself through tireless, mindless work. The workaholic, for example, often devotes hours attacking task after task with no real sense of purpose or accomplishment. They cannot stop working because they do not know what they want to work towards.

Both the positive and negative traits of the Warrior Archetype are expressed in video games in numerous ways. Any game that can generate actual consequences for death is tapping into this impulse. Far Cry 2’s distant save points, Nethack’s roguelike design, or something as simple as Contra all express the urge to develop discipline and engage with real risk. Intrinsic to a design that seeks to tap into this Archetype is not creating an environment that is ever fully controllable. What Clint Hocking at GDC described as “improvisational play” could easily be explained as simply pursuing a Warrior archetypal design instead of a King design. The player cannot ever tame the game, they must instead always live with the fact that they could be killed. Call of Duty’s endless spawn points are key, much like in FC2, because the player must always access the Warrior to deal with the threat. The JRPG’s never ending enemies and constant pushing into new territory also tap into this: an RPG channeling this archetype must constantly push the player and keep them at risk. You can see this developed well in Persona 4’s distant save points and the steep difficulty curve. Stopping and grinding is a part of the Warrior Archetype, the training we undergo to continue being competitive. Intrinsic to this design is the failure component and the recognition that death, in its dream and archetypal form, represents change. Taylor explains, “no matter how it appears, death is always associated with the growth and development of personality and character.” In relation to the Warrior, the artificial death in video games is their chance to evolve, to adopt new tactics, and to try again. Jesper Juul commented at GDC that there is a certain kind of failure that people don’t mind in video games, the key element is that they learn from it and can change.

In its most negative expression, bully and workaholic, the Warrior Archetype is tapped into through irresponsible game achievements, systems that encourage obsessive meaningless play, and crude behavior on Xbox Live. A recent article on The Escapist outlines the difference between a poorly designed achievement and a responsible one. The good ones encourage new styles of play and get the player to explore the game world. The bad ones are just mindlessly collecting crap like flags and having a player arbitrarily perform a task multiple times for no real reason. MMO’s like World of Warcraft are rampant with their mindless grinding and collection of meaningless goods. The bully is most rampant on Xbox Live, where players seeking to express their dominance are thwarted by opponents. They lash out at everyone, say horrible things for no real reason, and generally manifest all the symptoms of insecurity that are prevalent in any competitive situation.

The Magician is the archetype of knowledge, of specialized training and helping people by using that training. Like the Warrior, it is an impulse that is expressed in supplication to the King Archetype’s desire to create order and produce life. There is also an element of the aloof, of using an outsider position by judging and putting people in their place. The Shaman, Fool, or Magician is the only person who the King listens to because even rulers need someone who criticizes them. It is the part of ourselves that analyzes our actions, figures out what’s going on, and tries to get us to think. Moore writes, “He is very good at deflating Egos, our own and those of others. And often we need deflating. He can spot, in an instant, when, and in exactly what way, we are inflated and identified with our grandiosity. And he goes for it, in order to reduce us to human size and expose to us all our frailties” In its negative form the Magician Archetype is expressed by being a Trickster. These are people who cannot admire others because, like the faulty King, they do not have a firm sense of their own worth. They are insecure in their knowledge and are often uncertain of their specialized knowledge’s value.

In terms of game’s the best representation of this Archetype would be a straight-forward puzzle game. Something like Braid takes work and reasoning to master, the knowledge realized after doing so then creates an authority over those who haven’t beaten the game. You can see this kind of need expressed in something like the gamefaq forums as well, people voluntarily writing lengthy essays about how to beat a game’s challenges is again showing the need for people to share knowledge and feel helpful. MMO games also give people an opportunity to use specialized knowledge to help others, sharing loot and offering tips is a positive activity engaged with regularly. Since games are inherently learning experiences, this is often an intrinsic part of the processe. It can be as simple when the player is forced to step back and reflect on what they’re doing wrong in a combat situation. The Magician archetype is the masculine desire, when mature, to accumulate information and apply that in a helpful manner.

The Lover is the archetype of play, of being in the world and enjoying it and one’s own body without shame. They are “deeply sensual, aware and sensitive to the physical world in all its splendor.” Moore believes that this is the part of ourselves we draw on for creativity and art, it is the archetypal desire to be a part of the world and enjoying it. Creating a painting or blog post, for example, taps into this archetype because it is attempting to be a part of the world. It works with both the Magician archetypes desire to spread knowledge, sometimes the Warrior’s need to have one’s views be dominant, or it simply does it for its own sake. In the negative aspect the Lover is an addict. They are so desperate to experience everything that they fail to impose proper boundaries on themselves. The sex addict, drugs, etc. are all manifestations of an inability to force oneself to not experience all things.

In games this archetype is just beginning to become prevalent. Games like Fl0wer are paving the way for games based on being sensual, creating a sense of movement while navigating a beautiful landscape. Titles like Fallout 3 explore this by creating such a rich world of characters while Grand Theft Auto IV maximizes a world of details. For many games, this is the holy grail of difficult designs to manage, it is the archetype of immersion. The more mechanical aspects of the Lover, creating the desire to participate in the world, are seen in several forms. Level editors and the ability to share them would be a prime example. The ability to design your own home, add something unique to a game, or simply participate in a world that is expressive and provides feedback are also elements of this archetype. The negative expression, though perhaps manifesting itself in other forms of behavior, has its roots in the desire to constantly feel that one particular experience a game is providing for us. The thrill of the Warrior, the knowledge of the Magician…these archetypes when expressed feel good and the Lover makes us unable to relinquish them. In its most negative form, the Lover is the manifestation of not being able to quit.

If you’re noticing a lot of overlap between the archetypes, that’s because there is. Moore believes that the healthy, mature male balances these four archetypes and gives them all proper outlet. What he refers to as boy psychology is when one of these archetypes becomes neglected by a person. As far as games are concerned I don’t imagine trying to cover all four bases would be healthy. Focusing on one, as many games do today, would probably produce better results and attract the same audience members. Moore also believes that his archetypes apply to women as well, replacing King with Queen and making tweaks to other parts of their details. What the game design represents is a way for a person to manifest these elements of their personality through archetypes that resonate with the unconscious in the same way that a dream does.

Which brings up the final question of this series: if a game is an artificial dream that uses a symbolic language to allow us to express deeper personal issues, what is our responsibility with them? To the players? As this excellent interview with Jane McGonigal points out, part of what making video games more mature really means is using them for something new. Why not therapy? Part 4 will explore this issue more and wrap this series up. Thank you for your time.

Edit: To make your life easier, here is Part 4.


David Sahlin said...

That was a brilliant read, it allowed me to further my conclusions about design aspects in Darkfall Online. Thank you.

Ben Abraham said...

When I first read this yesterday, I wanted to comment, but I also wanted to give it a minute to stew. Reading it through, I got to the part where you mentioned an exercise someone conducted where they acted out a dream… and from then on the argument dissolved and I couldn’t read any more.

The idea of applying logical thinking, analysis and reasoning to an unconscious dream… doesn’t make sense to me! Dreams have their own logic and what something is in a dream is *just what it is*. Why does the riding cowboy have to be a sexual image? In the dream, wasn’t she sure that it was just an innocent cowboy?

I’m obviously going from my own experiences, but in my dreams I always know what something is, even if what it is doesn’t make sense (like it’s my friend, but it’s also a videogame character, then it becomes a robot or something and it’s all the same person). Pretending like there is some deeper reason or meaning behind the images just seems like clutching at straws.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, what makes you think that there’s so much more going on in dreams than just what they are? I know Freud thought dreams were more than they appear, but it’s hardly scientific fact and there’s been plenty of studies and other psychologists and neuroscientist that think otherwise (I have a psychologist in training and a neuroscientist in training as very close friends and they both take Freud with a big grain of salt).

I still really, really like the connection you’ve drawn between more pure “dream as fantasy” and why we play videogames, along with the unnerving implications that has. I want to see the piece that points the accusatory finger back at gamers for the types of games they like!

Kirk Battle said...

Well, you ought to finish the essay if you haven't since that's just one tiny part of it.

The short answer is that, on one level, a dream is just what you're saying it is. Modern psychology mostly ignores dreams because they don't really follow any concrete pattern. Freud tried to make them always be about sex and that's true, but just one one level. Jung tried to break them into genders and concrete symbols, but that's only true on a different level. The archetype's meaning changes per person.

I guess I wasn't explicit with it but an archetype strikes me as conceptually very similar to a game design. It's a very broad concept at first, yes? Item collecting can mean any number of things, but once you hammer it down into a game then it takes on its own meanings which can shift depending on the player's reaction to it. Collecting stars in Mario is not the same thing as collecting Materia in FF7, but it's the same something, the same concept. Koster goes into this in his book but I didn't think to quote him, how you could make Tetris be about the Holocaust by just making the blocks be bodies while it's still Tetris at the core.

I also keep forgetting that I'm really familiar with communicating with archetypes like this because of law school and Tarot cards. I'm used to bracketing rules into categories based on what behavior they govern and the typical reactions they cause. Tarot cards are just giant archetypes that I randomly deal to a person and then manipulate those into a kind of...well, waking dream I suppose. So for the fourth one I guess I'll just focus on explaining all of this better.

The best bet would be to just swap out the concept of dreams as you're thinking of them and to think of them like Jung does: your unconscious talking to your conscious mind. Like any conversation, overhearing someone else's can sometimes be interesting and sometimes be gibberish.

Unknown said...

I think Jung's Synchronicity, taken with a grain of salt for sure, can help square this with more modern neuroscience notions. Your brain is a logical system, and dreams are basically a cache dump for your memory. The Synchronicity thing, divorced from Jung's mysticism, is basically about your brain being able to make predictions about the future through your dreams. Your brain is calculating rules and system models as you move through space and time. The models help you understand and parse what's happening to you.

Dreams are applying these models to a bunch of dumped memory in an effort to store and collocate it. This is why, as you lose REM sleep, your ability to react to new information becomes so constrained and tunneled.

What I'm getting at is that you could use this as a design method: simulating dream logic to help people process information better and understand more about themselves and the world. Plus, since it's the designer's modeling, it would help people communicate with each other through simulated systems instead of words. Sounds like a worthy goal to me.

Unknown said...

LB, any chance you'll elaborate at some point on why (or perhaps if) games are different from other forms of art in this regard? My own view would be that a more explicitly interactive experience brings what you and Jung call archetypes further to the fore of our consciousness because the interaction with the art places a different (though not entirely dissimilar) kind of demand on our psyches. Just as certain psychic structures (like Freud's superego) get softened or turned off in the dream-state, interactive art forms seem to start from bringing out parts of the unconscious that are otherwise usually kept under guard.

For me, this is why games tend to follow the themes of ancient epic--since ancient epic, too, was thematically interactive, that same male-empowerment dynamic gets played out.

I would note, though, pretty emphatically, that epic and games can do other things--as you note in talking about the feminine archetypes--though my own view would be that the real refinement will come as the gatekeeping, superegoical forces come back, as we see in games like (of course) Bioshock and FC2.