Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Video Games and Dreams - 4

Roger Travis pointed out in the last essay that the relationship we have with our dreams can often be applied to any work of fiction in varying degrees. Although interaction may make the archetypes and need for balance in an experience much more pronounced, these are still the same common elements that have been in other media for centuries. For as much as video games might function as a kind of dream, perhaps all media do the same thing in varying degrees. In films we are the voyeur, in games we are the actor, and in books we can follow either. Just as a film can cause a self-revelation or a book provide an outlet for a psychological need, so too can a video game. What this fourth and final essay seeks to address is the potential for using the archetypes and concepts of the mandala as a way to get games beyond their fantasy-fulfillment and nightmare mastery nature. The final goal of the dream is to transform the dreamer through self-awareness and personal exploration. How can a video game change someone?

The best place to start is to ask what is appealing about a video game. Will Wright once said, “Most people are very narcissistic…The more you can make the game about that person, the more interested, the more emotionally involved they will get." Peter Molyneaux explains about the nature of game stories, “The greatest story ever told? I think it’s going to be in a computer game. And I think that if I play the greatest story ever told in the same game as you play it, your greatest story is going to be different to my greatest story.” For either designer, the key to the video game is that personal investment a game allows which can reflect back on us. They are a kind of personal expression. They constitute an act that, although not technically real, still represents something to us. That is the core of the connection between dreams and video games: both are abstract personal acts. Both involve mental engagement and both are without consequences in the real world. The difference is simply a matter of scale. The video game is, in its still developing form, still not powerful enough to equal the personalized nature of a dream.

Yet increasing the personalizing capacity of a game in the pursuit of narcissism is inevitably going to start changing the nature of the fantasy for a person. What begins as wish fulfillment inevitably becomes common and then, if overindulged, even drudgery. Going back to Raph Koster’s argument that all games are doomed to become boring by their very nature, the pursuit of narcissism for pleasure in games is a self-defeating venture. You’ll eventually beat the game, you’ll find all the secrets, and the replay value will become an exercise in going through the motions. Jason Rohrer argued in his GDC lecture ‘Games and Other Four Letters’ that one of the most important ways to start addressing this issue is to simply stop thinking this was the only thing that games are capable of. That they don’t have to always be fun, addictive, or time-consuming tasks to accomplish. When we start to ask ourselves what an artistic medium that necessitates the user putting themselves into it can do besides be fun or create a sense of mastery, the Jungian goal of dreams becomes an interesting option.

Video Games could become a source of personal transformation.

One of the complaints that Jung, Robert Moore (the one who wrote that Masculine Archetypes book), and even Joseph Campbell have about modern society is that we no longer practice transformation rituals. One of the ways people in the past would help men abandon juvenile behavior and become adults is through a ritual process of simulating death and rebirth. Campbell explains a tribal ritual like this: when a boy starts to show an interest in girls the village shaman and other men would warn the mother and then come to their hut that night. Dressed in tribal garb to resemble monsters, the mother would pretend to defend the child but be driven back, until the boy was abducted. It is important that the child see that their traditional sources of protection are gone and they are on their own. What happens from there can be somewhat problematic. Moore describes putting the child through a lot of physical trauma like leaving him on an ant bed, but physical violence during this process is mostly meant to continue to scare the hell out of the subject and make them fear for their life. The biggest misstep rituals that use physical violence make here is thinking the amount of pain inflicted somehow equates with improving the process. The purpose of convincing a person that they are about to die is the psychological death of the current personality.

The person’s way of behaving, of thinking about the world, are abandoned in the wake of frightening circumstances for the new lifestyle. This can often happen naturally for a person such as losing a job or loved one. The loss of a parent is often seen as a transformative phase for a person because the protective force in their life has moved on. How can a video game do this?

Technically, some already do. The archetypal structures of MMO’s are almost always dependent on King archetypes about accumulating power, applying order to the universe, and mixing these with other designs. Moore’s mapping of juvenile behavior explains that the transformation ritual is taking this tiny kingdom the child has created and has them abandon it for the higher, more profound adult one. What makes an MMO be able to have this experience of loss is that other players do it to you. An example would be the growing need for therapy that specifically handles trauma in MMO games. The cited article details an EVE Online player who lost $12,000 dollars worth of goods and had his entire life vanish after being assassinated. Yet for as much as that person has experienced a huge loss, balance that with the fact that nothing in real life has happened. They have not been physically hurt, they have not lost anything tangible, it has all occurred in their minds. Milder variations would be players realizing that World of Warcraft turned sour after their guild turned on them or the pettiness of the lifestyle finally became too much. An article with Science Daily highlights one of the interesting discoveries about comparing MMO games versus single player ones: the emotional stakes are much higher. The experiences can either be much more negative than losing in a single-player game or much more positive.

What’s appealing about this process is that the engagement is entirely voluntary. The player generates the values and realities that setup the ritual for us. Instead of the mother pretending to protect the child but not being able to stop the metaphorical outside world, the player invests themselves into a game. When they experience loss, when they lose their epic empire or character, the player is simulating the same loss that these rituals provided. The things they valued in the world and relied upon are gone and they must find a new outlook to continue on. The ritual’s success is ensured not because of some clever design or by how large the loss is, but rather that the person has already established that this is the thing they care about because of the time devoted to it. What the child treasures before the ritual is abandoned to learn the ways of being an adult. The appeal of the video game is that you’re not actually hurting the person beyond the mental realm.

It’s hard to discuss this topic without sounding malicious so I want to emphasize now that I’m not proposing video games should be seen as some way to destroy a person. If you have an artistic medium where a person is putting themselves into the experience, then the trauma of loss in a video game can hardly be called as cruel as if I was proposing everyone needed something physically done to them. Is the loss of our wife in Jason Rohrer’s Passage incorrect because it is sad? Or is it poignant because in some unique way the loss is real without actually being real?

In many ways all this article is proposing that games can be used for the exact opposite purpose that we’re using them for today. We're talking about a game that isn't just about making you happy or feel a sense of mastery and competence. Expressions of The Warrior or The King tap into our unconscious needs. The way we know this is working is because addiction is already becoming prevalent for people who cannot find these feelings in their day to day lives. A Washington Post article on gaming addiction explains, “Symptoms included spending increasing amounts of time and money on video games to feel the same level of excitement; irritability or restlessness when play is scaled back; escaping problems through play; skipping chores or homework to spend more time at the controller; lying about the length of playing time; and stealing games or money to play more.” For as much as we want to call it escapism and wish-fulfillment, the source of those desires always go back to a person’s own life. A study based on 813 college students found that people who play games heavily often report having unsatisfying social lives. Did their lives turn sour because of the games or did they turn to games because they couldn’t find much satisfaction in the college lifestyle? Jeremy Taylor (one of the dream therapy writers) points out that the chronic sign of emotional repression is a repeating dream. Identifying what kind of experience a game is generating and the possible psychological connections may be a great way to help people start dealing with the issues their excessive use indicates. If the choice of games is indicative of a personal need, how is that not all the diagnosis one needs for how to find a more fulfilling life?

None of this explores the already perceived benefits that people feel from having something in their lives that allows them to act out the archetypal behavior of empowerment. A survey of 1,000 gamers asked each to explain why they like to play video games. The study synopsis explains, “Players reported feeling best when the games produced positive experiences and challenges that connected to what they know in the real world. The research found that games can provide opportunities for achievement, freedom, and even a connection to other players.” The article phrases this with the typical “Why Are Games Hard To Give Up?” slant that is prevalent in a culture that’s afraid of games, but the potential for virtual experiences really can’t be underestimated. Another survey that asked players to explain specific advantages notes, “Among the top skills gamers feel they’ve acquired were improved hand-eye coordination, faster reaction times and reflexes and more interactivity. Other skills cited included patience, understanding, creativity and precision.” The first couple are expected: they’re stuff someone fulfilling a warrior archetypal fantasy would say they’re developing. But patience, understanding, and creativity? These are the things a person who feels like they’re living a balanced and positive lifestyle would claim to feel, not an addict.

Or it might simply be a part of a larger coping mechanism. After finding out his cousin had been critically injured by an IED one blogger talks about playing Call of Duty 4 as a form of catharsis. He wanted to find some way to connect with his cousin. He explains, “COD 4 tapped into our national insecurities, providing gamers a safe way (if only indirectly) to fight back.” Even though he wouldn’t have survived ten minutes in Iraq, the game allowed him to vent his frustration and feel like he was participating in the conflict in a meaningful way. Is it the real thing? No. But it might be good enough for a person who wouldn’t be involved in combat in the first place.

That is how the ideas of Jung on dreams could be applied to video games to make them a vehicle for change in a person.

On another note, sorry if these last two have stuck with strictly male psychology stuff. Since so many games are tapping into male fantasies I decided I might as well stay with what people are familiar with. I’d also imagine a woman would be a better authority on what they’re getting after in games. I do agree with Moore though, it’s pretty obvious that no matter what your gender we’re mostly getting the same things out of games.

And that massive tone shift brings us to an end. This series has been a joy to write and something that I’ve been thinking about for about a year. My Mom is a therapist and one night while I was visiting for dinner we got to talking about the psychology going on in video games. She does a fair amount of marriage counseling and brought up how you turn a lot of it into a video game like Wii Sports. I actually ended up posting it back when Steve Gaynor was doing that Call to Arms Series, if you want to see how the idea works. I was developing the Zarathustran series then and that was what I founded most of the experience ideas on. I tried working out the concept in the final essay and I got close, but I wanted to come back to what I thought games were capable of. I’m going to end with the Joseph Campbell quote I ended that one on almost a year ago. He wrote,

“Art, literature, myth and cult, philosophy, and ascetic disciplines are instruments to help the individual past his limiting horizons into spheres of ever-expanding realization. As he crosses threshold after threshold, conquering dragon after dragon, the stature of the divinity that he summons to his highest wish increases, until it subsumes the cosmos. Finally, the mind breaks the bounding sphere of the cosmos to a realization transcending all experiences of form – all symbolizations, all divinities: a realization of the ineluctable void.”

I’ll be simmering these four down to a nice piece for Popmatters and as always will take the comments into account. Thank you very much for your time.

1 comment:

Daniel Purvis said...

Pleasure to read the series man. Would love to comment but not sure where to start :P