The hero with a thousand helmets

Whenever I watch, or read, or appreciate some story, I pool a bit of my own mind into that of the protagonist.[1] For a few hours while leaning over my eBook reader, I live in vicarious wonder; and at the Astor Theatre, or Malthouse Theatre, or around a campfire on the banks of the Murry, I again piggyback on the journey of my hero. Yet in these latter cases, so too is everyone else around me, disseminating fragments of us throughout the cast of the film, or play, or story. We psychically entangle ourselves with the figures on the screen or stage.[2]

In fully customizable games such as World of Warcraft, something else happens – for there, the hero is my own invention. My character becomes the vehicle by which I can manifest within, and explore, another plain of existence – my avatar, if you will.[3] I control the vertical and the horizontal – the way my character walks, the words that they talk. No one else lives through my avatar – unless I have someone is leaning over my shoulder in rapt attention, or I shared my saves online – for everyone is too busy leveling up their own.

In semi-customizable games such as Mass Effect, I see a hybrid of these two extremes. I play the game at home, and off line. I control and possess Shepard – not the other way around. Yet I have a very similar character template as everyone else who plays Mass Effect, and I am constrained to a set number of choices. I play a unique variation of a generic Shepard. I customize the hero archetype, imbuing it with different details of my own biography, and choose which parts of my psyche to explore. For instance, I might choose to be myself, or my persona, or I might want to explore the dark side of my psyche – my shadow aspect. If I am playing a contrasexual figure (for instance, when I, a guy, am playing FemShep) I am exploring my anima; yet when my female colleague and fellow-geek is playing male Shep, she is engaging her animus; and when Sharon Stone is playing, she can engage … Okay, I’ll stop now.

Such games allow us to explore what interactivity might mean for our understanding of the nature of ‘art’ – as well as to further our appreciation for what art can mean for ourselves and for our relationships with each other. However, before you accuse me of intellectualizing my excessive game playing by misplacing a first-person shooter under the category of ‘art’, note that the idea now has currency (at least in some jurisdictions). In June 2011, for instance, the U.S. Supreme Court voted 7-2 that “video games can be afforded the same constitutional protections as visual art, film, music and other forms of expression.” They continued:
“Like the protected books, plays, and movies that preceded them, video games communicate ideas—and even social messages—through many familiar literary devices (such as characters, dialogue, plot, and music) and through features distinctive to the medium (such as the player’s interaction with the virtual world).”
(Incidentally, the Supreme Court judges also explored the argument that violence in video games leads to violence in real life – and argued that if this was really a concern for regulators, we should start banning Disney as well.[4])

By extension, video games – particularly role-playing games such as the Mass Effect trilogy – have the capacity to serve as socially beneficial narratives.

The extent of RPGs’ interactivity, not the presence of interactivity itself, distinguishes them from traditional literature. For according to Reader Response Theory, I am never a passive recipient of even in the most traditional forms of narrative such as linear books.[5] I interact with texts, talk back to them – I interpret them in class, skip a boring paragraph, jump to the last page half way through, email the author, or even post some fan fiction to the web. I ‘take charge’ of my reading experience, eagerly engaging in the world with which the author presents me, or ‘reading around’ unsavory elements. Fan-fiction, mash-ups, slash-fiction; science fiction ‘cons’; coz play – the ways that I can take ownership of a story are endless. Some books, such as the ‘Choose your own adventure’ stories (that, incidentally, have sold a quarter of a billion copies) actively encourage this – but most of no choice in the matter.

While ‘talking back’ to a book is a challenge (particularly if I had been encouraged to accept a book wholesale) Role Playing Games actively encourage me to contribute to the narrative. Furthermore, by allowing me to choose from a selection of conversational scripts by which to interact with non-playing characters, for instance, they transform me into both reader and writer. Reader response theory explores how, by force of will, imagination, and my own individuality, I ‘create’ my own text inside my mind every time I start a new book. There could well be a ‘writer response theory’ developed to explore computer games – for with role-playing, this ‘text creation’ is not only a natural outcome but also welcome. My contribution to the narrative requires much less ‘force of will’: as soon as I began playing Mass Effect – in customizing my player’s appearance, for instance – I am encouraged to help build the story that my protagonist takes.

The idea of a ‘gamer response theory’ is burgeoning, yet I take for granted that as games become increasingly immersive (and take up more and more hours of our lives) some very sophisticated questions will need to be asked about the nuanced effects that artifacts such as RPGs can have on our conscience, and on our lives.

Image by Cliff Nordman


[1] Something very similar is described, very ostensibly, in the novella Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? , in relation to the ‘Empathy Box’, which users interact with to pool their conscience into that of Wilbur Mercer, a Sisyphean-like figure who is constantly pushing a boulder up a hill while having stones thrown at him.

[2] This collective, vicarious experience can have a very important social function, as they allow us (in quasi-Jungian terms) to synchronize our value system with an archetype. A good example would be Passion Plays – “a dramatic presentation depicting the Passion of Jesus Christ: his trial, suffering and death.”

[3] Speaking of avatars - in the film, Avatar, there is a dualism present between the Mech Warriors, and the bio-engineered avatars that the humans ‘pilot’. Clearly, in a classic nature versus technology pattern the story privileges the latter over the former. And yet they are both instances of disconnection from our ‘real bodies’ - even if the Mech warrior is clunky, and clearly designed for violence, the tall green creatures grown in a tank are a similar level removed from our real beings. The privileging that is offered for the biological avatars is that Sam Worthington’s character is able to transfer his conscience permanently to his avatar, and leave his old wheelchair-constrained body behind. Both instances - the Mech-warrior and the avatar - are transcendental, that is, they are a means of ‘escaping’ and going beyond our regular, native, physical form.

[4] “Psychological studies purporting to show a connection between exposure to violent video games and harmful effects on children do not prove that such exposure causes minors to act aggressively. Any demonstrated effects are both small and indistinguishable from effects produced by other media. Since California has declined to restrict those other media, e.g., Saturday morning cartoons, its video-game regulation is wildly underinclusive, raising serious doubts about whether the State is pursuing the interest it invokes or is instead disfavoring a particular speaker or viewpoint.”

[5] Reader-response theory recognizes the reader as an active agent who imparts "real existence" to the work and completes its meaning through interpretation. Reader-response criticism argues that literature should be viewed as a performing art in which each reader creates his or her own, possibly unique, text-related performance. - Reader Response Criticism, Wikipedia