The Power Fantasy

A game is often reduced in stature for failing to meet fairly arbitrary social guidelines as set forth by the media. This stature reduction comes in the form of pithy comments, my favorite of which is “male power fantasy” or of similar blends. It is an interestingly sexist perspective, but it is also one which misunderstands games themselves.

We engage in games generically as an experience, or as a mechanic. Mechanic oriented games, one could call them “pure” games, are typically puzzles such as Tetris. They often border on the toy territory, but being constrained by a rule set, they retain their game status. Then there are experience oriented games, something the “average gamer” thinks of, be this Doom, FarmVille, Microsoft Flight Sim, Diablo, Uncharted, or Plants vs Zombies – these games all provide a specific experience. More specifically they provide an out of reach fiction, a fantasy. These fantasies can thus be divided by an emphasis on what is happening, and an emphasis on what you are doing – immersion and input respectively. I don’t fantasize about doing things I can already do readily, I fantasize about things I am not in a position to do, whether it is a matter of logistics or reality. I have never experienced being trapped in a deeply haunted castle (Amnesia), shooting my way through Hell (Doom), managing a farm with great ease (FarmVille), or acted as the only human in a world of goblins while seeking to uncover my identity (Awakening: The Goblin Kingdom). Nor have I piloted a Cessna across a state, or operated a street cleaner. These are all immersions and points of input not readily (or ever) available to me.

Black Ops 2 multiplayer recognizing a significant presence in the game and rewarding the player visually.

Black Ops 2 multiplayer recognizing a significant presence in the game and rewarding the player visually.

All of these are fantasies, and on the matter of input wherein you are the protagonist, they are power fantasies. Much of the pursuit of life is for a sense of purpose. Goals, philosophies, religious beliefs, any form of identity is generally wrapped in a teleological function and games are no different. We enjoy them for this delivery of a goal, this brief experience of a purpose that we are not getting in our lives. Where literature and film let us experience the lives of supposedly greater people, video games let us be those people within that world. Is there a more important person in the Doom universe than the lone marine? Who makes a bigger difference than the hero in Diablo? Yes not all games make you the most important, I suspect that the Zone in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. would go on just fine without me but it isn’t the same again once I begin taking action.

The player's decisions can have a profound emotional impact, not just physical.

The player’s decisions can have a profound emotional impact, not just physical.

Yes, these power fantasies often are in the form of a gun, or a blade. Why? Well it is a clear dichotomy, it is an obvious understanding. Not only that, it is easier to program. It is a far more daunting task to quantify a debate than it is to see if the gun was lined up with the monster when the player clicked their mouse. But if someone were to quantify debate, you can bet the games made with it would be ones where our speech makes a difference, where it is heard – even if we lose, it is still heard. That is the power fantasy of games. It is the presence of substantiation for the player, and that is one of the pillars of games being thus far the highest art form humanity has created yet.

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