So, finally, for the first time, I’m going to cover one of the essays in “Battlestar Galactica and Philosophy”, mostly because it is based on video games and how gamers associate with their digital avatars. The essay is by Luke Cuddy and is called “The Avatar and the Ego”. It focuses on Freudian psychology, and in general treats games as a way for the ego to reconcile the demands of the id and the superego, by allowing us to do things that we couldn’t do in real life. This, Cuddy thinks, explains a great deal of the anger that we feel when we fail, and when we gripe that the game is somehow unfair or unreasonable in not allowing us to play out the role that we’re trying to play out. Cuddy does comment that, of course, sometimes it is because the game isn’t fair, but the basic idea is that if we are piloting our Vipers and we are suddenly shot down, we retract from the avatar. So he argues that this is an ability that we have in games, and which is what facilitates our using them to reconcile our id and our superego.
While Cuddy admits that different people play games for different reasons, ultimately they all come down to this sort of attempt to reconcile the id and the superego. The problem is that in a lot of ways what’s really happening is the same thing that happens when you watch a TV show: you lose the suspension of disbelief. When you’re piloting a Viper, you are trying to be one of the heroes of the show, not one of the “nuggets”. When you get shot down and you see the “Game Over” screen, you aren’t a hero anymore, not a main character, not the star of the show anymore. You’re a bit player at best. And so that anger and frustration you feel is the same sort of frustration that a character who thought they were a hero but died ignominiously feels (for an example of this, see the story of the Jedi with the great destiny told by Jolee Bindo in Knights of the Old Republic). Also, there may be cases where the game elements become clear. For example, recently I started playing “Record of Agarest War Zero” again and hadn’t been keeping track of my “Fragments of Life”. Due to a nasty combo, one of my characters went down … and I didn’t have one left to revive him, which meant that I would have had to finish the battle — which I might have been able to do — and then likely have to get him revived at the infirmary, and he wouldn’t have gotten the XP for the battle and … well, the long and short of it is that after being reminded of all of the gameplay hassles that I’d have to go through, I stopped for the day. This was not due to any clash of my id and superego, but more that I generally enjoy the game and mostly enjoy following the story, and the game issues just made that that much more difficult. So when the gameplay breaks the experience and reminds you that you’re playing a game, you can’t associate yourself with the avatar anymore.
In general, people play games to, well, have fun. I have no doubt that what often appeals to people playing games is the ability, in the game, to get something that they don’t get from other hobbies or in their every day life. So, for example, people who don’t have very challenging lives might be drawn to games in order to get a challenge. People might enjoy being able to participate in a dramatic environment. Or they might enjoy being able to participate in something fantastical or imaginative. But although games do feature more participation from the player than other media, often what they give us is pretty much the same thing that they do. And, in theory, those other media then also allow for us to reconcile the id and the superego, although with other media it’s far more vicarious than it is with games. That being said, much of the time even games will be played “just for fun”, just as a way to distract us from the world and give ourselves and our minds something to do, without any deep psychological purpose at all. And it seems to me that the most anger is reserved for the times when the game ruins my fun, not when it ruins my id/superego combat.