Gaming and Power Fantasies

So, I came across a video by Extra Credits talking about the problem with power fantasies and subtitling it “We Aren’t Always Right”. Now, as it’s a video quoting directly from it is a bit difficult, so let me try to sum up what I think the main argument is:

Most games contain some kind of power fantasy element, but for true power fantasies to work we have to always be right. This can lead to bad and potentially dangerous ideas. They think it would be good if games stopped for self-reflection and asked if the player’s powerful actions really are right, and take on what they seem to think is the main argument against that that it would ruin the power fantasy by arguing that those looking for a power fantasy are not so fragile as to have their experience ruined by such a thing, and so more games should do it.

The problem is that the entire video is short and incredibly vague. It moves from talking about games having power fantasy elements to talking about a true power fantasy, but gives no way to determine what counts as a power fantasy element vs a true power fantasy, and so leaves us no way to distinguish the two. Which is incredibly important, it turns out, as we need to know that to determine how common true power fantasies are in gaming. If they aren’t very common, then this likely isn’t all that big a problem. From there, the video moves on to talk about power fantasies generally in the context of combat and killing people, and thus essentially carves out the FPS genre specifically, and thus makes it unclear whether or not RPGs, in general, count. It also seems to treat combat as being, in their own words, “rampaging”, which in and of itself isn’t a big theme in most games, which at least try to give you a self-defense motive to kill those enemies. The big example used is of Uncharted, a game that I have not played, asserting that the protagonist is killing lots and lots of people just to get to the treasure at the end. Even if that is true for Uncharted, how common is that in gaming in general?

And when we consider whether what they are suggesting is going to ruin the power fantasy experience, we need to know what that experience is and what goal they are really pursuing, which the video never really talks about. Sure, they might have an entire half-hour video sussing all of that out — I’m not a regular viewer of theirs — but we really needed more than “It makes you feel powerful!” for a topic this complex. So, my general definition of power fantasy is going to be someone doing something that makes them feel strong or skilled or competent in a way that they don’t feel in every day life. Thus, simply being powerful and killing things may or may not be a power fantasy, as some players might prefer feeling like their charismatic, competent, skilled, or even important in a way that they aren’t in their real-lives. To their credit, the video does hint at this in their brief definition of power fantasy, but they focus on overall strength for the entire rest of the video, and I think it is important to note that a power fantasy may merely be competence, not overwhelming power. Thus, for example, someone might get a power fantasy out of a dating sim because the game makes them feel like they can attract members of the appropriate sex, whereas in real life they don’t have anywhere near that success. They also might get a power fantasy out of playing Batman not because of the bodies he leaves behind, but instead because he is someone who is always prepared for any situation, whereas in real life they at least feel like they aren’t. And so on and so forth. Focusing on questions of whether things are right doesn’t really make sense for those sorts of situations, where either the morals are clear or there isn’t really a moral question involved.

And on top of that, it’s also clear that the same game — even one that they think is a pure power fantasy — might be played by different people for different reasons. Someone might play Uncharted, say, because they want that purported power fantasy. Someone else might want to experience the story. Someone else might enjoy the gameplay. So even the most power fantasy game may well draw players who aren’t really interested in following the power fantasy, who have to be taken into account when you do these sorts of things.

And this leads to their last great vagueness: they don’t really say what they mean when they want the game to stop for self-examination and ask the player, presumably, if what they’re doing is right. Sure, they have some hypotheticals, but none of them would, in general, work in a game without being a literal immersion breaking record scratch, to use the metaphor they themselves use in the video. Presumably, we don’t want it to be the game stepping that far outside of itself to make this point, so it’ll have to be integrated into the game somehow. They give examples of some games that have tried … but I haven’t played any of them and so have no idea what they mean, and they don’t even give one real example.

So, let’s talk about the problem with this, which starts from the fact that presumably this, in general, isn’t going to be strictly a story point and is going to be something aimed at the player, or at least that they want the player to think about along with the player’s character. This is problematic because of the nature of games, where the game sets up the rules of the game and the player has to accept those strictures in order to play the game. Those strictures can be strict or they can be loose, but in general the game sets up the structure and lets us in on the assumptions it wants us to make, and then if we want to play the game for whatever reason we have to accept those strictures and assumptions and, ultimately, that world. If you want to play the open world Grand Theft Auto games, for example, you have to accept that your character is, at the very least, going to be a shady character and is going to have to commit some crimes during the game, even if all you want to do is follow the story, or do the open world activities.

So if a game sets up a world where to play the game we have to do certain things or, at least, are very strongly encouraged to do certain things, and then stops the game to ask us, the player, if what we’re doing is right, no matter why we’re playing the game we are likely to exclaim “This is what you told me I had to do to play the game!”. If we want to play the game, we have to accept its rules, and if its rules said that we had to do certain things to advance in the game, it’s not particularly fair for the game to them ask us if what we are doing is in some sense right. As an example, in the Persona games starting from Persona 3 you can romance various people and enter into, at the end of their Social Link, a relationship. You can do this with more than one person, essentially entering into what is presented as a dedicated relationship and have more than one formal girlfriend at a time. In Persona 4 and Persona 5, however, if you do that there will be consequences when they find out about it. Persona 4’s involves you having to essentially reject all but one of them for Valentine’s Day, with them clearly heartbroken over it, and you have to do it to their face, which can be wrenching. This would be a nice, in-game example of the game asking you, the player, through the character, if what you did was right. (Interestingly, the Persona 5 version is less dark given that Persona 5 was a darker game than Persona 4). But in Persona 4 and Persona 5 you were allowed when finishing the S-links with the girls to choose whether the relationship was friends or boyfriend/girlfriend, and you got pretty much all of the benefits of the S-link whether you chose friend or girlfriend. Thus, at the end of the day you, the player, made the decision to pursue a relationship with more than one girl, and so it’s fair for the game to call you out for that choice.

However, you don’t have that choice in Persona 3. If you max out the S-link with a girl, you are entering into a relationship with them, and you want to max out S-links so that you can fuse powerful Personas. Thus, the game doesn’t give you the choice of friends or not and sets up the game that you’d be greatly impaired if you don’t max out S-links with more than one girl. If Persona 3 had done the strong call outs of this that we see in Persona 4 and Persona 5, players would, rightly, feel that they were being called out for doing something that the game essentially made them do, which is not going to seem at all fair. This is going to cause hard feelings towards the game and any point that the game tried to make doing that would be lost.

This seems to be a common reaction to Spec Ops: The Line, which tried to subvert the FPS genre this way. While a number of people — Shamus Young included — really liked the subversion, and while I suspect that it’s the sort of thing that they’d like to see in games, many people seemed to feel that the game was chiding them for doing the things that the game made them do in order to keep playing. What were they supposed to do, quite playing? So they felt — in my opinion, reasonably — that the game deliberately set up the game to make them think that it was following the standard FPS tropes and assumptions, gave no or little indication that they should or could do something else, and then chided them for accepting the game as they presented it to them. The risk of asking the player if what they are doing is right is precisely this sort of reaction: why are you asking me if what you made me do to play the game is right? I’m playing a game here, I’m following your rules, and so if there’s any right or wrong here you probably should have thought of that before you put those mechanisms into the game. Especially since for many players — even those interested in a power fantasy — the things you are questioning are nothing more than the things they have to put up with in order to get to the parts of the game that they actually are interested in.

They make a comment later about it being a good thing to do even if the answer is “Yes”, by there being a sufficient justification, which leads to the second problem with this: if you are asking the player this question, they are the only ones who can answer it. The game can’t answer it for them. Thus, you need to be prepared for them to answer “No” as well as to answer “Yes”. If they answer “No”, what options do they have? Is their only option to stop playing the game? That’s not really what you wanted. But the game can’t assume that they’ll answer “No” either. What do you do? If this is a story point, then you’re more likely to be able to get away with answering it for the character — although that can be risky as well if the player doesn’t feel their character would agree — but if you are asking the player this and want them to think hard about it and answer it you have to be prepared for their answer, and have the game react accordingly. That’s not easy to do, but if you don’t do it you will get players who simply quit the game because it assumes the answer they didn’t give.

So it’s not really fragility that’s the issue here. It’s that doing stuff like this is really hard to pull of without ruining the game for the player. Some will be bitter that the game is asking them to self-reflect on things that it made them to to play the game. Some will be bitter that the game assumes an answer that they didn’t give to that question. Story players will be annoyed that this is aimed at the player and not the character, and that it takes time out from the story to deliver this pointless message. Gameplay players will be annoyed that this message is taking them out of playing the game, and they weren’t even paying attention at all to the things it’s aiming at, since, for example, you could have replaced all the people with target dummies and they still would have played it because the gameplay would have been the same. Even those interested in a power fantasy might complain that the killing isn’t the sort of power that they’re interested in, and asking whether or not that’s right is again asking them to self-examine over something that they were only doing to get to the good parts.

It seems to me that the video presents power fantasies as being more common than they are, and doesn’t get why that sort of self-examination can cause issues for all players, no matter why they’re playing the game. So, yes, it can be an issue, and it’s not just “fragility” that’s the issue there.

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2 Responses to “Gaming and Power Fantasies”

  1. Tetris Says:

    A related point: for a subversion to work, the parent trope needs to be firmly established. For something like Spec Ops: The Line to function as intended, the FPS genre and its defining characteristics need to be familiar. Hence, to question what the player is doing and what the genre is all about is not something that every game can do.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      At least not in the way they want. Shamus is doing a series on Borderlands, which takes a very comedically sociopathic view of FPSes, and while the trope is well known stopping in the middle of that game to ask those questions WOULD ruin it, because the whole point is to get you to not think about the real consequences and, in fact, to think that they aren’t real.

      RPGs might also have a problem with it for the reasons I outlined: the story is supposed to be already justifying it, and it’s the character that’s making the choices, not the player. Asking the player to think about, say, whether they should be getting their Dark Side Sith to do those horrible things is going to fall flat.

      Most genres and series will have some sort of established tropes that can be subverted, but not all — and perhaps not most — will have the tropes that they want to subvert from the video.

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