Game Association

I haven’t talked about a video from Extra Credits for a while, so let me look at a recent one today. The video is about “The Catharsis of Doing”, and talks about how games by their nature get us to actually do things, which then can affect us in different ways than simply watching a movie or reading a book can. This, of course, is at its base rather obvious. Chuck Sonnenberg, for example, talks about how Dragon Age Origins showing you the impacts of your choices as your army heads out for the final battle (in part 10) makes that incredibly epic, pointing out that if you see the dwarves marching that means that you chose to not save the Forge and allow the creation of golems instead, and that the mages being there instead of Templars means that you managed to save the mages. So, it is definitely the case that you doing things does make things different than just passively watching other people do it. But then that raised a question for me: do what extent are you, the player, actually doing it?

Because most of the examples in the video, and even Chuck’s example, rely heavily on the player associating themselves strongly with the character they are playing, so much so that they really see themselves to be the character in the game. If a game is going to make you feel regret for the choice you made, then it’s going to have to be the case that the character is you and not a character you are playing. If you feel frustrated over not being able to get over a hurdle in a game, or feel like a success because you did, then that game and game session is going to have to become part of your life and one of the things that are a crucial part of it. And if you feel good for making the choices that lead to the army that you have, then again it’s going to be you, as the player, who decided that, and not your character.

This way of thinking, I now realize, is rather foreign to me, because I tend to play not as myself but as character. I played 9 or 10 characters in The Old Republic, none of which were me in any way (despite a friend making that assumption when I showed him my first character, which I was trying to play as Corran Horn). Even in the games that are closer to me — for example, where I use my own name — I’m not really me. I might try to make decisions as if I was me, but in general I’m always asking myself what my character would do, not what I would do.

Sure, when I’m just playing a game and focusing on the gameplay, then failing at it feels like my own failure, and that can impact my mood. But even then, if games are supposed to be an escape from the world if I’m feeling frustrated I know very well to avoid playing games that will frustrate me more, and it is far more often the case that frustrations in the real world will make me less able to tolerate frustration in a game than that frustration in a game will add to my frustrations in the real world, because it’s only a game, after all. And it’s hard for me to feel regret in a game because it’s never me doing it, but instead is my character doing it. For example, one of my TOR characters was a Michael Garibaldi ex-pat — who was the brother of my Sith Warrior — who started out in the Empire, got drummed out of the military for drunkenness and then went to the Republic as a Smuggler once had a choice in a quest to side with either an attractive Sith or an attractive Jedi. He didn’t have any real loyalty to either side, and spent his time flirting madly with both of them. When it became clear that the Jedi wasn’t going to offer him a tryst as a reward but that the Sith was, he sided with the Sith and killed the Jedi. Now, this is a pretty despicable thing to do, but I didn’t feel any guilt or regret over doing it, because I didn’t do it. That character might have regretted it later when he reformed, but I didn’t.

For me, in general, when I take an action in a game I’m either doing it as a character in a game, or am doing it as part of the game itself. I might take an evil action just to see what happens if I do — like killing a romanced Carth at the end of Knights of the Old Republic as a Dark Side character — or else to get a mechanical advantage in the game. But I don’t strongly associate myself with characters in a game, whether RPGs or other games. They are not me, and I am not them.

But I’m starting to realize that for many people this is not the case. From the complaints about not being “represented” in games to this video, it seems to me that for many people their escapism isn’t into a story of another world or of something that is not them, but is in fact them themselves. They might be trying to escape from their life into a world where they can have a better life, not a world that isn’t their life. So if that life doesn’t go the way they’d like it to, when they do things in that life that doesn’t align with their view of themselves and their morality, when the character in that life simply can’t be them for whatever reason, then the illusion of that being a separate and better life is shattered and their escapism and any kind of catharsis from that is lost.

The thing is, we know that we can have escapism without having to make that sort of strong association. Books, movies and TV shows, as the video points out, don’t allow for that and yet have always been excellent escapist media. By allowing the player to strongly associate themselves with the characters in the game, games allow for a different type of escapism, but I’m not sure that that sort of escapism is a good thing. It seems to me that the negatives pointed out in the video follow precisely from that sort of association, and yet if we, as they advise, try to remember that it’s just a game then the positive forms of catharsis that they talk about are likely going to be lost as well. Unless you think of your character as you, you will not get the “good” kinds of catharsis from your character doing things or achieving things, but once you do make that association you’ll also get the “bad” kinds of catharsis from your character doing things you wouldn’t or failing to achieve things. You can’t have one without the other.

I think this ties back into the “assumed empathy” that I talked about last week: people perhaps having less and less ability or less and less desire to associate themselves emotionally with people who are not them or not like them. This encourages them to instead of relating to the character make themselves the character and relate to the game and plot and emotional resonances that way. I don’t think this is a good thing, because it risks taking away the fun of the game, the fun of doing things that you wouldn’t do normally and in fact have little interest in doing just for the heck of it. It also seems to me to make the outcomes of the game have far too much importance. For me, my interest in finishing the Persona games had nothing to do with the games or my life in them itself, but instead from the external commitment I had made to do so. So when I couldn’t quite finish Persona or abandoned Persona 2 that was a personal failure not because my character who is me failed, but because I didn’t achieve a personal goal of mine. But I could be consoled in that by considering that in deciding to abandon them I had taken into account all of my desires and goals and capabilities and decided what was more important to me, and could make plans to do it later. That’s because it was all me as me, and the details of the game itself were completely separate from that; the goals of the characters were not important goals for me as me because _I_ wasn’t doing anything in the game itself. Only the characters were.

As I said, associating strongly with the character in a game is a foreign concept to me, so I don’t know if my impression of how those who do it do it is accurate. But if it is that way, then a failure in a game or a perma-death of a character could be devastating to people who feel that their lives are ruined because of it. That can’t be healthy.


2 Responses to “Game Association”

  1. Ester Says:

    I wonder if there’s an age/maturity component to it. What you’re discussing here seem related to a recent reflexion of mine regarding self-insert fanfics. When I was a teenager, I would insert myself as one of the canon characters in my favourite books or TV shows. These days, when I make up a self-insert fic, I insert me as myself in the world of the story, in order to interact with the world and/or the existing characters. I’ve gotten to know myself better, and I’ve grown more interested in getting to know the canon characters as characters, not as escape templates. So basically, I don’t identify (in the sense of fancying me and them identical) either with fictional characters or with other people any more. I do, on the other hand, tend to understand others a lot more. There are always personality facets I recognise from myself, as well as “roads not travelled”, choices I pondered but didn’t take, which this other person took, meaning I can totally see where they’re coming from. So, yay for some actual empathy! My interpretation is that I’ve matured.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      Interesting. I think that for that sort of imagining I pretty much always put myself into the story as opposed to simply being the character itself, at a minimum always being their character partly as myself and at most being myself in it. Otherwise, I just invented new stories with the characters. That might explain why the phenomena is so puzzling to me, because I never really did it.

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