Emotionally Investing in Games and Their Characters
Emotionally Investing in Games and Their Characters: A Justification of Why your Best Buds are Space Alien Pixel Clusters.
Who is in the video game fan base? The Baby Boomer generation probably has a word or two to say about the perceived basement dwellers, hermits and recluses of the community (because what don’t they have an opinion on). In addition to the high school student, tech enthusiast and internet savant, the gamer crowd is populated with dog moms, bank tellers, surgeons and buttoned-up business women. Every one of them can leave their day job, step out of the monotony of their everyday identity, and in a very real way, become Commander of the Normandy, Hero of the Galaxy.
Google any topic (leave this tab open while you search for “cats in hats”) and find yourself bombarded with blogs, listicles, and testimonies from thousands of impassioned contributors to the world wide web. Gamers and their enthusiasm for the franchises they love are no different. The webosphere is bursting with odes on what there is to cherish about video games.
Authors, philosophers and scientists have chimed into the conversation, eager to validate our affection for the fictional. Here we will argue not only for the legitimacy of games as fully-realized worlds of art, but advocate for our roles in them. The emotional investment we experience with games and their characters directly reflects on our ability to project ourselves into the protagonist. (And spoiler alert: our feelings are backed up with science.)
Why we Love Games
How many relationships might come to a screeching halt if one partner were given the opportunity to colonize an alien garden planet, open a candy shop in the steampunk city of Columbia, or hunker down over a fire in Haven? Our lips say we know it’s fictional, but what might a die-hard gamer exchange for the chance to stroll through the fields of Hyrule?
The logical launch pad for this conversation starts with what there is to love about today’s bounty of video games, particularly modern RPGs. As Sam Mag’s puts it in her three cheers for BioWare:
“When was the last time you played a game (or read a book, or flipped through a comic, or watched a television show, or saw a movie) where the savior of the universe was a lesbian woman of color? In a BioWare game, that’s not just within the realm of possibility, it’s completely normalized. The rarity with which marginalized people are able to see ourselves as the heroes of these stories makes BioWare’s titles that much more appealing to gamers and active fan communities.”
She’s regaling the customizable options of BioWare’s protagonists. In their blockbuster franchises Mass Effect and Dragon Age, you are able to modify the main character to reflect not only how you look, but how you feel—you know, in your heart. Customizations allow us to create characters that we can see ourselves in, and then those characters—those versions of us—are able to make moral choices, cultivate deep friendships, and court romantic interests in whatever ways we want. They are extensions of us, manifesting hopes and dreams and other lofty, frilly abstract nouns.
In the video game’s inherently interactive medium of story telling, we’re able to take part as the protagonist in deeply flushed-out, complex worlds.
“The Lore is my favorite part,” states Scott, a life-long gamer from North Dakota. “In the [Mass Effect] codex you can find out infinitely more about the biology, the culture, the history, etc of every race than you ever need to know. You get details about the ships, the cities, just everything. You know you’re stepping into a conversation that feels like it’s existed for a thousand years. When you want to know more, there’s always more.”
The fully-realized universes of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Jordan’s Wheel of Time, and now Ruthfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles don’t have to be literature-specific. The same care and development goes in to the creation of the games we love with the unique added benefit of being able to stay in that world, even after the story has finished.
“When a book’s over, it’s over.” Contributes Liana, 23, a pre-med student from Minnesota. “When a game is over, you can keep doing side quests, you can play in some of them in multi-player, you can read more in the codex, you can keep talking to characters. You don’t have to be done until you want to be, and when you start over, you can sometimes make different choices and experience the game in a new way. You can’t do that with books.”
In addition to the feeling of adventure, the stunning graphics of today’s games are nothing less than a contribution to the world of art. I’m sure it can be said that some days, to the horror of the global community of parents (and probably Michelle Obama) a gamer might skip going outside in favor of taking a stroll through the Hinterlands, plugged into our consoles. The love and appreciation for art doesn’t need to be argued as we’d be hard-pressed to find someone with the balls to say the Mona Lisa doesn’t matter. Perhaps convincing the world that video games are viable members of the artistic community is worth pursuing when the topic is explaining why we love video games.
Why We Invest in the Characters
With fully realized worlds and the ability to see ourselves as the protagonist, it makes sense that the characters who march along side us as our squad mates, our counterparts, and our playable characters begin to feel like friends. After all, they’re the protagonist’s friends, and we are the protagonist.
Novelist and BBC contributor Will Self philosophically tackled the topic of character relationships. First he pauses to compliment the beauty of well-done fiction, commenting that it’s already an astonishing feat to regard an invented scenario as believable or impactful to human life.
His article is wordy and jargon-heavy, but he uses the example of Anna Karenina to explore the idea of eternity. “Anna Karenina’s fate” he writes, “like those of all fictional characters – was, is, and will always be utterly determined.” In a chilling, potentially disturbing evolution, Self goes on to say, “It occurs to me that it’s precisely in fictional characters’ conviction – despite all evidence to the contrary – that they are the authors of their own lives, that they resemble us most. We really intuit that in between the alternative scenarios of chaotic contingency and universal necessity, there can’t possibly be any real wiggle-room within which the human will can operate, yet we persist – and cannot help persisting – in the delusion that we too are the authors of our own lives.”
Self’s bleak mouthful of a fatalist view takes a less depressing turn if we reflect on our free will to choose. (Must be a Calvinist thing?) The very joy of free will is more accurately represented in today’s RPGs than in the linear mode of literature.
If DNA strands and lab coats are more your thing, Abby Norman has written for The Mary Sue about the psychological implications of fandom, exploring the “realness” we experience. She uses science (because someone had to) in order to explain what it is we’re feeling when we bond with fictional characters.
The snappily-named right supramarginal gyrus is responsible for the empathy we’re able to project not only onto other humans, but onto fictional characters as well.
Norman thrills fans everywhere when she says, “On a neurobiological level, our experience of consuming fiction is actually very real. Measurably so.”
My Best Buds are Space Aliens
Emotional investment in the video game characters occurs not only because of their well-written dialogue, their developed backgrounds, and their opportunities to live beyond their medium (hello, fanfic), but for their “realness”. When we stop the Reapers, we’re not only involved in an authentic sense of accomplishment, but we get to share it with an equally legitimate group of pals.
Science says it’s real. Why argue with science?
What do you think? Leave a comment.