Epic Life: The Mechanics of Power-Fantasy

How then do we understand our relationship, as players, to the games that for better or worse constitute mainstream game-culture? It would be easy enough to sidestep this question, and instead focus on the amazing things that the enormous “rest” of game-culture is doing. For the future of game-culture, indeed, we should be looking to people making games like Gone Home and Dysphoria, rather than to people making sequels to Assassin’s Creed and Call of Duty. Perhaps as an academic I’m even supposed to sidestep AAA games that way.

But, in the present, I have a daughter, and I have a son. My daughter loves Portal and Subway Surfers, and my son loves Pokemon, and Ghost Recon (on the few occasions he’s allowed to play it). They both love Super Mario Bros., and Mario Kart, and The Lord of the Rings Online.

Moreover, even as a Ph.D.-holding theoretician, I loved HALO, and am still, despite myself, fond of it, although I find I can no longer play shooting games with the same enjoyment I once did.

So I don’t know if you’re as interested as I am in figuring out how immersion and identification make us love the more popular examples of the games we love, but I hope you won’t take it amiss that I’m trying. After all, that kind of engagement with the performance of popular works of art is what created this thing called the humanities, even if the creation of the humanities led to the creation and performance of more complex and less popular (in both senses) works.

In order to carry out this analysis, I’m going to try to identify what I see as the most basic mechanical structures of the games we usually call AAA. For each of these structures, I’m going to point out what I see as the fundamental metaphor involved in the mechanic, and discuss how in various examples that metaphor becomes the vehicle of a kind of performance that creates what for want of a better term I’ll call “marketable immersion”–that is, the kind of immersion that sells games (and, perhaps even more importantly, sells sequels).

Let’s begin with shooting.

Anyone who played any pretend game as a child in which there was a bit of adventure in the ruleset almost certainly has held his or her forefinger and thumb in the gun-position. There seems no reason to doubt our intuitive feeling that the reticle that sits in the center of the interface of so many AAA games is a digital metaphor for the same practomimetic trope: in this game we relate to one another, to ourselves, and to our fiction as people who have guns, whether we’re a cowboy or a cop, or one of their opponents.

It is different, though perhaps not so very different that we can’t make heuristic use of the childhood practomime, that in most digital shooting games it’s not possible to relate to the world outside a gunsight. Imagine that instead of being able form and unform one’s finger-gun at will, one had rather (though without physical effort, to be sure) to keep it always in front of one, and could only upon very special occasions see the world any other way than through its sights.

I don’t want to push the point too hard, since there are so many AAA games that we call shooters these days that feature other important ways to relate to the possibility-space, and there are many more AAA games that feature shooting as an important mechanic (Mario Kart springs to mind) that are not shooters. I do want to begin to explore, though, the basic metaphoric nature of the mechanic, which in the case of what might be called the “pure” shooter absolutely dominates the player’s relationship to the ruleset.

The enchantment of wielding an imaginary gun, whether or not we want to bring anything psychosexual into the imaginative mix, would seem to be in in having the power emphatically to make one’s mark on the possibility-space, whether by slaying an enemy or by blowing up a gas tank with a well-placed shot from a sniper-rifle. The identification–that is, the source of immersion–inherent in the basic shooting mechanic of the standard AAA shooter would accordingly seem to make the player into the sort of metaphor (a special kind of metaphor called a character) that makes that kind of emphatic mark.

It’s a power-fantasy, to be sure, but from an Epic Life point of view, and indeed from a humanistic point of view, what fascinates and excites me about this analysis (and about this method of analysis)  is that when we see the mechanic as a metaphoric idenfication, suddenly other mechanics (say, dialogue-mechanics) develop the power to undercut that immersion in ways that are now more precisely describable, in a process I think is similar to what Piotr Kubinski has recently called “emersion.”

It’s not a big critical step, that is, to say that in a shooter you’re playing someone who shoots, but when we can describe what “playing someone who shoots” actually means, it becomes possible to talk both in descriptive and prescriptive ways about what sorts of other mechanics might comment on that fundamental one. What if your gun didn’t shoot straight, and the mark you made on the possibility-space was less emphatic, or incorrectly emphatic? What if under certain circumstances, when the possibility-space seems to allow you to lower your gun, you can’t actually do it?

In my next post I’ll talk about specific examples of the shooting mechanic and the possibilities for emersion in relation to it.

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