By Peter Thompson
Mythology is a collection of images and stories, more technically described as, “an organization of symbolic images and narratives metaphorical of the possibility of human experience and fulfillment in a given culture at a given time.” (Campbell, J., 1987).
Similarities between classical myths and modern day video games are plentiful and can easily be found by a close inspection and comparison of the two sources. Games are the modern day equivalent of myths because, just like myths, they tell stories and invite people to immerse themselves in that story through ritual interaction with the game (visually, kinetically and auditorily).
This essay will present some strong examples of these similarities as well as a counterargument that will help to demonstrate that video games are indeed modern day myths. The ‘hero cycle’ (see description below) that is found in all classical myths is likewise found in video games, and it provides a format with potential to aid in the construction of future games.
Furthermore, games not only act as the myths themselves, they also include rituals of engagement with the mythical content through the interactivity the player has with the hardware and the game.
Myths can also provide the game industry with useful templates for the creation of characters as well as a taxonomy system to identify the traits of existing video-game characters.
The Hero Cycle
According to Classical Mythologist Joseph Campbell, classical myths around the world portray a distinct underlying narrative that he has called the “hero cycle”. Campbell has identified that the structure of the hero cycle is made up of three distinct phases:
1. departure from the starting point;
2. a series of trials or initiations, and:
3. a return to civilization with (or without) some kind of trophy or education.
This ‘hero cycle’ is elaborated by Campbell in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which surveys hundreds of mythological sources from the past in order to demonstrate the underlying cycle. Due to the fact that these myths always align with the hero cycle, Campbell proposes that there is thus one universal cycle or “monomyth” that all narratives tend to align with (Campbell, J., 1949).
The hero cycle introduced by Campbell is useful for creating high-quality stories. For example it was used to form the core structure of the adventures in the Star Wars movies and games. The producer George Lucas used Campbell’s framework of departure-initiation-return, along with using many classical myths, as templates for constructing the scenes in the movie (Lacy, S., 1993). Joseph Campbell was also consulted by George Lucas throughout the making of Star Wars.
Just like the Star Wars movies, the hero cycle (or sections of it) can be used as the template for the creation of adventures and activities in the development of video games. Because the hero cycle is already articulated by Campbell, and each stage within the cycle is explained in great depth, it would not only make the job of constructing a video-game storyline much easier but also make the stories themselves stronger and deeper. By having these strong proven storylines, video games would be more likely to evoke higher emotions like sympathy, sorrow or love (as myths have throughout the eons) which helps to better define video games as art that creates and fosters an immersive experience for people playing the game.
Imagination and Archetypes
Analytical psychologist Carl Jung provides a convincing argument that the human imagination is structured by what he calls archetypes which refers to standard themes that appear again and again in the imagination of human beings throughout history in different cultures around the world (Jung, C. G., 1969).
Some examples of Jung’s archetypes are the mother archetype, father archetype, king archetype, lover archetype and warrior archetype. It is clear from even a brief survey of the characters and themes appearing in video games that the same archetypes referred to by Jung appear in them regularly. According to Jung these archetypes are embedded in the human psyche, giving us a tendency to reproduce and more easily connect with characters that align with them (Stevens, A., 2001).
Jung defined twelve primary archetypes to symbolize the most basic human motivations. Although these twelve archetypes are excellent at identifying and classifying characters into very broad categories, a much more in-depth classification system could be created specifically for the video game industry that is based on characters from classical mythology.
As mentioned earlier, Jung believed archetypes are embedded in the human psyche, allowing us to more easily identify and bond with characters that fit these archetypes. This is critical for achieving immersion and Relatedness (Self-Determination Theory) in video games – if the player feels that they have a stronger connection or develop their connection quicker with characters in the game they are playing, their intrinsic motivation to play that game will increase (La Guardia, J.G. & Patrick, H., 2008)
Character Type Taxonomy
A taxonomy system derived from characters in classical myths would provide a language to help make character trait identification, and the dissection of different character types in videogames, easier to discuss as well as aid in the creation process of character’s physical and mental traits.
There are quite a few games that have actually taken the more direct approach to using character traits from classical myths by simply taking the exact same characters (found in myths) and placing them straight into their game with minimal changes to the physical and mental state of the figure.
A good example of such a game is Zeus: Master of Olympus, wherein the player takes the role of various ancient Greek leaders and is set a task from Greek mythology such as Hercules’s Labours, or The Voyages of Jason. In the game you encounter many characters from myths including heroes (e.g. Hercules and Jason), gods (Zeus, Dionysus, and Aphrodite), monsters (Maenads, Cerberus and Talos) and the rulers from Greek empires like Sparta, Athens, Thebes and Corinth (Zeus: Master of Olympus, 2000).
While characters can be pulled straight from myths, the majority of videogame characters are original creations that were either designed specifically for a game or extracted from existing material that the game was based on (eg. videogames that are based on movies/books).
Even though the creation process of these characters probably didn’t involve the developers studying characters from myths, they can nevertheless all be classified and sorted by traits that are identical to one or another of the characters from classical myths.
This is quite a bold claim and comparative investigations of their narratives are scarce as videogames are relatively new (compared to other artistic mediums) and still widely considered to be ‘just toys’.
I will provide a few examples here which confirm that such a taxonomy would indeed be relevant and effective.
The first example is Sonic the Hedgehog, the title character and main protagonist of the Sonic the Hedgehog series. Physically he is very athletic, can travel at incredibly high speeds and has extreme reflexes. He is quite arrogant, has a cocky attitude, is easy-going but has a fairly short temper and a strong sense of justice. He also loves having the freedom to do what he wants, specifically going on adventures. Sonic most closely resembles the Greek deity Hermes (Sonic the Hedgehog series, 2014).
Hermes is the messenger of the gods, and god of thieves, trade, travellers and sports/athletes; he also guides the souls of the dead to the underworld. Hermes shares the same physical traits that sonic has – he’s incredibly athletic and speedy, along with quick reflexes. In Greek myths he had titles such as “of the race track”, “presider over games” and “swift footed”. Hermes also shares many mental traits with Sonic – just like Sonic, Hermes is “easy going”, has been referred to as “law giver/judge” (Sonic’s sense of justice), “sharp tongued” and “arrogant” (William G. Doty, 1978).
The second character that we’ll look at is Micaiah the Silver-Haired Maiden, who is one of the main protagonists from Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn. Micaiah is the leader and tactician of a rebel army in a country that is rife with corruption and war. She wishes to restore peace and order to her country. Micaiah is incredibly wise and is a master tactician who was able to organise and coordinate the rebel army through many unfavourable battles and situations. She is concerned with the safety of her people and country which is the reason why her and the rebel army fight. Micaiah doesn’t just devise tactics for the army though – she also fights with them on the battlefield. She is very level-headed and usually remains calm and collected, preferring to hide strong emotions. Micaiah shares many similar traits with Athena (Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn, 2008).
According to Jean Shinoda-Bolen, “Athena was known for her winning strategies and practical solutions… Athena is the pattern followed by logical women, who are ruled by their heads rather than their hearts.”(Bolen, J. S., 1985; see also Hillman, J., 2007). Athena oversaw the orderly functioning of the polis (Hillman, J., 1994), and was considered a ‘mother’ in Greek myths in the sense that she nurtured people to become citizens of a nation. Athena is represented as an armed warrior, and is commonly referred to as “battle-ready” and “she of the war cry” (Bolen, J. S., 1985).
Videogames as Rituals
Joseph Campbell, an authority on mythology, explains that, “A ritual is the enactment of a myth – either in a very literal way, or in an extremely abstract way.” (Campbell, J., 1990).
Just as classical myths were always enacted through rituals, videogames likewise require ritual engagement through the interaction between player and game. Like rituals, videogames require a special environment in which to play, distinct sitting postures, and various hardware implements such as a mouse, screen, keyboard and so on. All these elements coalesce and form an artistic gestalt required for engagement with the videogame.
The player must also follow certain rules dictating various procedures and processes of engagement when playing a games. To give an analogous ritual from religion, when Christians participate in mass they come to the ritual as a sinner who is redeemed by drinking the symbolic blood and flesh of Jesus, just as in many videogames you, or rather the player you direct, must ritually drink potions to restore vitality.
Novel Videogame Characters
It can be argued that certain characters from videogames are completely novel, that they are not found in classical myths. However, on closer inspection it becomes apparent that all such ‘original’ characters can be interpreted as an amalgam of two (or more) characters from myth.
Some games even invite the player to create their own original character and play however they wish. One such game is Skyrim, where the player creates their character with a custom physical appearance, skills/traits and gives them the ability to forge their own unique storyline as they play through the game (Skyrim, 2011). Tellingly, a study conducted on character-choice in the journal Imagination Cognition and Personality supports the hypothesis that players choose characters that are reflections of their own personalities, for example individuals who had a high extraversion score tended to play charismatic characters (Park, A. E., Henley, T. B., 2007).
Because players pick characters based on their own personality, game developers would be able to allow for the most common (or suitable) personality types from myths to be played out in their game in order to cater to a wide personality range found among gamers. If developers followed this method it would affect the autonomy factor (SDT) as players would have more control and choice over their decisions and actions (specifically having an option that they wish to choose), which would be increasing the intrinsic motivation for the players (Ryan, R.M., Rigby, C. S., Przybylski, A., 2006).
The concept that games are modern day myths is a demonstrable idea deserving more research. By allowing videogames to be considered as myths, and comparing aspects of them with classical myths, developers would be able to create storylines and characters of a higher quality, further immersing the players and increasing the amount of enjoyment from their experience with the games.
Not only developers but also players would be able to directly make use of games as myths, with the possibility of a new way to sort and search through games. This would be done using a taxonomy based on mythological character types, allowing players to choose the sort of character they wish to play, and the sort of antagonist they wish to play against.
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Interesting concept. Perhaps we could work together on further research in this vein considering how my Breaking the Narrative series has been following through and outright disproving all the feminist claims on our beloved medium. Please read through my articles on here as well and let me know on twitter what you think.