After talking with a friend – a friend who is literally obsessed with online gaming – it occurred to me that gamers have something about them that creates a sort of hero complex. Not in the sense that we tend to make ourselves costumes and run out to try to vigilante our way through the crime scene, but in a way that those who are avid movie watchers, fiction readers, or who pursue generally dangerous activities like parachuting and mountain climbing do.
In other words, we have an inner need to be a hero. It’s not a mental issue, however. It’s actually human nature. After thinking about this and my own obsessions with books, games, etc, I thought about what I know about the human psyche and the science and philosophy that surrounds the subject.
Inside every person is a desire to be something special. Most of our stories, from books to television to film, are about heroes – people doing something extraordinary. The most popular heroes are usually those who possess some special gift or power. In Hero With a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell said that in mythology, heroes are most often demi-gods or related to royalty – both “special” aspects that make them great.
Most of us feel inadequate in some way. Maybe we’re not smart enough, fast enough, strong enough, pretty enough, or whatever. We know we have weaknesses and shortcomings and life is about getting past those and achieving despite these obstacles. The dream of being a hero is a part of that inner compensation for overcoming our perceived shortfalls.
Having seen gaming evolve from the simple Pong to Space Invaders, through Leisure Suit Larry and Spy Hunter and into HALO and Master of Magic to finally come out at the other end with Lord of the Rings Online and Age of Conan, I can say this: the hero was always there.
It’s the driving force behind game players and the reason that the gaming industry is so huge. In a way, game developers and publishers are basically selling pre-packaged heroism for the rest of us to use to satiate our need.
There’s nothing wrong with this. Farmers and supermarkets sell food to satiate our need for that too. We all have needs and so long as the fulfillment of them causes no one else any harm, there’s no reason we shouldn’t have the option of filling those needs.
In the MMO industry, there are basically three types of games:
Most successful mass-market MMOs include all three of these elements. Each of us has preferences as to what type of hero quest we prefer to engage in. Some of us are more social than others while others are more competitive than others.
Part of that whole “floats your boat” thing.
Being both a long-time devourer of books and a long-time voracious gamer, I can say that the experience of each is very different. Books tell hero myths to us in the third person, usually, and while they suck us into the story and make us think about many things along the way, they don’t make us the hero ourselves. Games are the opposite: they attempt to put us into the hero’s shoes and make us be that hero, but often don’t ask us to do anything more than pretend to be that awesome guy with the sword or the powerful princess with the spells.
Some games have attempted to do both. When Lord of the Rings Online first began, it was planned as an epic* that would put all of Tolkien’s stories into a big, heavily populated virtual world in which players could follow the beautiful stories told by the books and participate – the ultimate fantasy gamer’s dream come true. Supposedly.
As it turned out, while there is a market for that kind of long-term story line mixed into fantasy RPG gaming, it’s not a very large market. Unfortunately, we live in a world where attention spans are short and time available to play games is even shorter. So LOTRO has morphed and is no longer the epic story game it once was.
This means that the appeal of long, epic games and stories is in a limited market. Most players who’re willing to pay for games don’t have time for that. They prefer short stories told in short formats with a lot of interaction to keep them interested.
Luckily, other excellent storytellers of the past were also there, appealing to this type of audience in a big way well before computers were anything more than lab experiments. Conan is a hero (one of many) concocted by Robert E. Howard in a series of short stories. Howard wrote that while he greatly enjoyed Conan, he wasn’t his favorite character or even his most interesting. Howard also created Bran Mak Morn, who was very different from Conan in many ways, and Kull of Atlantis, who was a sort of precursor to Conan. The character he claimed to have the most fun with was Solomon Cane, who shares similarities with Conan, but is much more melancholy and less interested in women or riches.
All of this is alluding to one of the greatest short-story fantasy games currently available that, despite its occasional glitches, is a great example of how minimal story and maximum heroism can result in a popular game. Obviously I’m taking about Age of Conan. Few would sensibly try to argue that AoC is about story or even RPG. It’s purely about mayhem thanks to your toon’s heroism.
Probably the greatest thing about the game market today is that no matter what you want out of a game, be it voyeuristic heroism, totally self-centered heroism, or engaging heroism – or a mix of all of these – you can probably find it in a game somewhere.
We have MMOs for every need, though the more successful ones are literally trying to be for everyone, ignoring Abe Lincoln’s advice. Those games (popular as they are) often lose a lot of players as the veneer wears off and they realize that it’s not what they believed it to be.
Luckily, indie game houses and even the occasional intrepid big publisher venture into the longer-term game genre and give it a try. And for the “just make it quick, I want to kill some stuff before dinnertime” crowd, there are no end to the choices available.
All of us can be heroes and we can likely find a way to do it, via gaming, that appeals to our specific needs. It’s one of the great things about living in our time. We have access to just about any type of heroism we want to involve ourselves in. All we have to do is boot up and choose.
How awesome is that?
*Epic in this sense is the true meaning of the word – in other words, it was a long, encompassing story that spanned more than a single sitting. Not “epic” as used by game marketers and review writers.