The Gaming Seed of Heroes: Why Video Games Are Loved, Hated, Addicting, and Fought Over

Gaming. A word said with plea­sure by some and with dis­dain by oth­ers for decades. There’s a lot of im­agery at­tached with the word. Boxy retro con­soles and tan­gled cords in 80s fam­i­ly pho­tographs. Dice, char­ac­ter sheets, and fig­urines. An over­weight thirty-something liv­ing on Doritos in his family’s base­ment. The glow­ing desk look­ing like some­thing from a sci­ence fic­tion movie.

In my view, gam­ing com­mu­ni­ties don’t do a great job of ex­plain­ing why we love what we do. I don’t think most, if any, of us ful­ly un­der­stand why. I’ve been ex­am­in­ing this for some time now, and I’ve un­cov­ered some in­sights I think may ben­e­fit gamers to hear – whether you play table­top RPGs, trad­ing card games, or con­sole and PC video games.


Greek d20, 2nd c. B.C. - 4th c. A.D.
Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Gamer with 1000 Faces

Come back in time with me if you will, into Renaissance art. Imagine in your mind a tour of a meta-museum; a tour of all mu­se­ums at once. There’s Michelangelo’s glo­ri­ous stat­ues of David and The Pieta. Further down is the Mona Lisa and oth­er works of Da Vinci. In an­oth­er room lies the Venus de Milo, Bernini’s The Rape of Prosperina, then busts of Augustus, Hadrian, Caligula, and Nero.

What in­spired these works? Why were all these art pieces made? Did the artists only want to see if they could? Was their goal to win art com­pe­ti­tions? There was some­thing sig­nif­i­cant in the minds of these cre­ators. Most were paid com­mis­sions, but there must have been some­thing dri­ving them to de­vel­op such in­cred­i­ble skills in the first place.

Now come back to to­day, and search around for the most ex­pen­sive movies. They spent $285M mak­ing the 6th Harry Potter movie. Do you even re­mem­ber it? Talk about a risk. Then they made $900M in sales. That’s a lot of mon­ey chang­ing hands. And for what, so you can sit in a dirty chair eat­ing salty corn for a few hours? Apparently, we re­al­ly like be­ing told sto­ries. Titanic made $2.2B world­wide plus $1.2B in VHS/DVD. Yes, bil­lion – com­bined that’s over 3000 million.

But wait, we’re here to talk gam­ing right? Why aren’t the great­est games riv­et­ing sto­ries? Some don’t seem to have a sto­ry at all. Minecraft passed the top spot of Tetris’s 170M copies while this ar­ti­cle was be­ing writ­ten. I mean, you can count GTA V and Pokémon as sto­ry games, but Wii Sports and PUBG both sur­passed Skyrim and Diablo III in sales. Why? I think I have the an­swer, and I think I’ve spelled out enough ze­roes to make my point.

One of the as­pects the best games have is they fol­low the jour­ney of the ar­che­typ­al hero. They ei­ther tell a sto­ry, or more sig­nif­i­cant­ly, they make the play­er the hero of a sto­ry by chal­leng­ing them. I don’t think we teach the mon­o­myth, or hero’s jour­ney, as well as we should in the hu­man­i­ties. In my opin­ion, Joseph Campbell, who is cred­it­ed with pop­u­lar­iz­ing the con­cept, should be a house­hold name. Games are, as far as I can tell, the mod­ern in­ter­ac­tive rep­re­sen­ta­tion of sto­ry­telling we see from mil­len­nia ago.

Perhaps, then, it isn’t too dif­fi­cult to un­der­stand why some in­di­vid­u­als spend too much time play­ing games. They can be a unique source (or re­place­ment) of mean­ing and pur­pose in life. Who wouldn’t want to be a com­ic book hero? It’s rather ful­fill­ing to save the princess. They serve, as with oth­er en­ter­tain­ment, as an es­cape from every­day life. Unlike Netflix and Hulu shows how­ev­er, they don’t leave you want­i­ng more at the end of the last sea­son, so they can be­come habit-forming. Each en­ter­tain­ment form can be pos­i­tive or neg­a­tive de­pend­ing on how it is con­sumed. Regarding the typ­i­cal com­plaint of time waste, the same prob­lems were shown with TV the year I was born.

Storytelling and com­pet­i­tive en­ter­tain­ment have been al­lur­ing for a long time. Games where you play the hero or anti-hero are an­cient. In an­oth­er time chil­dren on play­grounds played “cops and rob­bers”. The same game was played in colo­nial times, al­beit with the na­tives they feared as the bad guys. Sports and adult equiv­a­lents are an­cient too – we know the Olympics be­gan in an­cient Greece. And now we watch dig­i­tal glad­i­a­tors in es­ports competitions.


Enemy at the Gamer’s Gate

But what of gam­ing cul­ture? There’s a lot of de­bate over ethics in gam­ing nowa­days, and rather harsh words are said on so­cial me­dia to­wards some sub­cul­tures that spring up around games. To un­der­stand cul­tur­al war­fare around gam­ing, I again turn to the hu­man­i­ties, this time to phi­los­o­phy and art movements.

The 18th and 19th cen­tu­ry move­ments of the Enlightenment and Romanticism were rel­a­tive­ly aligned with the time­less “hero’s jour­ney” as we lat­er un­der­stood. Surely Joseph Campbell drew con­clu­sions from them. Rather than cite sources I en­cour­age you to learn more your­self. I of­fer you a side quest: look for words like “in­di­vid­ual” on the Romanticism Wikipedia page and read those pas­sages. If you ac­cept it, good luck. Don’t get lost in there.

But then, hor­rors of wars in the 20th cen­tu­ry pro­found­ly af­fect­ed art and phi­los­o­phy. Here’s where the con­tro­ver­sy be­gins: I as­sert the evil forces de­feat­ed po­lit­i­cal­ly in world wars won in the artis­tic spaces and have in­fect­ed us ever since. Spicy enough as­ser­tion for you?

The 20th cen­tu­ry brought forth more philo­soph­i­cal and art move­ments than ever, as we be­came more aware of move­ments as an idea. The ones I want to fo­cus on were re­jec­tions of the pre­vi­ous pat­terns of in­di­vid­u­al­ism and myth. Modernism in art grew from its roots in the 19th into the 20th cen­tu­ry, and as it did so, it be­came a de­sire to ex­per­i­ment with the “new”. This par­al­leled the ini­tial growth of Structuralism in ear­ly 1900s so­cial sci­ences in Europe, which sought to un­der­stand how every­thing fits to­geth­er. These are over­sim­pli­fi­ca­tions but will do for our purposes.

Post-WWII, cyn­i­cal at­ti­tudes about life and oth­er peo­ple crept in, and by the 1960s, many fields of the hu­man­i­ties were be­ing over­tak­en by what are called Post-Structuralism and Post-Modernism. I won’t point fin­gers here but suf­fice it to say they spread to us start­ing with Axis pow­ers, to French aca­d­e­mics, and then to west­ern uni­ver­si­ties. These move­ments in­sist on cyn­i­cal irony and re­jec­tion of even the en­light­en­ment ideals. They in­sist there is no truth, there is only opin­ion, and re­al­i­ty is sub­jec­tive to the point of hav­ing noth­ing ob­jec­tive about it what­so­ev­er. Everything is so­cial­ly con­struct­ed, morals are rel­a­tive, and every­thing is to be de­con­struct­ed. These forces took hold in every field of hu­man­i­ties in var­i­ous forms like the avant-garde, and have been in place so long, mod­ern cul­ture war­riors cite aca­d­e­m­ic pa­pers that cite oth­er pa­pers to the point that ar­gu­ing against them is im­pos­si­ble with­out rewind­ing time.

Gaming de­vel­oped much lat­er, and did so con­trary to these dom­i­nant forces. Gaming is a per­for­mance art, like the­atre. Developers of games are the scriptwrit­ers and chore­o­g­ra­phers. One pos­si­ble com­par­i­son: gam­ing is a dance where there needn’t be an au­di­ence. Yet like dance, peo­ple will pay to see those who are the best at it. It’s no won­der then, that watch­ing peo­ple play games has grown, and that es­ports are be­com­ing more popular.

Imagine then, the out­rage post-modern forces have against a medi­um that builds on the very fields it had al­ready con­quered. Gaming in its best forms is the res­ur­rec­tion of myth and the clas­si­cal hero’s jour­ney act­ed out. In that re­gard, it con­tains an in­her­ent mean­ing that serves as a vac­ci­na­tion from such cri­tiques. Furthermore, char­ac­ters and scenery in­spire cos­tumes and fa­nart that res­ur­rect oth­er wings of the hu­man­i­ties. Many games such as Assassin’s Creed take you back to his­tor­i­cal set­tings. Fanfiction and lore add to mod­ern literature.

That’s what the “war” is all about. Most “sol­diers” on each side aren’t aware. It’s an eter­nal hu­man philo­soph­i­cal war that goes back fur­ther than we have record. Gaming is here to stay, and the fight be­tween its com­mu­ni­ties and ac­tivist acad­e­mia will last un­til the end of time, so be aware, but don’t waste too much time on it.


Gaming Soup for the Soul

One of the main rea­sons peo­ple stop play­ing games with friends, as far as I can tell, is life sim­ply gets in the way. To me this seems nat­ur­al – if your life be­comes filled with more mean­ing and pur­pose, even­tu­al­ly play­ing games can be­come in­fe­ri­or to real life. Getting mar­ried or hav­ing chil­dren can make dai­ly life more in­ter­est­ing than games. I spend more time than I need to feed­ing, burp­ing, and chang­ing my kids be­fore and af­ter naps. It’s not time wast­ed, be­cause I love them and my re­la­tion­ship with them means every­thing. As they get old­er, I’ll have more rea­sons to play with Legos and nerf guns than games. I’ll still in­tro­duce them to Minecraft and Legend of Zelda someday.

So, don’t mourn the loss of old dig­i­tal friends, most of them dis­ap­pear into their own life’s ad­ven­ture. Gaming will al­ways ex­ist be­cause of the mean­ing it has in our lives. Perhaps it touch­es upon our own hero’s jour­ney in life. I’m learn­ing to be a DM and I’m start­ing to think Dungeons and Dragons will some­day be­come a cru­cial part of my family.

Don’t let gam­ing be a sub­sti­tute for life. If we give the dev­il his due, that may be a mes­sage those against it might be fail­ing to con­vey. But let it en­hance your life. If you play Skyrim, you should for the same rea­sons you’ll re-watch Marvel movies. Go back and con­quer some­thing hard you strug­gled with in the past. Find video games to play with sib­lings and old col­lege roomies that now live thou­sands of miles away. Have the courage to talk in the chat about what you love most. Find ex­cus­es to make new friends. Learn to ap­ply what you learn from games to your heart and mind. If you haven’t, read how Martyr’s life was made bet­ter by a game.

When you are con­front­ed by peo­ple who don’t un­der­stand why peo­ple play games, and find watch­ing peo­ple play games even weird­er, tell them some­thing you’ve learned from the hu­man­i­ties. Tell them it can con­tain as much the­atre as pro sports. Show them gam­ing con­tains the seeds of heroes.

The fol­low­ing two tabs change con­tent below.


Disciple of Christ. Father of boys. Petersonian IDWer. LAMP Dev, I learned to code. Switch games, Minecraft, Overwatch, League of Legends, Pokemon. Aspiring artist. Tell me some­thing new. Insecure pass­word user.
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