Video Games: The New Mythology

How new cultural stories help us understand ourselves in video games.

Posted Nov 04, 2020

Archetypes are considered to be images with universal meanings attached to them (Stein, 1998). They are a widely used and beloved way of experiencing and discussing life, but also one of the most difficult ideas or motifs to conceptualize due to the intangible existence they represent. The conceptual idea of these psychologically abstract and literal interpretations of our lives is usually associated with Carl Jung (2014) or James Hillman (2004) as the creators and identifiers of these themes. Archetypes are everywhere, yet have to be conceptualized from a metaphorical, symbolic, and non-literal approach to be used in therapy and commonplace life.

What constitutes archetypes are the similarities in which they are presented; they create an analogous thematic form of what is common between multiple scenarios, ideas, behaviors, objects, and images. For example, a shield is symbolic of protection of one’s self or a group, while a sword represents an attack. Similarly, the color blue is considered to be conceptually cold while red is hot. Apply these pictures and ideas to almost anything and the person viewing them can understand the representation quite simply.

Commonly, we find most archetypes in books, stories, fairytales, and myths (Hillman, 2004; Jung, 2014). These examples are considered to be the primary places to find them in varying cultures across the world. These narratives do not just tell a story, but allow readers and experiencers to experience the journey and gain insight from them. Mythological stories give people ideas about who we are, lessons we can learn, and help to transform our cognitions within a learning experience (Hillman, 2004).

New generations have begun to create new mythologies and narratives within video games that younger generations can relate to through the use of archetypal characters and experiences. Archetypes can be experienced by individuals across varying cultures and identities. This is what makes archetypes so powerful and outstanding experiences; they are commonly experienced across the world through the playing of video game avatars even though they are virtual (Bean, 2015, 2018). Only by viewing them from this point of reference does one begin to see the importance of how they are intertwined with everyday life, therapy, and psychology for our clients.

Video Game Avatars

The video game avatars being played act as constellated behavioral patterns and are considered to be archetypes in a literal interpretation or format of existence. They require a watchful eye to understand what the avatar may represent for the player. This is where the second part, and definitely the harder portion, comes into existence. An observer, the clinician, has to think about what the avatar and storyline represent and symbolize, beckoning us to understand an instinctual need of the person playing them. They must almost reverse engineer the behavior back to the archetypal idea.

Individuals unconsciously identify with video game archetypes on a deeper and more personal level. Most of the time, video gamers are unaware of the resonance with the archetype(s) they are personifying, but with a critical eye, a clinician will be able to draw the conclusions necessary for clinical intervention (Bean, 2018, 2019b). These archetypes are neither good nor bad, but are justly present as a form of energy people feel, experience, and are directed by (Johnson, 1986; Jung, 2014; Stein, 1998). To place a distinction of negative or positive would be a projection of our opinion upon the archetype(s).

To be clear, archetypes can influence us in healthy and unhealthy, adaptive and maladaptive, functional and dysfunction manners, behaviors, and views compared to the world around us (Bean, 2018, 2019a). These views may be considered to be socially dependent and derived. When the views are considered to be bad or socially deviant, an identification is placed upon the archetype narrowing the idea, literalizing the energy, and inherently destroying the experience itself through a negative viewpoint. However, when the archetype is seen as positive, society tends to swing to the other extreme of idealizing and idolizing the archetype to a point where it becomes unhealthy. In each of these cases, a polarization effect has occurred and disallowed the archetype to be seen for its own purpose or being.

However, it is important to note while archetypes may sound beautiful and noble, they have both light and dark (or positive and negative) sides. In the Eastern traditional perspective, every archetype has a yin and a yang, both are needed to be whole. We, as humans, strive to be in the light or positive side, but occasionally fall into the dark, or negative side. In order to find wholeness or completion, we must find the balance between both. Without the acceptance of our dark side or shadow, we fall prey to it and tend to act out in our different environments usually spelling out disaster.

Video Games and Archetypes

Video games bring a different perception and experience for the hero’s story as the video gamer is able to direct and play as the hero. This establishes a substantial motive for why individuals enjoy the video game realms so abundantly. While playing, they are instinctively being able to participate in the myth of the hero, not just watching, reading, or observing it. In this logic, the playing of the video game is an exceptionally important action for the player as they become part of the story. However, when the story becomes stale or stagnant, we usually see a decline in the participant’s play and enjoyment of it, regardless of the medium (Bean, 2018). 

What makes video games unique, compared to mythological archetypes, is their conceptualization of archetypes in a literalized visual format, rather than relying on the imagination and interpretation of the reader as in literature or a board game. This creates a projection upon the character and an interactional effect between the gamer and the avatar (Bean, 2018, 2019a). Video games take archetypes even a step further than a visual medium like movies because the archetype becomes an interactive experience to be played. Video games literalize the archetype played by the video gamer choosing to interact as one of them. The video game character or avatar itself is a literalized representation of the archetype created by the video game developer. The image of the archetype represented in the avatar gives it life, but the playing of the character gives it meaning. The character is only a character comprised of pixels. Without the video gamer to interact, move, and have the character explore, it would not exist past the pixelated stage. By playing as the character, the video gamer brings meaning and life to the existence of the pixels and provides narrative meaning for the created virtual character. The storyline in which the avatar is played, whether chosen through a linear path or open-world fantasy, is as, if not more, important to the image of the archetype. It helps us create a specific narrative for the projection onto the character that may represent internal manifestations of our own personality. Projection upon video game characters further enhances our experiences and understanding of real-world problems, solutions, and behaviors by which to handle difficult situations we encounter.

Psychological Projection

Conceptually, projection refers to a phenomenon of an individual taking a part of themselves and thrusting it upon an external object or person. Usually, this occurrence is completed unconsciously—similar to most video game players. The concept is derived from Freud and Jung (1916/1960) and suggests that everyone projects outward onto one’s surroundings in all aspects of life. While this may be seen as a beneficial action, it additionally can have destructive consequences, such as loss of friendships, intimacy, or even social aspects of life. When one projects onto their surroundings, they meet other psychic projections from others that collide with one another. If one is not aware of the projections and cannot reclaim them, then they can lead to difficult interpersonal problems that require support and can cause significant disruption. 

However, while one is playing a video game, one is constantly projecting onto their character. The player takes on their avatar’s characteristics just as the avatar takes on their players. It helps individuals create a specific narrative for the character which may represent internal manifestations of our own personality. These instances of the video gamer finding meaning are extremely rich and important to the video gamer and their thoughts and behaviors. As the video gamer concludes battles, quests, and storyline, the character—and player—grow stronger, and the opportunity of taking back that newfound strength survives when the immersion concludes and the projection is reclaimed. This means that playing video games can provide the player with growth opportunities that may not otherwise be found in society and offer that important development we all seek in ourselves through immersion within video games (Bean, 2018, 2019b).

Immersion

Immersion is a key factor in working therapeutically with a video gamer population. It is about being immensely and intensely present with an activity, yet engaged wholly encompassing all of one’s attention. Immersion is similar to Csíkszentmihályi’s (2009) state of flow, but in reality, provides a step beyond the Flow concept suggesting Flow may be more of a stepping stone or schema on the path to immersion.

One must have a schema on which to build to become immersed. The state of Flow is considered a basic schema through which one learns new cognitions and repeated encounters. As video gamers create and build the basic schemas for different video games and genres, they utilize the concept of Flow to create and absorb the building blocks of the gameplay. However, once the schema has been created, Flow is no longer needed to create the satisfaction and immersion takes over when the video gamer picks up a controller. The gamer has already acquired the basic schemas to understand the video game, console controller, and movements therefore immersion is achieved rapidly again once the game begins anew.

When we shut off that game, our accomplishments and successes stay with us and can be used to help bolster our moods and understanding of what life is and can mean to us all.

Learn more about Leyline’s Geek Therapy Training and see our Geek Therapy book, Integrating Geek Culture Into Therapeutic Practice: The Clinician's Guide To Geek Therapy.

References

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Bean, A. M. (2018) Working with Video Gamers and Games in Therapy: A clinician’s guide.

New York, NY: Routledge.

Bean, A. M. (2019a). The Archetypal Attraction.  In A. M. Bean, (Eds.), The Psychology of

Zelda: Linking Our World to the Legend of Zelda Series (pp. 79-102). Dallas; TX:

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Bean, A. M. (2019b) Working therapeutically with video gamers and their families. Journal of Health Service Psychology.

Campbell, J. (2008). The hero with a thousand faces. Novato, CA: New World Library.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2009). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper and Row.

Hillman, J. (2004). Uniform edition:1. Putnam: Spring Publications.

Johnson, R. A. (1986). Inner Work: Using Dreams and Active Imagination for Personal Growth.

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Jung, C. G. (2014). The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. London: Routledge.

Jung, C.G. (1960).  General aspects of dream psychology. In Collected Works vol.8. New

York, NY:  Bollingen.  (Original published in 1916.)

Stein, M. (1998). Jung's Map of the Soul: An Introduction. Chicago: Open Court.