I’ve been teaching a rhetoric of pop culture class this semester. Instead of focusing on videogames, I’ve been focusing on another of my favorite pop culture phenomena–the zombie. One of our textbooks is by Kyle Bishop, whose book American Zombie Gothic earned him a PhD. One of the most fascinating aspects of his argument is that horror films are a “barometer” of our cultural anxieties and a panacea; a sort of displacement therapy. It’s been awhile since I read Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, but apparently dreams work something like this: (a) You get stressed out over something that you’re just not ready to cope with, such as a good friend trying to sleep with your wife. The thought horrifies you, so you try to repress it. (b) At some point that day, you see a shark documentary. (c) That night, you dream that you’re out swimming with some dolphins, and suddenly one of them turns into a shark and starts pursuing you. Thus, your subconscious mind has put together an allegory for you–the dolphin turned shark is your friend who is trying to “kill you” by possibly destroying your family. Take this concept, apply it to a cultural rather than individual level, and you can see how we might find it easier to deal with zombies on the screen than dwell on the real possibilities of pandemic, economic collapse, or our prisons “overrunning” with deadly pot smokers.
I suppose we could also take this back to Aristotle’s notion of “catharsis,” a purging of guilt and fear we get from watching tragedies such as Oedipus Rex. According to Bishop, the reason we’re seeing so much zombie stuff resurfacing after a hiatus in the 90s is a combination of anxieties that include terrorism, pandemics, social upheaval, and euthanasia.
So, all of this has me wondering if we could explain away part of our fascination for CRPGs to some anxiety, and I think it’s pretty obvious we can. For me, there are at least two anxieties at play. First, I get stressed out because I feel that I’m not getting things done; that there a million things I should be doing to better myself, but simply lack the time, energy, interest, or ability to get any of it done. I feel a pressure that time is running out–the clock is ticking, etc.–yet I can’t get it done! I’m endlessly procrastinating, unable to get myself in the right frame of mind to do these endless tasks. It’s easy to see how a CRPG, or MMORPG such as WOW, runs parallel to this–in those games, there are also seemingly endless tasks that must be done, but worrying about finding enough Khadgar’s Whisker to level up your alchemy is somehow easier to deal with than reading some theory books or planning an academic article. Even though it’s a videogame and supposedly all just “virtual,” it feels more tangible than dealing with that hydra of “true productivity.”
Secondly, there’s the anxiety that stuff is running out. I find myself thinking this way pretty regularly–oh, look, I just drank a cup of coffee. Now there are only 3 cups left in the pot. Now the bag of coffee is that much less…Nothing ever lasts! Something similar happens in a CRPG when you start getting less and less experience (actual or relatively speaking) for killing the same mobs. You’ve opened the bag; now it’s getting empty. Soon, it’ll be gone, and you’ll have to go get a new one (e.g., move to a new area).
A related concern is a bit harder to describe: running out of variety. I don’t ever get the same brand of coffee; I always want to try a new one. But will this new one really be any better? Or is it just that it looks different and has a new name, like the “stronger” mobs in the new area?
I’ve always sought out situations where I’d never have to worry about running out of new things–such as ale. If I were a cigarette or cigar smoker, I’m sure it’d be the same–I’d never stick to any one brand. It blows my mind that anyone could go to a liquor store and see a thousand different brands, yet just grab the same old Bud he’s been drinking since he was 16. Where’s the curiosity? There’s just something uncouth about it.
Of course, there’s always the dream of that Perfect Ale, but it’s really more about the excitement that, no matter how much I like the one I’m drinking, the next one I try will surpass it. CRPGs really get at this so well–sure, you just got a freakin’ epic ax. But it’s item level 200. When you get to the next expansion with item levels starting at 300, that ax is going to suck. Sure, that sucks–but not really, because it’s actually more satisfying knowing that something better will always be out there. This is precisely why I find the “end game” of MMORPGs so utterly boring. Once you hit that severe diminished returns area of no more leveling, endlessly grinding to get stuff with slightly better stats, I’m out.
With single player CRPGs, the minute you set down to play it, you’re already thinking–no matter how good this is, there’s going to be another one. So, really, as you’re playing and enjoying the game, you’re also thinking about that other game, and how it’s different, hopefully better. I guess what I’m saying here is that I have some kind of consumer anxiety, in which one day there won’t be another ale or coffee to try. I imagine this anxiety was spurred on quite intentionally by marketers and advertisers, but that doesn’t make it any less compelling.
That’s about all I can come up with at the moment on this. However, I’d like for you to do a similar thought experiment on yourself, and really try to think about what anxieties you (or your society and culture) experience that might get displaced by playing a CRPG.