CRPG Anxieties

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.







6 thoughts on “CRPG Anxieties

  1. Shane-ola


    You and I were discussing Stephen King’s Danse Macabre a while back and he also touches on this, that the popularity (and type) of horror films can reflect the national psyche.

    For instance, the first Godzilla film followed on the heels of the atomic bombing of Japan. In America, Invasion of the Body Snatchers was a result of our “red under every bed” fears. Etc.

    I think there is some substance to the argument. Good post.

  2. Jonas Kyratzes

    I think another angle might be more interesting when it comes to RPGs: that they give us a sense of achievement and possibility that we don’t get from real life anymore. In RPGs, you can travel, you can discover new things, you can become known for what you do, you can finally buy that house… they’re basically Good Life Simulators.

  3. Aleksey

    I look at games like Don’t Starve, DayZ, Minecraft, or Rust, or Animal Crossing for that matter, where you have to scrounge every piece of garbage that may eventually come in useful, and these games hold no appeal to me.

    It appears that people living in well-off countries like America (where I live now) find simulated scarcity to be refreshing or somehow romantic. I was born and raised in Soviet Union, so I don’t.

    Fallout and Battlezone are probably my favorite games, but they work with different kind of scarcity. It’s traditionally RPG/RTS-gamey, abstracted, and part of a larger gameplay system. It is not as literally pronounced as in these newfangled scarcity simulators which are focused on scarcity itself.

    1. Matt Barton Post author

      It’s really fascinating to me to think about how much our own cultural background affects which genres we’re drawn to (and for what reasons). I guess it’s easy to think that all of us in America are well-off , but that’s just not the case. Relatively speaking, though, I’m sure you’re right–I’ve never been in serious danger of starving to death or had to wait hours in a huge line just to buy groceries, both of which (I’m told) were relatively common scenarios in the Soviet Union.

      In any case, there will always be some form of scarcity at play, whether that be money, resources, property, or power. Even if I had been a rich kid, I wouldn’t have necessarily had access to the pretty girls, made the best grades, etc. There were plenty of us who were both poor and nerdy. Even if you weren’t starving, you didn’t feel “well off,” trust me.

      I’d be interested to know more about how you feel when you’re playing a CRPG simulating scarcity. Would you prefer playing a game that gave you plenty of everything? Maybe a game where you start off very powerful instead of at the bottom of the food chain?

  4. Freeman

    This is an easy one for me, since it’s something I’ve thought about before. I spend my life automating processes to solve problems save time and do the work for me. Almost to the point that automating a process is an automated process. Very few things challenge me in my work or day to day life.

    But CRPG’s offer a constant barrage of new and complex ideas to test myself against. Things I have to figure out, and can’t really automate since they’re often one off puzzles. The more different ways a game makes me think, the better it is to me. Or if a game gives me a Kobayashi Maru situation, I’m pretty happy. It’s part of my love for old school games. They weren’t burdened by the concept that the player has to be ‘happy’ with every outcome. Sometimes, they just have to settle for things not going their way and try and recover later.

    That is the other part of what I like about a CRPG, especially old ones. Rarely is a mistake the end of the game. It’s often just something you have to go back and regroup from. It’s a place to practice failing and recovery safely. To remind myself it’s possible and to take risks that might not be worth it with things like my job.

  5. James Haywood

    I agree with Jonas about the sense of adventure and travel. I haven’t really thought about why I like CRPGs, but I have since I was a kid, starting with Bard’s Tale and Ultima III. I also love the stories, the feeling of going from nothing to one of the most powerful characters in the world. In really good ones, you get the feeling of making decisions that matter, of changing the world. You get the highs and lows, the triumphs and tragedies, that you just can’t experience in real life. I’m also usually drawn to spell casters when creating my PC for probably many of the same reasons.

    I’m not sure what those things have to do with anxieties though. Maybe something about feelings of inadequacy. Thanks for making me think Matt. 🙂


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