"Die Spieler machen das Spiel."
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I can be contacted as hobold at this domain name.
#40. Advanced: The Monomyth is Life
I seem to have strayed far from game design in this blog lately. Well, I can
promise you (whoever few readers are still left :-) that this line of thought
will eventually return to virtual worlds. But before we arrive there, let me
explore the human condition a bit further.
The monomyth is not just a template for stories. Some call it a (very abstract) model for life itself, and I am inclined to agree. As children, we live a rather protected life, no matter in which culture we are growing up. Childhood days are just packed with wonder, we learn at breathtaking pace. By and by, we begin to master our abilities, and to take control of our environment.
At some point we start accepting responsibility for ourselves. In prehistory, that happened simply because our parents died (back then most people didn't live to see their 40th birthday); then it became more of a societal norm to accept the role of a grownup at a certain age; and in these days of rapid technological and cultural change, breaking free from the ephemeral traditions of the preceding generation almost seems to be a necessity (for better or worse).
Being on our own can be unsettling, but it can also be liberating. As young adults, we may pursue our own goals, or at least make some of our own choices even in very rigid societies. We are expected to solve real problems now, and that both shows us our limits and our ability to push the envelope. Even for those of us who aren't real life heroes, this is a time of finding our place, making our place in society. Even a humble and modest career brings its challenges and its rewards. Life is good.
And then the facts of life (as you Anglo-Saxons so aptly call them) have us placed in a position where we are supposed to take on responsibility for others: our kids. Again this can be unsettling, but it can also be a revelation. With these helpless little humans in our custody, we gain a new understanding what it means to be the heroes that we used to see in our own parents. They provide a purpose, a reason, meaning.
The hardest challenge yet is still ahead: letting go of our kids, having faith in them, accepting their mastery over their own fate. We may still provide guidance, or advice, any kind of help, or simply a place to rest for a while. But we have to accept that the responsibility is no longer with us. In the immortal words of Sting: "if you love somebody, set them free!"
But that's not the end of it. Our own strength may be waning, but we still have a few good years left. That's another challenge: to either dwell in the past, or to remember the most important lesson from our childhood days - that there is no time like the present. We have a choice.
Interestingly, death is not a part of the monomyth pattern (albeit some stories do end with martyrs or some other form of the ultimate sacrifice). We don't know if it is simply the end, or maybe another beginning, and we generally avoid giving it much thought. For my claim of a correspondence between this archetype of stories on the one hand, and our instinctive knowledge about a model life on the other hand, this detail is of no consequence, though.
Disclaimer: I am quite unqualified to make the comparison which is proposed in this blog entry; I lack the life experience. But I am not the inventor of this line of thought. I saw this idea elsewhere, fitted it into my "virtual world view", padded it out with a detail or two, and ran with it.
#39. Consequence: Villains of All
With all the emphasis that I have put on the positive side of the four
motivations, I downplayed an important aspect: there is something sinister and
destructive in each of the four motivations, too. The motivations are not a
goal, not an ends. They are a fuel, a driving force. Villains are motivated by
them, too. Not all of the following examples are fictional.
Josef Mengele. When knowledge is more important than people, this is the result.
Arthas Menethil. When one goal becomes more important than anything else, what was once a noble cause turns into obsession. In this particular example, Arthas sacrifices his friends, renounces his loyalties, yet he feels he was abandoned by the others. Eventually Arthas loses himself, quite literally in this particular story. At that point, he is beyond saving, even though his story has ways to go before it can end.
Tai Lung. A remarkable example because this particular villain's story is composed as a hero's journey. The audio commentary on the DVD goes into quite a bit of detail on this. (Weird. Why would I be thinking of Pandas all of a sudden? :-)
Tom Marvolo Riddle, also known as Lord Voldemort. He is being presented as the most powerful dark wizard who ever lived. But he doesn't personally fight all his enemies; instead, he erects a power structure that can last beyond his own death. In fact, his followers bring him back from the beyond, even though they fear him more than anyone else, and they'd probably be better off without him. Yet they still do Voldemort's will. Their promised reward is a place high up in the evil overlord's hierarchy.
This seems to be a contradiction, but weaving a web of distrust requires the exact same skills and the exact same intimate knowledge of other people. Soap operas often employed intriguers and rumour mongers as villains who destroy the reputation of people while wearing a mask of sympathy for the victim. At the danger of sounding sexist, let me note that this role of villain is significantly more often allowed to be filled by women, while the other three roles tend to be played by male protagonists.
#38. Connection: Heroes of All
Having revisited the four motivations, let me now connect
each one to the monomyth. If that
story archetype is really so pervasive, and if people are indeed driven by the
four motivations, we should be able to clearly distinguish four types of heroes
in popular stories, right?
I'd say these are the most prominent type of hero in classical literature. They do stuff that is hard, sometimes outright impossible for mere mortals (e.g. venture into the realm of the dead and bring someone back to the living). Fairly often, what they do is for the benefit of their whole society (e.g. give fire to mankind). Occasionally the heroes have to work against gods. Sometimes, the heroes pay for their hubris with death, but their achievement outlasts them, and the gods ultimately lose. Not all of these stories end with the hero returning to some sort of normal.
These are not as prominent as you might think. The great conquerors of history are mostly achievers. A Dominator hero is more like Worf from the Star Trek universe. He starts life in the rigid hierarchy of the Klingon empire, but is cast into the liberal, individualist Federation society as a kid. He joins Starfleet and grows to be a competent, dependable officer. He is one of the more military types at heart (breaking the rules never sits right with him, no matter the cause), but has a strong moral compass. So far only mild evidence for a dominator hero.
For reasons beyond his control, Worf is seen as an outcast, even an outlaw, by his fellow Klingons. Still, in Worf's later career, as told during the Deep Space 9 series, he feels drawn back towards the empire. As he gets more involved in Klingon matters, he begins to realize that his people have forgotten what makes a good leader. They still go through the motions and rituals, and rank can still quickly be gained and lost, but the system no longer consistently promotes the capable and demotes the incompetent.
So Worf decides, reluctantly, to meddle with Klingon affairs. It doesn't come easy to him: he has to break with traditions and other rules, but by law isn't even a citizen anymore. Worf starts out small, encouraging a general who was traumatized in enemy prison camps. To do this convincingly, Worf stakes his life in a challenge to the old war hero. Worf guessed right, the veteran still has it in him to easily win. Exceptional leader that the general is, he recognizes what Worf has done for him, and for the desperate Crew serving on his battleship. So Worf may live; and he continues to make a few more promotions and demotions of his own design.
The end of this story approaches when the Klingon outcast realizes that the empire can only be saved if the ruler at the very top is "demoted". Being a hero, Worf manages to do that. And being a dominator, he doesn't accept the job for himself, but hands it over to someone who has the ability to rule wisely and has earned the loyalty of the people. Worf eventually regains citizenship, and returns to Klingon as an Ambassador of the Federation.
These are the rarest of all heroes, which is a direct consequence of their ambition not being centered on themselves. Nevertheless, there are a few very very popular ones: the adventuring Hobbits from Tolkien's novels. There is Bilbo, who discovers his heroic side a bit accidentally, when all he wanted were stories to tell. There is Frodo, who does not want to be a hero at all, but cannot bring himself to offloading that burden on anyone else. And there is Samwise, who cannot bear the ring, but he can carry Frodo. All these Hobbits happily return to normal in the end, but some of them have been changed and cannot find rest anymore.
I am unaware of Seeker heroes in classical stories (but that could just be my ignorance). It seems to me that Science Fiction had to be invented first (well, there is Sherlock Holmes as a kind of intermediate step). Stories about seekers tend to follow a somewhat unpredictable course, which is just the nature of the seekers. But there are a few examples that stick to the template of the monomyth. For instance Titan A.E., in which we first encounter the hero as a kid. He is playing with some model aircraft (presumably built by himself, or was it a model ship?). The camera is following the little flyer to show vast countryside under an open sky.
Then a catastrophe ensues, and when we return to the hero a few years later, he is locked into a boring life of mediocrity, confined to an uninteresting backwater planet. The daily routine is mind-numbing, and there is no ray of hope for change in the future. He could as well be dead (a feeling not totally alien to the teenage audience which was the target of the movie, I guess). All of this changes when the hero discovers the tantalizing promise of a mystery that is tied very specifically to him. Of course he then follows the clues, opens many doors, learns a lot, and overall has very interesting times (in both meanings of the phrase) before the story finally "ends" with a country even more vast, under a sky even more open than it was in the beginning. More of a beginning rather than an ending, really.
Now, I hope these examples aren't too farfetched. I am quite sure one could take any hero's journey and find evidence that the hero has a clear main motivation. And the more successful stories, I think, would be those that match the type of hero to the type of story (although Titan A.E. is probably a counterexample in terms of commercial success, so don't take my word for gospel).
Tracking 09: Working where the Magic
This entry is meant to keep track of a posting
on Blizzard's forums, just for convenience.
#37. Advanced: Socializers revisited
Ever since I relabeled Killers as Dominators, I realized how little I actually know about the Socializer motivation. As such, I am unable to come up with perhaps a better name. Often, Socializers are being regarded as the backdrop society underneath the three other motivations. I feel this isn't accurate, but I cannot pinpoint the one defining characteristic either.
To recap: Socializers value camaraderie; they actively weave the web of trust. They give and collect favours, for example. They mediate, they conciliate, they chitchat. These are the people who tell stories around the campfire; perhaps their reason for playing is the creation of more such stories? Most of us are part Socializer: when you are playing alone, the game is an occupation; but when you are playing with friends, it's an adventure. Such is the perception of a Socializer.
A Socializer feels that standing out from the crowd is nice, but being friends with everybody in the crowd is nicer.
#36. Detour: Liars and Outliers
Sorry for the extremely slow production of content during the last five months
(read: deadly silence in this blog). I have tried another way of making
computer games a more well-rounded
experience (pardon the pun). Not too successful over two years of tinkering
*sigh*. I have to set the project aside for now, and look for employment
My obsession with virtual worlds has not left me during that time. When I came across the latest book of Bruce Schneier (a computer security guru, arguably the leading expert at the time of this writing), "Liars and Outliers", I immediately recognized that the topics it covers are very relevant to virtual worlds. Schneier examines how individuals manage to trust each other even in large and anonymous societies. He recognizes the mechanisms at play as security measures, aimed at ensuring reliable, trustworthy behaviour.
I am afraid I cannot recommend this particular book as wholeheartedly as I have praised others in this blog. For one, Schneier mentions computer games in maybe two sentences. And more importantly, the difference between real power and virtual power means that many observations from the real world cannot directly carry over to virtual worlds. Still, the view point from computer security is much more useful for virtual worlds than the traditional view point from anthropology. The modern point of view deals with virtualization of society to an extent, but the old one doesn't at all.
So this book is not as immediately applicable as, say "Understanding Comics". Still, it presents some concepts very much worth thinking about. Maybe further down this path is the key to building more pleasant virtual communities, without the downsides of heavy handed policing.
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I can be contacted as hobold at this domain name.