A thing that many people say about video games is that they are empowerment fantasies. This is apparently axiomatic. I have never seen it challenged. Is that why we play video games?

I believe that this grazes against the truth, but that it is also vastly oversimplified. ‘Empowerment’ implies that we seek to feel mighty, to crush our enemies and hear the weeping of their women. Instead, I think we simply want not to feel helpless. This is not the same thing as feeling powerful.

Observe the ‘masochistic’ gameplay of such games as Super Meat Boy. Is it an empowerment fantasy to die over and over in the service of a relatively simple goal? If empowerment is the goal, why is the character archetype of the underdog enduringly popular in this medium (albeit, admittedly, perhaps less so than in other narrative media). Why are horror games, founded on fostering a sense of helplessness, so popular?

Empowerment is something some games offer, but it’s not what games are about, or why they’re appealing. Games are appealing because, by their very nature, they posit a world which operates by rules. Moreover, we expect the rules of games to operate within a small enough world that we can account for the factors which produce any given result– when this isn’t the case, or when the rules are so obtuse and/or arbitrary that it becomes impossible, not only to predict what will happen, but to understand why something happened after the fact, we rebel. Those are the games which we consider poorly made.

The fantasy of video gaming is the same as the fantasy of the American Dream: We want to believe that if we work long enough at one thing, it will definitely pay off, instead of perhaps paying off dependent upon the whimsy of chance. It may be naive, and posit an infinitely more hospitable universe than the one we live in, but it does not innately raise us above the level of our peers.

Perhaps wanting to believe the world is comprehensible is a kind of power fantasy, but I don’t think it’s the sort the critics (and proponents) of video gaming have in mind when cite games as being empowerment fantasies.


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