Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Psychoanalytics of Role-Playing Archetypes: Introduction to a Miniseries

at 12:30 PM
At a barbecue this weekend, a few friends and I started talking about our different experiences playing the different classes available in Mass Effect. One person talked about how zipping around as the Vanguard and shotgunning people to the face was the best way to play the game, while another was describing his experience with the devastating effects of a Biotic barrage. Reflecting on the conversation later, I could not escape the question: "Why do we choose the classes we choose when gaming?" Why do I play as a Cleric in Dungeons & Dragons when my twin brother plays a Fighter? Why do some of the nicest people I have ever met prefer to backstab their enemies from the shadows as a rogue? Our decisions to roleplay one class over another can seem bizarre and random. 

My preliminary analysis has identified two reasons we desire to play certain RPG classes over others; one conscious, one unconscious. The conscious, and lesser, motivating factor is  based on the mechanics of the class, e.g. your standard Tank/DPS/Support/Healer breakdown. The more important factor, I argue, is the unconscious desire to align oneself with the archetype from which the class is derived. Let's break down what that means exactly, because I am sure in your ignorance you decided to read a blog about video games before reading the collected works of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell. You dunce.

German psychologist Carl Jung claims that there is a collective unconscious among all humans which, "continually influence[s] our thoughts and feelings and actions." Floating in this shared mental space of mankind there are a number of universal stories, images, behaviors, ideas, and ideals that motivate us on an almost instinctive level. These "inherited possibilities of ideas," or archetypes, are the basis for storytelling and the myths which define our culture. For example, in mythologies across the world, you will find trickster gods who by breaking the rules of the world, through their antics, act as the catalyst for the conflict which drive stories (Loki, Coyote, Hermes, Puck). 
Kefka is most certainly an example of the Trickster/Fool Archetype
Perhaps the most important archetype for gamers is that of the Hero. The Hero is called by a higher power to go on a quest to another land to help his people or save the world. In this quest, his undergoes a great deal of turmoil both externally and internally (which often mirror each other). Upon conquering the demons which plague him, he gains or is granted the ability to overcome the rest of the obstacles that prevented him from reaching his goal. Most of our video games follow this pattern, what we in the know like to call the monomyth

A hero is just a man who knows he's free.

This is significant because people are self-involved and therefore view the protagonist of a story as themselves or at least some synthesis of self and character. This concept of hero-as-self expresses our desire to undergo the Hero's journey ourselves. By reading, playing, or otherwise consuming a story we are simulating the experience of shedding our weaknesses and transforming into new, better people. The basic roleplaying classes are different variants on how the player can make themselves feel better or at the very least feel like they are becoming better. 

In the forthcoming posts of this miniseries I will psychoanalyze the archetypes associated with RPG classes in order to determine why playing each class is fulfilling to certain groups. First, I will tackle why people choose The Knight, and talk about his relationship to the maiden, his lord, and the quest. Next, I would like to talk about The Healer and why players have altruistic and selfish reasons for aiding others. Supporters of The Mage believe that having more knowledge is more beneficial to both the order and chaos of society, and will be examined further in the third part of this series. And lastly, the appeal of the secrets and shadows of The Thief will be brought to light. 

Additionally, I will talk a little about the psychology behind affinities to the mechanics of each class and will liberally use modern video game examples for your edification. 

Many of my ideas on this subject are still being formed. If you have reactions to this post, let me know, and I can use your input when working on the rest of this miniseries. Do you have another reason why classes are appealing that I may not have thought about? Do you have differing ideas on what stories are supposed to do for people? Do you think I have missed a crucial class or archetype? Please comment below!


  1. What do you think about The Barbarian/Fighter? I would say that's a different archetype - the character propelled only by the immediate experience of the situation. Then again, I'm struggling to come up with a well-defined game protagonist that meets this criteria. "Heroes" these days are all such (declared) goody-two-shoes that god forbid they show a little nihilism.

    How about The Lord itself as a class? Even if it lends itself more to villainy. The character who seeks to solve society's problems from outside its bounds. Especially if we're going to talk Shakespeare. Wait, you did mention Shakespeare, right? I'm thinking like Kain, Magnus Gallant, Chrom/Ike/Marth (sigh). Actually shit, that motivation sounds a lot like the ronin/gunslinger, the whole fixing society from the outside. And a ronin is just a Knight without a lord. Maybe they were Knights after all.

    Now I'm thinking you should just characterize chess pieces and write about those.

    1. Action heroes, detectives, gunmen from westerns are all grounded in the knight archetype. Those narratives all share that idea that society is broken to the point where it cannot repair itself. Therefore someone from outside of that society has to come in and break the cycle.

      Like in Die Hard 2, when the police force is so concerned about giving parking tickets on Christmas (gasp!) that they fail to see a terrorist plot in the works. John McClane has to come in and break the rules and societal norms to stop the real threat to society. Or the wandering western lawman who travels by himself to a town and then leaves (in the direction of the sunset) when the job is done because he is an outsider and too disruptive a force to remain in town.

      The Lord is similar to a knight, but with a stronger emphasis on rebuilding after the whole saving the world thing and downplaying the loner angle. I was considering a post on the barbarian/fighter class, but the way I see it is that they are just a different side of the same coin as the knight. The knight is the Romantic warrior, while the fighter/barbarian is the realist warrior. I will include them in my conversation about knights, I just like and know more about knights, so that is likely to be the focus.

    2. Well, I'm interested to read your elaboration. I feel like you swapped granularity on me here - I'd say a gunslinger is a knight to the same degree a thief or healer is, which is the degree at which knight is just a generalization for hero. But when you break down types of heroes by their means and the phrasing of their goal, I think the Romantic Warrior, Realist Warrior, and even Ronin very much deserve their own categories.

      Also, I think it's interesting (and I wonder whether you'll touch on this) that detectives probably classify as thieves.