Journalist Paul Wallace recently went out on a limb with Kotaku in an article entitled What Video Games Actually Sell: Greatness, under the thesis that video games are today no longer part of the entertainment industry. They’re a new industry, yet one as old as history–the Myth Industry. Games are about greatness. In games, we can become world-saving heroes. In fact, it’s assumed that will be. It is the very STRUCTURE of games to place each player into the role of the central hero myth.A rather bold opening for an argument that then goes on to cite the way Sony frames gaming via a Playstation commercial, and the author’s Grecian associations with Classical Mythology and some subjective sense of games folding itself onto something ageless… Then…to make matters worse, he asks readers why this piece of advertising invokes comparisons between a god and child. Is it just me, or has Mr. Wallace overloaded his firearm already? Has he used liberal interpretations of Sony advertising to conflate his case? I will let you, reader, decide for yourself, as the case is laid out for your appraisal.
Wallace then cites, unsurprisingly, the author, -who’s now stylish- Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces, and calls him a spiritual badass. How academic, as if you needed to glibly note that some of you may have heard of him. Then, by virtue of this mere citation, Wallace claims that Campbell sees the potential all humans have, within themselves, to become heroes. Journalist Wallace then pulls a runaway-train and tries to conflate the gap between Campbell’s abstruse observations about myth with his own declarative statements about both his idea of the Hero’s Journey trope and greatness. Am I the only one wondering how this has anything to do with the specific value of games Wallace seems invested in? Oh, but it gets better.
Wallace opts to compare Virgil’s role in Dante‘s masterpiece, the Divine Comedy, to Obi-Wan’s role in Star Wars. He also cites other guardians in Bioshock Infinite, Dead Space, and Zelda, as being liminal, threshold guardians that guide us through fear, transitioning us from who we were to who we will become. Wallace notes that characters of this type introduce us to new game mechanics and lead us, both the player and character, through beautiful and terrifying new worlds. They are the mentors of our fate…leading us, the gamers, into the future. Last time I checked TvTropes, though, Virgil was brought in by Beatrice to guide Dante’s protagonist as part of the Hero’s Muse trope. Nothing about liminality there, whoops.
After what, so far, has been random reaches for coherence and conflation in his argument, Wallace then opines that we have our own threshold guardians who have given us the knowledge and the tools to press forward into the unknown. He then draws more similes between videogame boss battles and those stories in classic myth. He tries to draw a similar kind of heritage with classical, Greek culture, and videogames, again, rather obliquely referencing Campbell, as being part of a vast collective unconscious. But does this have anything to do with Classical greatness? No. For Wallace, the factors of responsibility, modern human maturity and game immersion, afford us the chance to be imbued with his idea of greatness. He closes his article with more Campbell citations and the notion that the purpose of myth and games is personal experience for the sake of collective progress. If that statement wasn’t enough, though, Wallace also says that video games give us the physical space to live out these internal realities, and the opportunity to do it ourselves.
While I somewhat applaud this veracious article of gaming journalism, I cannot say I agree with the author in any broad measure. I cannot agree because his opening arguments, which frame games as something other than what they are, than what they have been. In my view, what more is any game than a set of rules players adhere to via purposeful actions to accomplish some purposeful objective?
In a very vague fashion I can see what Wallace is driving at, but my notion of a game can just as easily, depending on the rules, actions and objectives, encourage maleficence as it might invoke his concept of greatness. Games have great potential, but games do/will not likely serve the same purpose as those of Dante and Homer. I believe, though, that they will be valuable cognitive tools and story-telling devices, but they need to fill their own tropes, not be compared to past human developments in far-older media.
Wallace is a fine journalist, but before he tries broad-spanning cultural critique, he should consider that his oft-cited Joseph Campbell said in The Hero with a Thousand Faces:
Wherever the poetry of myth is interpreted as biography, history, or science, it is killed.
Great try, Mr. Wallace.