Dissociation and Death

In her piece, “Why does the fear of death continue to be gaming’s primary motivator?“, Kate Cox takes up the challenge from Alyssa Rosenberg’s post “Video Games And Fear of Death” and tries to answer the various reasons that the death of the player-character meant less from arcade and early NES games than those of the branching narrative variety like Mass Effect of today. And while Kate does a good job of talking about Bastion — by far the star of the article yet locked into the second page of the piece — I think she missed a good opportunity to actually talk about what death means in games.

She comes the closest to stating why death matters, in my opinion, in the examination of her dissonance of relating to the narrator more than the character of The Kid in Bastion –“ I care about Bastion’s world very much and its player character not at all.” Earlier she says that “[u]nlike Alyssa, I don’t get stressed when my first-person player character “dies” in Portal.  Her death is impermanent; the player’s respawn is nearly instantaneous and the game puts the avatar pretty much right back at the site of the player’s failure.” Because death is not permanent and is resolved quickly then there is little to worry about if the character dies. As long as the reset of the world state is quick, and thus the penalty of failure minimized, then there is little difference between player-character death and player mistake except where there is player investment in the character and their choices vis-à-vis Mass Effect — “death… felt like a deeper kind of failure, the kind with some sort of betrayal or judgement attached.”

What I think both Alyssa and Kate experienced in different forms was clear association with character death as, in some form, player death. In the case of Alyssa’s playing of Portal, she express that ” [she gets] frozen up by the possibility of harm coming to [her] character.” She is invested in the character and assumes that Chell’s chocies are important — “I don’t have much sense of how she ended up at Aperture or why she — or me — has been left alive and alone” — and thus regards death with some permanence, even if that is not the truth. The same can be said of Kate’s admission that in playing Mass Effect 2’s ending segment, she let “fear of harming others send me into a kind of paralysis, during which I had to pause the game and pace around the room instead.” This is what the games were trying to do, make death matter, and why games continue to use death as a motivator.

Humans fear dying. It is at our very core to continue living through any means necessary. We have children. We try to make great works for which to be remembered. We take on seemingly impossible goals.  We want to know that there was a purpose to what we did and that it will matter to others. Why do games use death as a motivator? Because we fear it and, when we are caught up in the struggles of some part of us that we invest in a story, we die as readers, watchers and players when the characters die. The more important the choices of the character are to the player, in the case of games, the more likely we will invest our time. Once this investment is made, we begin to care about the lives of the characters in the works we interact with and do not want them to end. Alyssa has become Chell in her playing of Portal and Kate has become Shepard while playing Mass Effect (2). They do not want themselves or the friends they have made in the fictional worlds to die.

In many older games that Kate uses as illustrations (literally: the pictures she uses) like Pac-Man and Super Mario, she is absolutely right. With less narrative dressing up, ” the convention of game ‘lives’ built in” as she puts, we as players dissociate from the death of the character. However, we only come to that conclusion after the first death of the character. The reason that Kate “[does not] get stressed when my first-person player character ‘dies’ in Portal” is because she is not invested in the character. Chell, during Kate’s playing, has probably died numerious times, so much so that she “only feel[s] frustration at [her] lack of talent or timing.” The death of Chell has become a common thing and signals not character death, and by extension a part of the player dying, but player failure.

Death was and continues to be used a primary motivator in video games because it is universal. Everyone will die. We understand this as mortals and take this understand with us through the simulator gap and into the magic circle that are games. We can empathize with someone in a struggle for continue living — the basis of nearly all video games — because we too have experienced it in just living our lives. Their death matters because our death matters to us. If at any point, we as the players become, at least for a moment, the characters  we are reading, watching or playing as we achieve a connection, empathy. This is the goal of all works, video games included. Creators want you to care about the characters in the work, to understand their struggles and goals, so that you will morn them and their loses as you wish someone would do for you.

The better question to ask than “Why does the fear of death continue to be gaming’s primary motivator?” would be “Can we empathize with a character who is not in a life and death situation?”. This is what many indie games are trying to do right now. Developers are leaving behind death as a mechanic and are trying to get to us to understand a day in the life of something alien to the way we live. Games are and will move away from situations where the primary threat is character death just as fiction has moved from tales of epic battles to more personalized chronicles of lives. Preventing death will always be a motivation as it is the most universal, but a time will come, as video game literacy improves, when games will be more than just about dying and killing but show us a look into the life of others.