The mythology in computer games

Mythology and religion are apparently being used to improve the gaming experience and help increase the sales of computer games.  Is this true?  And, if so, is it a good thing?

A brief history of the commercial exploitation of myth

Theories of myth date back at least to the Presocratics (Segal 2004, p. 1).  The commercial exploitation of myth probably goes back even further, as poets and philosophers used it to establish their own identity and position in the world (e.g. see Morgan 2000, pp. 33-5).

The deep psychological implications of myth became the subject of intense study at the start of the 20th century, along with the emergence of psychoanalysis.  Jung (although known today for his interest in mythology) entered the field quite late and for selfish motivations: he was being left behind whilst many psychoanalysts were undertaking ground-breaking research (Myers 2010, pp. 522-4).

Although very many people have had an influence on the commercial exploitation of myth, one thread of influence involving C.G. Jung can be traced through Joseph Campbell.  When George Lucas created the characters in Star Wars, he drew heavily on Campbell’s ideas (Lucas 2004) which were influenced by Jung (amongst others).  The commercial success of Star Wars led one young writer to adapt the principles used in Star Wars for other screenwriters (Vogler 1992).  Vogler’s principles are now widely used in scriptwriting in order to achieve commercial success.

Using myth in computer games

Such principles are also being used in the production of computer games.  However, as the discussion at this blog shows, there is some dispute about this.

Campbell’s use of mythology relates the characters to, and places them within, an overarching structure (i.e. structuralism).  Campbell describes his monomyth in The Hero of a Thousand Faces.  The counter-argument is that the reappearance of familiar motifs in modern works is due to writers interpreting what seems to be successful in another creative work and then borrowing/adapting those ideas (i.e. intertextualism).

In Jung’s theory, the differences between these two are irrelevant.  It matters not whether the writers or game creators choose to include ideas because they are part of an overarching structure or because they seem to be successful in another text.  What matters is that the writers choose consciously to include them.  This means that neither are mythology in its most significant sense, as he understood it.

What is ‘significant’ mythology?

Although Jung used the term mythology to mean many different things, a mythology is significant when it is emerges from the unconscious – something that, by its numinous quality, insists on being included.  It is a new, contemporary revelation and not a replication of something that is already conscious (Jung 1930).  All creative works contain an element of both, but it is only the new revelation that tells us something about the contemporary state of the collective unconscious.

The creation of new works using existing texts – whether through structuralism or intertextualism – is problematic in Jung’s theory.  The collective unconscious is constantly changing and developing, but we lose sight of that fact if we impose on it a fixed mythological or psychological structure, or simply repeat a formula that is successful in other creative works.

So what?

One practical implication of this can be seen a bit further down in the blog discussion (that is referred to above).  Some of the comments express disappointment that the use of recurring motifs results in a lack of originality, and the computer game becomes more storytelling than an act of play (like watching a movie).  Having said that, I suspect that such comments will be in a minority because most people are unaware as to how their mind works (i.e. they live ‘unconsciously’) and are therefore easily hooked by relatively simple and repeated mythological motifs.

Another practical implication is that such approaches are unlikely to help advance the cause of self-awareness (i.e. greater consciousness).  For Jung, unstructured play can be one of the most powerful and creative ways of developing self-awareness and growing as a person (i.e. individuating).  However, unstructured play involves the conscious mind in resisting its own natural tendency to structure everything.

References

Jung, C.G. (1930), Psychology and Literature in The Spirit in Art, Man and Literature (Collected Works 15), London: Routledge Classics, 2003

Lucas, G. (2004), The Making of Star Wars in Bonus Material, Star Wars Trilogy – DVD extra (Los Angeles: Twentieth Century Fox)

Morgan, K. (2000), Myth & Philosophy from the Presocratics to Plato (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

Myers, S. (2009), The cryptomnesic origins of Jung’s dream of the multi-storeyed house, Journal of Analytical Psychology, vol: 54, pp. 513–531 (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing)

Segal, R. (2004), Myth: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

Vogler, C. (1992), The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers and Screenwriters (Sydney: Image Book Company)

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