On Power


Doone has posted a very interesting analysis of the depiction of male characters and masculinity in video games, which I’d like to explore in several posts.

Gender is a theme which tends to evoke strong reactions based on personal experiences and background, but please note that I will delete responses where I feel that the intention was to inflame or attack an individual rather than make a contribution to the discussion.


Today, I would like to address the theme of power. Referring to a selection of video game player characters, Doone says:

Most of the characters displayed [..are] somewhat dirty, with rugged features, bulging biceps all, and broad powerful pecs.

These are capable men. These are men we can all look at and say “he can handle anything”. Their looks are designed to imbue the player with confidence that they have what it takes to get through whatever the game throws at them.

It is my belief that the male characters are depicted in this way because the majority of the video games featured revolve around making the player feel powerful. Indeed Jay Wilson, Game Director of Diablo 3, refers to ‘Powerful Heroes’ as the ‘first pillar’ of the game which determines gameplay, story and art direction.  Blizzard Entertainment’s whole ethos of ‘concentrated coolness’ focuses on feeling powerful.

What makes you feel powerful in a game?

  • Killing things
  • Destroying environments
  • Being impervious to damage
  • Dominating computer opponents (in other ways than killing)
  • Dominating other human players in combat
  • Dominating other players in the online marketplace
  • Getting more powerful weapons, or cosmetic items that make you look more powerful
  • Non-player characters telling you how powerful you have become, calling you their hero/savior
  • Seducing ‘attractive’ non-player characters

Still not convinced? Considered some of the reasons players get angry in MMOs:

  • Dying
  • Losing PvP matches
  • Losing your powerful gear
  • Your class being nerfed
  • Someone else’s class being buffed
  • Your faction winning/losing in the background narrative

We refer to this humiliating loss of power as emasculating – because power is synonymous with masculinity.

It is my view that we are trapped in the repeated use of muscle-bound hulks because developers cannot see beyond the view that games need to always make a player feel powerful in order to be entertaining. For males power is historically associated with signs of physical strength and prowess – a toned physique. Imagine Hercules, Jason and Theseus of Greek legend.

Have you ever considered why it is fun to click on something in a game and see it die?

According to Freud, the Id contains our unconscious urges to control and dominate, and derives enjoyment from it. There is a pleasure feedback loop from aggressive play and developers are hard at work to create worlds and characters that can support our primal urges to break things. It feels good to be powerful and offers an escape from our daily lives where we are at times completely powerless.

But the truth is that games are interactive story-telling medium and have the capacity to make players feel a wide gamete of emotions.

A few examples off the top of my head:

  • In Final Fantasy VII [spoiler], I thought I was powerful until Aerith died, which caught me by surprise. I understand that subsequent sequels to this game have employed similar narratives. Some players have even reported being brought to tears by these games.
  • In the Space Quest games, I actually feel powerless because the protagonist, Roger Wilco, is an hilarious fool.
  • In Portal, I am helpless against the overwhelming power of GlaDOS, who is able to physically dominate my every move.

However I feel clever and resourceful for beating her puzzles.

When we start to question the assumptions around power and delivering thrills in video games, I believe that we can start to see more multi-faceted depiction of men and masculinity.

Recent titles, particularly in the RPG genre, have started to offer more customization options for players, enabling the ability to create fat and thin, tall and short avatars. This is a good first step, however the underlying narratives are usually the same regardless: crush, kill, destroy and dominate.

I am not arguing against action games, or removing the Duke Nukem archetype from every title. There are a range of titles out this year that I am looking forward to and many that I continue to play, even though they are guilty of the crimes listed above.

In general, however, I am tired of playing the Powerful Hero.

I want developers to show me something else. Prove to me that video games can be something more.

About bernardparsnip

Gamer, Blogger, Poet
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6 Responses to On Power

  1. Doone says:

    I’m really glad to see you join this discussion. Thank you for this post.

    I do want to ask one thing, though: The devs want us to feel powerful. Why, then, do Nathan Drake and Lara Croft offer two extraordinarily different visualizations of power? I think you partially answered this in stating that power is identified as masculinity. Could this be the reason we don’t see female characters take on the same stoic, angry, or otherwise powerful visualizations males do?

    And since there are few female exceptions to this, what are developers saying about female avatars? I want to stay on the topic of male examination as much as you do, but we have to be examining this *against* something, a comparison to see where the deviations are in order to talk about them.

    I’ve had an idea for a while on commenting on the exceptional female visualizations we have, such as from games like Portal and Dragon Age. But I’m not quite where I need to be on editing it.

    • Doone, thanks for the feedback. I have taken quite a narrow scope in this initial foray.

      With regards to female characters I believe developers have taken a page out of Hollywood and attempted to create ‘femme fatale’ characters that are equally dangerous and sexy because they believe this is what gamers want and what will sell. Note emphasis on ‘attempted’…

  2. ctmurphy46 says:

    I am so tired of the avatar of the protagonist projecting the heroism rather than the actions and choices of the player. Pretty much every videogame lead is a variation of Achilles or Odysseus. Their actions lack any meaning because no matter what they do or say, they embody heroism by virtue of being themselves.

    Being a hero is not a job, a destiny, or a birthright: it is a social consequence of a positive action.

    • Agreed.

      This is particularly the case in MMOs where the whole virtual world is full of immortal superchampion heroes that can defeat the ultimate evils several times before breakfast.

      I would love to see more games where crafting is an enjoyable progression route and viable alternative to dungeons/PvP.

      • ctmurphy46 says:

        I love slaying gods and destroying dragons one appendage at a time, but enough is enough. Epics only have a handful of heroes in them for a reason: the world (even a fantasy one) is not comprised of heroes. MMOs should be no different.

  3. Pingback: Someone Else’s Story [Max Payne 3] | Diminishing Returns

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