This summer, I played a bit of Dragon’s Dogma, an action role-playing game. The bulk of my time with the game was spent not slaying monsters or progressing through the storyline but fine-tuning the dozens of sliders and switches that govern my character’s appearance.
I know many players clamor for games with such meticulous character creation systems, but I personally find them overwhelming. Needless to say it was a relief when Dragon Quest V‘s own opening sequence asked that I enter a name for the main character…
… and that’s it. From this point on, NPCs and in-game menus will address the Hero by the name I chose, but all other facets of his identity (including the requirement that it be his and not her identity) are pre-written and locked by the developers.
Without its name-entry screen, Dragon Quest V would be no more customizable than a novel or film. With it, starting the game is somewhat akin to stepping into a role in a play or movie. Like a character from a script is activated and actualized by an actor’s performance, DQV’s own Hero is complete but for one variable (namely, the name) to be supplied by the player. Of course, this analogy is not perfect, since the actor necessarily imbues a performance with his/her own mannerisms and personal interpretation of the role. Meanwhile, DQV (and most videogames) lack both gameplay intricate enough to distinguish one player’s performance from another as well as an audience to divine that difference.
Perhaps DQV’s approach maps a route to a different kind of immersion into a game world: that is, encase the player in a suit of armor so thick that the wearer cannot channel her own identity beyond its confines. Given the worship of individualism and self-expression in American culture, this articulation of “immersion” – a videogame buzzword that has been overloaded to mean many things, including a game’s capacity for self-expression – may at first sound depressing or confining.
But as therapist George Enfield argues in his reflection on using RPGs as a treatment tool in counseling, “through engagement in the role-playing activity, clients may express conscious issues … or they may symbolically express and play out unconscious struggles.” (228). Enfield further stresses that by playing as a powerful hero or heroine, “clients are able experiment [sic] with and master elements of an alternate identity – the person they would like to become.” (230). When the player’s identity is so cleanly divided from the hero’s, each in-game action solicits reflection on the distance between the player’s and the Hero’s abilities and morals, as well as perhaps an aspiration to close that divide.
Where some RPGs, like Dragon’s Dogma, produce heroes that bear the marks of their player-creator, others, like Dragon Quest V and Marvel Hero Clicks (one of the games that Enfield prescribes to his clients), minimize or prevent that very influence through their pre-written protagonists. In other words, where the former encourages the player to see his/her own influence in the hero, the latter wants the player to imagine himself/herself as (or in contrast to) the Hero.
Enfield, George. “Becoming the Hero: The Use of Role-Playing Games in Psychotherapy.” Using Superheroes in Counseling and Play Therapy. New York: Springer Publishing Company, 2006. Proquest ebrary. Web. 27 Oct. 2016.