For those of us who grew up with Pong and the Atari 2600, video games seem like they have been around for a long time. But in the grand scheme they are still a new and emerging artistic medium. Compared to film, games are children, and compared to music, visual art, and literature, video games are mere infants (a bunch of cells even). While games do have new things to offer—like the ability to blow things up in amazing virtual worlds, and super annoying F2P monetization strategies—they share the same basic function and purpose of all art forms before them: to tell a meaningful story. In that way, they are part of an ancient and ongoing tradition as old as humanity itself.
A Gamer is Born
My most meaningful gaming experiences took place when I was about nine or ten, playing Zelda 2 and Final Fantasy 2 and 3. With parents who worked a lot, I was allowed to play video games quite a bit, and my brother and I delved into these games like they held the keys to revelation. The stories of these video game classics had it all—brave heroes, dastardly villains, strange monsters, powerful magic, and items of formidable power. The stakes were nearly always the same: you (yes, YOU) had to save the world from unspeakable darkness—against all odds, using nothing but your skill, cunning, and (maybe) the aid of your allies to restore peace and balance to the world.
These games and others like them have always held a special, even sacred, place in my heart. However, it wasn’t until I became familiar with renowned mythologist Joseph Campbell and his concepts of "Monomyth" and "The Hero’s Journey" that I truly understood why video games meant so much to me and other gamers.
Campbell’s book, A Hero with a Thousand Faces, defines Monomyth as the idea that there's a fundamental lattice-work or pattern behind nearly all epic stories, be they fiction or folklore. As Campbell himself summarizes: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”
Identifying Video Game Myths and The Hero’s Journey
This archetypal adventure outlined by Campbell, that Link, Buddha, Frodo, Gordon Freeman, and many others have embarked on is known as The Hero’s Journey. And there's a reason we tell this story, with different characters and nuances, over and over again. It reminds us of many important things—what it is to be alive, how to face adversity and overcome it, the dangers of losing integrity, the pitfalls of evil, and the reasons for choosing to be the hero of your own story. It is an allegorical roadmap for life, and an argument for being the good guy and having the audacity to want to change the world for the better.
It was video games that brought me this ancient human mythological transmission. Where Sunday school, sitcoms, and school failed miserably, video games succeeded in conveying a story of being human that made sense to me and inspired me. Sure, there were movies and books that I also fell in love with, but video games captivated me in a way nothing else did. And there is a reason for that as well.
One of the critical functions of stories and myths is that they must be relevant to their time and their culture—utilizing the language, technology, memes, and tropes that that culture best understands and finds most interesting. Some stories and myths feel timeless, but at their inception they still pull from the cultural truths of the moment. As an exciting new movement that I strongly identified with, gaming fulfilled the requisite criteria with flying colors.
Final Fantasy and, yes, even Farmville contain video game myths
Of course, not every game is literally about saving the world, and infinite permutations of the Hero’s Journey exist, and look very different from one another. But through the lens of monomyth, we can start to see how the Hero's Journey and the criteria of myths can apply to literally any game, such as the following eccentric examples.
The Grand Theft Auto series is both notoriously celebrated and derided, but how could a game where you beat up hookers have mythological value? Well, underneath the surface, there exist the fundamental aspects of story that people enjoy and identify with: I am the master of my own destiny. I am a survivor and respected by my peers. I can attain glory even in the face of great odds.
For the beloved Facebook and app game, Bejeweled: I can skillfully organize and respond to change under pressure. I’m able to learn and improve quickly and stand out among my peers.
And lastly, for Farmville: I value wholesomeness, productivity, and the pastoral. I can make smart decisions, plan for the future, and help my friends.
So the next time someone says video games are a waste of time or will rot your brain, you can remind them that all games—just like all movies, books, and stories—are there to reinforce, remind, or reveal something about ourselves. They reaffirm that we have a purpose and the potential for greatness, however we choose to define it in our lives. In other words, video game myths are real, and games themselves are both lasting and valuable.