I often hear video games described as a "Power Fantasy". Academics, social critics and YouTubers talking about the meta in gaming often lean on this term to describe our motivations for enjoying video games. Is there any truth to this notion? What is a power fantasy, anyway? Let's dig in!
What is Power Fantasy?
Power fantasy has its roots deep within the escapism of gaming. Afterall, if you're going to escape from the soul crushing mundanity of everyday life, it should be to something better, right? Something extraordinary and powerful. We want to be the Tommy Vercettis of the virtual world. Driving around in expensive cars and hanging out in our multi million dollar mansions. We want to have huge rippling Marcus Phoenix muscles because in real life we don't have time for steroids and 17 hour daily workout regiments.
The logic being applied is that video games make us feel like we have power. Power fantasy supposes that we play games in a large part to feel dominant. That we play as a means to temporarily stave off those feelings of real world inadequacy. Let me tell you why this is bullshit.
Why it's Bullshit
Gaming culture isn't rooted in doing what's easy. Feeling powerful in games doesn't come from the grizzly visage of Marcus Pheonix's throbbing bovine neck. It doesn't come from being overpowered in an easy game. Being overpowered isn't fantasy, it's poor balance design. In a game, enjoyment comes from the ability to be clever as a player, not a character. As cinematic as seeing Kratos smash Gods into pieces is, having control taken away from you (or stripping it down to just a few inputs) isn't empowering, it's detaching.
In a game, empowerment comes from the ability to be clever as a player, not an on screen character. It comes from your ability to make interesting choices and utilize skills. In life we typically only get one chance to get things right. We grow wary and risk adverse. Games offer us a wealth of freedom to take those risks and try different ways to overcome the odds. This freedom allows us to explore our aptitudes in ways we may not otherwise try.
Games empower us by giving us the tools to complete a challenge. We know it's solvable by design. This may sound like "power fantasy" to some, but challenge and our ability to overcome it is the very definition of gaming. Taking risks, solving problems and applying skills isn't fantasy. Learning from mistakes, or learning to live with them is universally applicable. You may be in a virtual world, but these accomplishments are very real. We enjoy rising to the challenge, because that is in our nature.
To quote (the probably fictitious) Alexandra Drennan from The Talos Principle: "Every human society in recorded history has games. We don't just solve problems out of necessity. We do it for fun. Even as adults. Leave a human being alone with a knotted rope and they will unravel it. Leave a human being alone with blocks and they will build something. Games are part of what makes us human. We see the world as a mystery, a puzzle, because we've always been a species of problem-solvers."
Nobody Actually Thinks This, Right?
While I encounter this concept a lot online, every gamer friend I asked about "power fantasy" gave me the very blankest of stares. Not one person I play with has heard of this until I brought it up. So if you're the kind of person that simply enjoys playing games you might be saying "Why Maxx, you've just decimated a straw-man of your own creation. Nobody actually thinks people play video games primarily just to feel physically powerful and wholly dominant." If only that were true. Take a look at this video by the PBS Game Show.
For PBS Game Show's Jamin Warren, the idea of power fantasy is a foregone conclusion. His basic argument is that you don't get better at games by playing them. Instead, the game is just getting easier as you go along to indulge your power fantasy. He goes on to suggest that game challenge is put into the game by developers primarily as a counter balance to your power fantasy. A concept so ass backwards you would swear it's being put forward by someone who has only played video games out of necessity.
Jamin goes on to cite how boring games are when there's no challenge to them, instantly destroying the very notion that pure power fantasy would appeal to most any gamer. Being given new tools and upgrades isn't some devious scheme to make a game easier, it's a way to create additive complexity and nuance as players progress to take on greater challenges. More weapons and tools means there are more options for players to explore, and new ways to deal with ever increasing difficulty. A good game won't just reward you with an easy out, it will give you new ways to think about your potential role in its world and mechanics.
Learning Isn't Always Boring
This all circles back to something I wanted to touch on in a previous article about narrative in games. Video games are generally demanding of your attention and ability to learn new things. For most people the word "learning" already conjures up some annoying teacher they once had, or hours of homework. That's fair, there are certainly negative connotations to it. But think back to how good it felt to figure out some weakness of a boss you couldn't beat. Think of the myriad of challenges you've faced that appeared impossible at first and became downright easy with a little know-how.
In games, learning is empowering and rewarding. Knowing exactly how to power slide a specific corner in Mario Kart, or discovering a clever vantage point in your objective based shooter of choice truly make you feel good beyond any simple suspension of disbelief or escapism. This isn't wish fulfillment, it's not flexing your character's pretend muscles. Creativity and skill are not fantasies just because they're in a virtual setting. This is you evolving as a real person to become a better player.
Until Next Time
I wanted to get around to finally crunching the numbers on the art questionnaire in the next article. Do people who see themselves as artists also think other people do? Does age factor into one's appreciation of fine art and/or video games as an art form? We'll find this out and more!
I'll be taking the numbers fresh from the data right up until I submit the next article, so it's not too late to add your input! Until next time!