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Stories of all kinds are filled with heroes. There are your lone wolves, acting either out of necessity or choice on their own to further the cause of good. There are your adventuring parties, working together to bring down evil overlords. There are even gods, shaping the world itself to help those subjected to their rule.
I use the term “hero” here, but really the focus is on individuals. Stories of all sorts tend to focus on individuals and the power of individuals within the world. These stories, though, help to shape our thought about the nature of individuality and community. And it is important for us to think about that shaping.
Video games aren’t unique as a culprit in this discussion. Movies and books, indeed stories handed down for thousands of years, have all placed a focus on the heroic. There is an appeal in heroes for several reasons, not least of which is the clear drama established by the struggle of an individual or a small group of people against a stronger force. We tend to like underdogs, after all, and so the individual against the community – the adventuring party against the evil empire – is a naturally compelling story.
But this continually individualized form of storytelling makes us forget about the complex role of “individualism” within our own lives. We all live as part of a community. And in living as part of a community, we are often called to leave behind some portion of our desires for the sake of the “common good.” But that demand and the willingness to give up that portion of ourselves relies on the premise that the good of the whole should outweigh the good of the part – the common good is more important than our individual good. But the stories we often tell cut in the opposite direction – our personal good is more important than the common good.
The ways in which this message is conveyed are subtle. We are never directly told to follow our own path to the detriment of the community. But the implication of these narratives always leads us in that direction. And so it is worthwhile to take a closer look at how these stories contribute to our understanding of the relationship between the individual and the community.
The Hero’s Journey
Let’s start with the basic story structure of heroism.
Heroes are, by their very nature, special. They triumph over adversity, often through their own power. The things that hold them back, whether it is a character flaw or an evil force, are to be overcome through some combination of effort, good fortune, and a bit of help from others.
Of course, the “hero” is not always a singular individual. Sometimes it is a group of individuals. That group can face similar adversities, maybe even conflict with each other, and still come through learning the value of cooperation.
But while it is possible for these narratives to highlight things like friendship and cooperation, these values are constrained in some fashion. Even when the characters work together, they work together as individuals, and the game highlights that fact.
Think about the ways in which “society” is portrayed in these relationships. Not merely all social interactions in general – friends and groups, after all, are social relationships – but society as a whole. The towns and cities that the hero or heroes wander through on their adventure. The people in these places play no role, and sometimes may feel somewhat antagonistic towards the heroes. Not necessarily in a direct sense – the town doesn’t necessarily attack or obstruct the hero in any way – but indirectly by simply not helping. The ruler may send the hero off to slay the dragon on their own. The townspeople may cower in fear as the hero sets forth. Shops may still charge their normal prices for the hero’s supplies. All of this creates an implicitly antagonistic relationship between the hero and society: society isn’t there to help, it is at best there to be protected.
But this very relationship establishes or reinforces the idea that society as a whole is a sort of drain upon the individual. That success is found outside of society in some way. The hero may play a role within society, but it is a role that is defined by being above society in a fashion.
Even when we’re dealing with a party rather than a single hero, the basic structure still exists. The members of the party may find value in cooperation, but the group as a whole is still obstructed by society writ large. We do not have to be lone wolves per se, but we still need to distinguish ourselves from the bonds of the city or town.
Even the symbolism can reinforce these ideas in roundabout ways. Think about size. The hero versus the dragon, or the evil empire. The main villain is usually massive in some way, whether in terms of literal size or in terms of number. The hero or adventuring party is small. But this idea – generally devised for the purpose of creating tension and making victory feel more cathartic – also creates the impression that bigger isn’t better. In a fight between a bigger and stronger force against a smaller and weaker force, we are (all else equal) inclined to take the side of the smaller force. But when that impression gets carried over to something like the individual versus society, we are going to want to take the individual’s side.
The nature of this narrative construction is certainly easy to understand, though. Drama and action are easier to comprehend on a small scale. A hero’s struggles make for compelling storytelling. The story of a town banding together to take down a dragon might have all of the same basic elements of drama and action, but may feel too disconnected to be appealing.
And when looking to video games in particular, this problem is compounded. Seeing through the eyes of a particular character is more natural. And even when we are working on a social level, it is through the lens of being a leader. Civilization is about being a (immortal) leader. Sim City presents the player as the mayor. Even when looking at things in a large scale, the game continually tries in some way to bring us back to the individual to help the player grasp what they are doing.
Yet this explanation may itself simply be a rationalization. We may perceive stories of individual heroes as more compelling because that very premise – individualism – is written into a collective mythos. So perhaps we should look more broadly at the concept of “individualism” in a historical context.
The individual as a unit of measurement is both common and uncommon. In a sense, it is a natural place to begin when looking at social relationships because those social relationships are composed of individuals as their basic building blocks. However, there is another sense in which these relationships become more than a mere sum of their parts – more than just the individuals who compose them – such that analyzing them through the lens of individuality may miss something important.
So in the history of philosophy the role of the individual has been complex.
On the one hand, you have a lot of philosophers talking about the value of individuality and highlighting the importance of self-determination. That the purpose of society and things like government are to effectively help provide a space for individuals to make something of themselves. These philosophies are built on the idea that it is the individual that is the most important thing. There are of course limits: the individual’s desires cannot completely override the needs of society. But those limitations are set generally at extremes, so that we are more concerned with the rights of individuals to decide things for themselves and place the responsibility of these decisions upon them. Society and social institutions, in this sense, play a rather limited role.
On the other hand, you have plenty of philosophers discussing the way in which these various institutions are not just important, but effectively mold our very lives. We are not “individuals” in a proper sense, but instead everything about us is determined in some way by the social roles we inhabit – our families, our friends, our jobs, our nation, and so on. And so in talking about society and social institutions we ought to think about the individual as part of that society and keep that role in mind: we ought to liken the individual to a body part, like a hand, and think about the role of the individual in that context. Of course, this framework does not necessarily mean that individuality needs to be erased entirely. Rather, the point is supposed to be that meaning can be found through social relationships, rather than in contrast to social relationships.
If we look back to the framework of heroism, we can see how these narratives favor the former individualist argument over the latter “collectivist” argument. The divide is not about cooperation or individuality itself, but the larger role of large-scale institutions in our lives. Everything about the hero – their personality, their power, their success – is supposed to be derived from them. They are special. But that specialness means that these social institutions are a potential threat: they might take away that specialness entirely. The triumph of the hero (or the party of heroes) is not through being part of something.
I’ve highlighted the role of individualism in stories to help show the ways in which these narratives can present and push ideas, often without even intending to. Grappling with concepts like the individual’s role in life and how society fits into all of that is complex, and the ways in which we tell stories are not consciously constructed to deal with these problems.
But we should be aware of the impact of these stories. We of course are not so unthinking that the stories we are told completely and irreversibly mold our understanding of the world. But neither are we so freethinking that these tales make no impression at all upon us. The narratives we construct about ourselves are constrained and shaped in various ways by the narratives that exist around us, and we want to know about that shaping, if for no other reason than so we can better construct our own narrative.
And so in thinking about the role of heroes in stories and how narratives and games in particular push an individualist concept, we should also wonder what the opposite would look like. How would we go about creating a more “collectivist” story? What would a video game need to do to really highlight this sensation of being part of something greater, rather than being the great thing itself?