Games are many things to many people, so the easiest, broadest power fantasies don't cut it for everyone.
Grand Theft Auto V image courtesy Rockstar
It’s understandable why guns became so tightly knit with video games. They’re a great equalizer. No matter how strong, tough, or numerous one’s opponents are, a skilled firearms user can dispatch them. The 19th century’s repeater rifles were miraculous because they allowed smaller groups to destroy larger ones with skill and superior firepower, and it is exactly this fantasy that the gun allows all of us to embrace when Master Chief mows down legions of the Covenant.
This show of power on the part of a player is exactly why Jane McGonigal used it as her example of the impressive things that gamers can accomplish: “When players dedicate themselves to a goal like 10 billion Covenant kills, they’re attaching themselves to a cause, and they’re making a significant contribution to it.” The gamers are apparently changing the world, one headshot at a time.
Guns are a method of reaching out and touching the world with maximum power. You make a choice, you aim the cursor, and change in that world is achieved with efficiency and minimal effort. The gun facilitates a power fantasy. It’s a debated term, and it most often shows up as a way of shaming people for playing the bombastic games of our time. But I also think that talking about guns and games in 2018 demands that we look at the power fantasy seriously. More than that, I think it demands that we take a broader understanding of the power fantasy so that we can decouple it from the gun.
Originally “power fantasy” was specific language that developed within Freudian psychoanalysis as a way of talking about how the minds of humans work. Within that tradition, the power fantasy concept is a way that of how humans identify and deal with the world around them, in moments . We often find ourselves in moments where we lack power, and address that lack we supplement that by identifying with identities around us that we find powerful. In its current form, power fantasy is a more generic.
As a term, it is best at describing the feelings that a game can produce in a player. Epic Games’ Nick Donaldson says that a power fantasy is an experience in which “a person is able to do something that they wouldn’t have the means or ability to do in real life.”
The power fantasy is the beefy legs that help propel you up the tower or the strong arms that tear the skulls of alien demons on half. The power fantasy also describes the relationship between the player and their in-game gun that operates as a magic wand for interaction that clears rooms, ends encounters, and generates so much of the moment-to-moment action of contemporary games.
I’m not interested in whether power fantasies are good or bad. Too much talk about them, either attacking them or defending them, treat those of us who engage in power fantasies as if we have no idea what we’re doing. I’m not a naive player of the games I play, and I don’t think that other people are either. I know what I’m getting myself into, and I enjoy doing things in games that make me feel cool or clever or skillful. I enjoy feeling powerful, just like you probably do.
Power fantasies function because they give you what you don’t have and what you can’t access in your day-to-day life. There is something liberating about tearing around Los Santos in Grand Theft Auto V in a sportscar, being chased by cops, and then losing them in the badlands between here and the coast. It’s a power fantasy precisely because I cannot do that in real life.
But feeling powerful is not symmetrical. The same fantasies don’t work for everyone. Many, many people in the United States are denied access to the basic “power” that they are supposed to enjoy in this country. Black people are broadly denied a presumption of innocence and equal access to courts. Women are denied bodily autonomy, either while walking down the street and getting catcalled or when it comes to their reproductive health in a doctor’s office. Latinos are targeted by a specialized police force. Indigenous Americans are constantly betrayed by the United States’ unwillingness to honor agreements.
This is just a sampling, a slice, but these contexts help demonstrate how my power fantasy isn’t the same as everyone else’s. In other words, my access to certain kinds of power in my actual life means that I’m not looking for that power in my fantasy. This is exactly the process that Yussef Cole dug into earlier this week in his essay on Mafia 3’s interaction with the legacy of black nationalism, and in many ways Lincoln Clay is a kind of superhero figure inheriting those ideas. He is stronger, smarter, faster, and more capable than any real human, and he’s a mythical embodiment of real political ideals. He’s a power fantasy that invokes power for a group of people who have been legally and economically denied that power.
The power fantasy, then, is a contested space, and I don’t think the discussion should be centered on whether they should exist or not. Instead, the discussion should be focused on who gets to feel powerful? Who gets access to digital representations of their dreams, especially in the AAA game or blockbuster space? And, importantly, where are guns in all of this?
Because I haven’t forgotten the guns. Lincoln Clay solves his problems with firearms, but beyond that he’s largely an exception in the world of video games. If you’re shooting people in a game, the chances are still very good that you’re playing as a white man with a chip on his shoulder. Or, maybe, you’re doing it for honor, God, and country. Maybe you’ve been betrayed by an institution you held dear. Whatever the reason, you take on a particular fantasy that puts you in the body of a bullet magician who can magically erase all the problems that appear in front of you.
Shooting in games often feels like you’re playing in a video game version of Death Wish. Originally made in 1974 and currently in theaters as a remake starring Bruce Willis, Death Wish is a revenge film where we follow a white guy killing huge numbers of self-defined enemies. It’s about the justice of being a vigilante, and it’s clearly a form of power fantasy that’s seductive for a dozen reasons. What if you could clean up crime? What if you, yes you, could stop all the injustice in the world with a gun?
Yet the film only works if you can manage to identify with a white man who can move through a city without being stopped for his skin color or the clothes he has on. It only works if you can imagine yourself having access to an amount of capital that would free up your life for nighttime vigilante justice. It only works if you can see something of your life in Bruce Willis, his bald head gleaming as brightly as the submachine gun he’s holding.
Most video games with guns lack the story of Death Wish, but they have the same content. They ask for the same identification, and more importantly, they work with the limited imagination (and within the restricted possibility space) of the status quo. Death Wish is about taking advantage of the inequalities that already exist. But Mafia 3 is about moving in spite of those inequalities, and at its zenith, upending them.
But it isn’t enough to just hope for bolder fantasies or count on the rare exception. Power fantasies are produced by an industry, and they reflect several parts of that industry. The most important one is money. Our current shooters are seen as a sure bet, the best return on investment for risk-averse publishers. Nihilism sets in. Why would that ever change?
One place we can look to guidance on this is film. We’re living in a sea change moment for cinema when it comes to power fantasies. Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther continues to dominate the box office, and for myriad reasons. It’s a superhero film that follows all of the basic tropes of a superhero film. It is not beyond power fantasy, and instead it embraces it, bending that framework specifically toward the experiences of black Americans and other people located in the African diaspora.
Crucially, Black Panther isn’t about a protagonist shooting their way through a horde of enemies. The reason for this isn’t just that it is a superhero movie, but instead it is because Black Panther is telling us in every scene that guns are not sufficient to solve problems. There is no magic wand of bullets that puts the world into order. Instead, it requires care, thought, and, yes, violence on a mass level. But guns are more of a hindrance than help.
It’s a thoughtful, serious film from a filmmaker whose first feature film was explicitly about guns. 2013’s Fruitvale Station, both written and directed by Coogler, is specifically about how guns are the ultimate, nightmarish expression of those with some access to power against those who lack it. The success of that film allowed Coogler to go on to make the acclaimed Creed and, then, Black Panther. While Fruitvale Station abandons the power fantasy for a portrait of life and tragedy, Coogler’s work since has been unabashedly in the framework of providing power fantasies for people who have been underserved by the fantasies that currently exist.
I think this is the most pragmatic way forward for decoupling the gun from the power fantasy.
I think this is the most pragmatic way forward for decoupling the gun from the power fantasy. You can’t rip guns out of a Call of Duty, and an Uncharted game wouldn’t be one without long sections of goofy gunplay. But many of our most popular game franchises manage without guns. It took critics and consumers caring about Fruitvale Station to open up a pathway for Ryan Coogler to make a film in a blockbuster franchise like Creed and then the Marvel film that followed. Currently that pathway is blocked for numerous reasons, foremost of which is risk-averse publishers, but in some ways that is the easiest channel to work through.
Paratopic, for example, is a game that is deeply embedded in the game aesthetics of foregone days, and one can imagine what the developers would be able to do with a little more money and the ability to hire a larger team. The work of Meg Jayanth, best known for writing the elegant and critical 80 Days, also embraces player action and power without fully handing that over to to the norms and standards of our current AAA imagination. Sean Han-Tani and Joni Kittaka’s Even The Ocean and Anodyne refuse to dispense with heroics and power fantasies, but they alter the conditions of those fantasies and put focus on who they could be for.
This is, I think, the best way to get to a power fantasy that’s bigger than the one we have. These are developers working in the independent space who avoid the easy solution of guns as magic wands, and to that end they open up a wider space for power fantasies. And, cynically on my part, I think that’s a tempting thing for the world of AAA publishing to see. If they want sure bets, then it’s important to demonstrate the width of the world of sure bets in the same way that Black Panther did. And maybe we can limit the easy answer of the gun along the way.