This thesis is an investigation of how mythographer Joseph Campbell’s monomyth narrative pattern manifests in computer and console role-playing videogames (CRPGs). It argues that this pattern is conducive to the CRPG being received as a spiritual experience, one potentially transformative in its capacity to impart and facilitate the practice of monomythic values by players, both within the game world and without. Focusing on two CRPG games, Skyrim and Mass Effect, it considers noteworthy parallels between the monomythic quest structure of these games and the ‘quest’ nature of authenticity—the modern, individual, personal search for meaning, analysing how the CRPG’s emphasis on the ‘epistemologically individualistic’ reflects aspects of alternative spirituality (as against traditional institutional religion).
As such, the CRPG actively seeks to reconcile the spiritual with the material in a ‘rationalist’s spirituality’, a fact best represented in the game’s logical structuring of the monomythic hero’s journey to apotheosis as rites of passage (that is, as successive stages of narrative, but also as a numerical ‘levelling’ system for avatar development). The spiritual is exemplified by the presence of the monomythic pattern and by how the videogame draws upon themes native to fantastic fiction (ruins, deep time, dark genesis, the sublime), themes which evoke the enchanted world and ‘porous self’ of pre-modern society and represent a desire for re- enchantment and thus an enduring interest in the spiritual.
These elements together operate within the rationalised framework of a rule-based game system, where the player has the freedom and agency native to the modern, rationally empowered ‘buffered self’ but is ultimately (and somewhat contrarily) answerable to these very same rules, as determined by a god-like designer. This relationship suggests a continuing
albeit surreptitious belief in the transcendent, validating Victoria Nelson’s assertion that art and entertainment in the modern world serves as an ‘unconscious wellspring of religion’ (2001: viii).
This thesis also explores the CRPG’s capacity to fulfil the four functions traditionally played by mythology—the mystical, cosmological, sociological and pedagogical—as described in the writings of Joseph Campbell, looking at how the sociological and pedagogical in particular are addressed by the monomythic narrative and the implicit values of this narrative (such as devotion of the self to the community). It will argue that the CRPG—in its capacity to facilitate embodied learning and action (as ritualised performance and contest)—serves as an ideal environment for the practice and possible adoption of such values by the player.
Adoption, as I will illustrate, is influenced by a number of factors. Firstly, the game itself as an experience (its narrative and emotive credibility, and thus player investment in their character, or more specifically that character is an idealised construct—the ‘projective identity’). Secondly, how the player’s role is framed within the game world, and thirdly, how the player reads his/her experience. This reading can be to some degree shaped by a game’s goals and rules, and this is where procedural rhetoric—the use of game-based systems for the purposes of persuasion—may help to foreground monomythic values and lessons as well as encourage active practice of these values in day-to-day life.
Herein lies the CRPG’s potential to fulfil the Romantic proposition that art can inspire moral improvement in the individual and instigate efforts to realise an idealised world. While games are ultimately shaped by the tastes of the market and the demands of the CRPG community, the question of whether a videogame should actively adopt such an approach is one that
arguably falls to game designers: authors of the game-as-text.
Chapter 1 provides an introduction to the thesis, while Chapter 2 explores the transition from pre-modern society to modern secularity as a default position in the West, the disappearance of the enchanted world, the emergence of alternative spiritualities as a recourse to institutional religion, and the ‘quest’ spirit that characterises the modern search for meaning (authenticity).
Chapter 3 looks at the four functions previously played by mythology and how the CRPG can fulfil them, arguing for a classification of the CRPG as an alternative spirituality, and also as a continuation of a tradition of fantastic fiction representing a desire for re-enchantment, one whose origins may very well be found in modern crises of meaning.
Chapter 4 details the origins of CRPG in wargaming and fantastic fiction, discussing the videogame genre’s unique emphasis on player choice, agency and autonomy, while analysing how the monomythic pattern manifests in Skyrim and Mass Effect, as well as its implied values, such as the commitment of the individual to the service of his/her society.
Chapter 5 discusses how the CRPG combines fantastic fictional worlds with rational rules. The spiritual takes the form of the abovementioned aesthetic themes and the monomythic pattern, which together signal an enduring interest in re-enchantment and thus the spiritual. The rational takes the form of the videogame’s distinct emphasis on the powers of the player as a rational agent, powers that nevertheless are shaped by the rules of a transcendent, god- like game designer. This melding of the spiritual with the material, it will be asserted, represents a desire to reconcile these two disparate elements in a form of ‘rationalised’ spirituality.
Chapter 6 analyses how the videogame as a form of external symbolic media can facilitate the transference of monomythic values and act as an arena for the embodied practice of these values. The transfer of such practice into the world beyond the game depends upon player investment in his/her role (via his/her idealised ‘projective identity’) and the game as a ritualised performance and contest for, if not representation of, monomythic values.
Chapter 7 investigates how procedural rhetoric may help to persuade players of the significance and possible utility of monomythic values, by not only involving the player in everyday moral/ethical dilemmas within the game world but also giving him/her the freedom to address these dilemmas as s/he see fit, while discouraging actions that compromise the ‘heroic’ image of the monomythic hero. This chapter will also suggest ways for CRPGs to avoid formulaic storytelling and problematic depictions of the monomythic hero, so as to better improve the CRPG’s ability to persuade players of monomythic values and hence fulfil the pedagogical and sociological functions ascribed by this thesis. The question of whether such functions should be associated with the CRPG is one, I will argue, that game designers alone can address.