My Best Buds Are Space Aliens: On Emotional Investment in Games

Mass Effect

I am a graduate student. I am a dog mom. I am a summer consultant in a windowless office who clicks buttons and writes recommendations and wears blazers. And in a very real way, I am Commander of the Normandy and Hero of the Galaxy.

Authors, philosophers, and scientists have chimed in on the conversation, eager to validate our affection for the fictional. Here we will argue not only for the legitimacy of games as fully realized worlds of art, but advocate for our roles in them. The emotional investment we experience related to games and their characters directly reflects on our ability to project ourselves onto the protagonist. (Spoiler alert: our feelings are backed up by science.)

Why We Love Games

When I started dating my partner, I put a solid get-out clause in our relationship. Namely: if I have the chance to colonize a garden planet, he’s getting the boot. While 99% of me knows I’m kidding (… 66% of me), a very prominent chunk of my soul would abandon my life on this rock to be swallowed whole by the Mass Effect universe.

The logical launchpad for this conversation might come from what there is to love about today’s host of video games, particularly modern RPGs. As Sam Maggs puts it in her three cheers for Bioware:

“When was the last time you played a game (or read a book, or flipped through a comic, or watched a television show, or saw a movie) where the savior of the universe was a lesbian woman of color? In a Bioware game, that’s not just within the realm of possibility, it’s completely normalized. The rarity with which marginalized people are able to see ourselves as the heroes of these stories makes Bioware’s titles that much more appealing to gamers and active fan communities.”

She’s regaling the customizable options of Bioware’s protagonists. In their blockbuster franchises Mass Effect and Dragon Age, you are able to modify the main character to reflect not only how you look, but how you feel in your heart.

Customizations allow us to create characters that we can see ourselves in, and then those characters—those versions of us—are able to make moral choices, cultivate deep friendships, and court romantic interests in whatever ways we want. They are extensions of us, manifesting our inner desires. In the video game’s inherently interactive medium of storytelling, we’re able to take part as the protagonist in deeply fleshed-out, complex worlds.

Mass Effect

In man-on-the street-style interviews, I was able to talk to a few gamers about what it is that they love about games.

“The lore is my favorite part,” says Scott, a life-long gamer from North Dakota. “In the [Mass Effect] codex, you can find out infinitely more about the biology, the culture, the history, etc. of every race than you ever need to know. You get details about the ships, the cities—just everything. You know you’re stepping into a conversation that feels like it’s existed for a thousand years. When you want to know more, there’s always more.”

The fully realized universes of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Jordan’s Wheel of Time, and now Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles don’t have to be literature-specific. The same care and development goes into the creation of the games we love with the added benefit of being able to stay in that world—even after the story has finished.

Another interviewee happily agreed with my assertion. “When a book’s over, it’s over,” says Liana, 23, a pre-med student from Minnesota. “When a game is over, you can keep doing side quests, you can play in some of them in multiplayer, you can read more in the codex, you can keep talking to characters. You don’t have to be [finished] until you want to be, and when you start over, you can sometimes make different choices and experience the game in a new way. You can’t do that with books.”

In addition to the feeling of adventure, the stunning graphics of today’s games are nothing less than a contribution to the world of art. Some days—to the horror of my parents (and probably Michelle Obama)—I skip going outside in favor of taking a stroll through the Hinterlands, plugged into my console. That love and appreciation for art doesn’t need to be argued, as I’d be hard-pressed to find someone with the chutzpah to say the Mona Lisa doesn’t matter. Perhaps convincing the world that video games are viable members of the artistic community is worth pursuing in explaining why we love video games.

In the same way some of us get excited about kale smoothies for their health benefits, or perhaps stretching our brain with complex Russian literature, psychologist Isabela Granic argues in her 2014 contribution to American Psychology that we directly benefit from playing video games. We can revel in the cognitive, social, motivational, and emotional perks that gaming bring us.

Mass Effect

Why We’re Invested

When the worlds are fully realized and we see ourselves as the protagonist, it makes sense that the characters who march alongside us as our squadmates or counterparts begin to feel like friends. After all, they’re the protagonist’s friends, and we are the protagonist.

Novelist and BBC contributor Will Self philosophically tackled this very topic of character relationships. First, he pauses to compliment the beauty of well-done fiction, commenting that it’s already an astonishing feat to regard an invented scenario as believable or impactful to human life.

His article is wordy and jargon-heavy, but he uses the example of Anna Karenina to explore the idea of eternity. Anna Karenina’s fate,” he writes, “like those of all fictional characters—was, is, and will always be utterly determined.” In a chilling, potentially disturbing evolution, Self goes on to say:

“It occurs to me that it’s precisely in fictional characters’ conviction—despite all evidence to the contrary—that they are the authors of their own lives, that they resemble us most. We really intuit that in between the alternative scenarios of chaotic contingency and universal necessity, there can’t possibly be any real wiggle-room within which the human will can operate, yet we persist—and cannot help persisting—in the delusion that we too are the authors of our own lives.”

Self’s bleak and fatalist view takes a less upsetting turn if we reflect on our free will to choose. (Must be a Calvinist thing?) The very joy of free will is more accurately reflected in today’s RPGs than in the linear mode of literature.

If DNA strands and lab coats are more your thing, Abby Norman has written for The Mary Sue about the psychological implications of fandom, exploring the “realness” we experience. She uses science (because someone had to) in order to explain what it is that we’re feeling when we bond with fictional characters. The snappily named right supramarginal gyrus is responsible for the empathy we’re able to project not only onto other humans, but onto fictional characters as well.

As a fan, Norman thrills me when she says that, “On a neurobiological level, our experience of consuming fiction is actually very real. Measurably so.

Mass Effect

Why My Best Buds Are Space Aliens

I emotionally invest in video game characters not only because of their well-written dialogue, their developed backgrounds, and their opportunities to live on afterward (hello, fanfic), but for their “realness.” When I stop the Reapers, I’m not only involved in an authentic sense of accomplishment, but I get to share it with an equally legitimate group of pals.

Science says it’s real, and I’m not going to argue with science.


One thought on “My Best Buds Are Space Aliens: On Emotional Investment in Games

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  1. Jumping off Will Self’s quote, it is the places where the characters’ desperate conviction that they are the authors of their own lives crumbles — where they must realize it and confront it; this intricate fretwork of cause and circumstance etching their lives into patterns beyond their control — that we are absolved, on some quiet level, of having failed to become the authors of our own.

    It’s only a little salve, but it’s something, when we don’t often have anything else.


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