All Roads Are Now Bent: The Importance of Lore In Video Games & Psychotherapy

Prologue

It is a breezy warm July night here at the Secret Headquarters.  Boo and I have opened up the outdoor deck, which is complete with zero gravity chairs, and we can hear the wind rustling through the big tree in the front yard.  Every now and then a neighbor walks by on the street, and the open windows carry the sounds of summer from other houses, where lights are starting to go on one by one.  Looking up I can still see the clouds drifting across the sky, but now the moon has risen, and it’s definitely dusk.  Boo is stretched out looking over the area the SHQ overlooks, and keeping an eye on EVERYTHING.  Moments like this I often feel incredibly grateful for the life that I’ve ended up with, a comfortable meaningful life for the most part, with a career I love and family and friends of several species.  And often with the gratitude comes this moment of incredulity when I remember my past and I think, “How did I ever get here?”

Past As Prologue

Shakespeare’s famous line from The Tempest is one Freud was surely inspired by:

Whereof what’s past is prologue, what to come
In yours and my discharge.

The Tempest, act II, scene i, lines 253–54

Freud may have disagreed with the second half, which speaks clearly against psychological determinism.  But he surely would agree that the past is what informs our life and experience.  Each of us carries within us a history of the world we have inhabited since our existence began, and although we read and study about history that predates us, that will always be after the fact of us, and secondary to our experience.  It is in the past, but it will never be in the past of us.

I have a not-so-friendly academic rivalry with a colleague at a university where I teach Psychodynamic Theory.  When I proposed a second course to teach more contemporary psychodynamic theory, she almost single-handedly opposed it, and when it was approved despite her lobbying she began to talk with the faculty about retiring the first course.  Who needs that classic stuff?  She teaches a course on treatment that several of my students have taken, and when she discusses the concept of the assumptions underlying each therapist’s theory and practice she says to them, “I wonder what assumptions Mike Langlois has underlying his work?”

I doubt she’ll ever ask me directly, but if she does I think my reply would be that my assumption in how I think about and do therapy is “What’s past is prologue, what to come in yours and my discharge.”

The Importance of Lore

The video games I have always been the most a fan of always have lore.  World of Warcraft is one notable example.  The world of Azeroth, introduced to us during the early video games Warcraft, Warcraft II and III, had a history and mythology spanning millennia before it ever arrived online.  And what an amazing testimony to the human mind and creativity, that housed in servers and beamed across the computers of over 12 million people a world was created and then co-created that spans planets and eons!

In a recent episode of Doctor Who, the TARDIS, the Doctor’s craft that travels through time and space looking like a police telephone box on the outside while being infinitely large inside, has its consciousness stolen from the ship and implanted in the body of a human being.  For the first time, the Doctor (and we) get to hear its point of view.  Shortly after being downloaded into the human, the TARDIS says to the Doctor, “Are all human beings like this?  They’re so much bigger on the inside!”

I guess that would be a second assumption underpinning my work, that human beings are so much bigger on the inside.

Gamers are often huge fans of the lore behind the video games they play.  People often don’t understand the time, depth and complexity of such lore.  But take a look at WoWWiki, which is 0ver 91,000 pages long, which gamers have researched, compiled and written to deepen the experience of the game and help the WoW community out.  To give perspective, Shakespeare’s First Folio containing 36 of his plays was about 900 pages long, and this pdf of Freud’s Complete Psychological Works is 5081 pages.  That’s a lot of time and effort that has gone into writing about one video game.  And although Rift’s Telarapedia is much smaller at 4,041 articles, it is growing steadily.

Therapists, especially psychodynamic therapists, have historically appreciated the power of the individual’s history and the psychic mythology that evolves from it.  In fact, that sentence, with it’s fusion of history, mythology, and evolution, encapsulates in many ways the way we understand the human mental world.  So why is it, when we as a profession appreciate the symbol sets that accompany dreams, metaphors and mythology, that we fail to question our gamer patients about the lore surrounding the particular games they play.  I have found that for every gamer I ask who says they aren’t really “into the lore,” there are two who will with increasing excitement talk about the histories of Azeroth, Hyrule, or Middle Earth.  And listening to the stories of epic wars begun from the most minute of disagreements, or betrayals by family members, or forbidden monsters that were unwittingly unleashed and devastated the world as it was once known, what therapist can fail to hear the resonance in the lives of their patients?

All Roads Are Now Bent

As a child I read Tolkien with great joy, but it wasn’t until I was a young adult that I discovered that the entire Lord of The Rings, epic though it was, was merely a pale epilogue to the Silmarillon.  For those of you who have tried to read the Silmarillion and failed, I encourage you to persevere, because it tells the story of the world that became buried under the one Frodo and company trod upon.  The lore of the earlier world in the Silmarillion included the creation of the Valar (“Powers”) by the god Illuvatr, the introduction of evil into that world, and a battle between gods that spread to the races created by them, including elves and men.  The end of this story includes the sinking of the city of Numenor after its last arrogant king seeks to find the Blessed Land of Aman:

“But Ilъvatar showed forth his power, and he changed the fashion of the world; and a great chasm opened in the sea between Nъmenor and the Deathless Lands, and the waters flowed down into it, and the noise and smoke of the cataracts went up to heaven, and the world was shaken…But the land of Aman and Eressлa of the Eldar were taken away and removed beyond the reach of Men for ever…For it was nigh to the east of the great rift, and its foundations were overturned, and it fell and went down into darkness, and is no more. And there is not now upon Earth any place abiding where the memory of a time without evil is preserved.”

The story ends with Illuvatr changing the shape of the world, which was initially flat, and bending it so that the “Straight Way” to paradise is lost:

“Thus it was that great mariners among them would still search the empty seas, hoping to come…to see a vision of things that were. But they found it not. And those that sailed far came only to the new lands, and found them like to the old lands, and subject to death. And those that sailed furthest set but a girdle about the Earth and returned weary at last to the place of their beginning; and they said:
‘All roads are now bent.'”

Psychotherapy occurs then in this sadder time, when “there is not now upon Earth any place abiding where the memory of a time without evil is preserved.”  All the roads are now bent, and our patients come to us troubled by this fallen world they now live in.  Sometimes there is not even a glimpse in consciousness of what has been lost, just the unconscious conviction that it has to still be there, somewhere.  History has been altered around them, so that it seems that there has never been a different way to live, and all we have to guide us in the treatment is the mythology that remains.

My bias to both gamers and therapists is to say, “pay attention to the lore.”  The lore is important.  In video games lore is what holds the fabric of the world together, or in the case of WoW, what explains the Cataclysm when Deathwing erupts from the depths of the world to tear it apart.  The lore is what happened before the Rifts opened in Telara, how the Triforce came to Hyrule, and what caused the wicked god Malpercio to destroy the world in Baten Kaitos.  In therapy we have to ask the question, “how did I get here?”  How did it come to pass that the world was forever changed, paradise lost, and yet I am still here to mourn it? What happens next?

That as Shakespeare said, is in yours and my discharge.  Do we give up, and live in the mythology?  Or do we mourn the passing of a world so we can move on?  Gamers know that endurance and learning from past battles is important.  Therapists understand that those who do not learn from their history are doomed to repeat it.

Good therapy and good video games both involve the gradual solution of a mystery. This is not necessarily the same as winning or symptom reduction, but is ontologically more satisfying.  As the fortune teller in Baten Kaitos says, “Someday you will know, who you really are.”  We will understand the meaning of the lore of our lives, and how it has deepened, but not ultimately defined us.

 

 

Comments

  1. Well now…
    I was interested to see your interest in video games as they relate to psychoterahpy etc. Mhy own interest in that area is limited to the fact thast my son heads up a section of the internet training program at Full Sail Unviersity in Florida. His work has to do with (if I understand him right!) the interface between real people and video games. He teaches, and supervises those who teach about, video game construction.

    One of his early projects, some 20 years ago, was to create a generic set of role playing “rules” that could apply to all such games: present/future/past, war-games, fantasy games, etc. He included a psychological component based on the Myers-Briggs material, as an additional way for players to understand themselves in their game playing. I believe he was the first to do this.

    I’m an Adlerian myself, but thought I’d jump in here about my son, and that he might be interested in hearing your views as they relate to video gaming.
    He is Christopher Keeling, and can be reached at keelingc@hotmail.com

    Bob H-K, bobhk@aol.com

  2. Jason May says:

    Mike,

    Another great post! Lore is very important even though it may be overlooked at times. Your thoughts reminded me of the Jung/May emphasis on mythology and destiny in shaping our lives, especially in the West.

    Although WoW is only a peripheral interest to me your Zelda and Tokien references made me reflect on how these stories have affected my own history. I also never could finish “The Silmarillon”. Maybe its time to revisit Middle Earth.

    Jason May

  3. Coincidentally, a friend pointed me to this article – which, as it turns out, my father has commented on! First, to address your article (which I am approaching from the reverse view, as a game designer rather than therapist), I agree that the personal lore of gamers can be readily acquainted with their own in-game lore, as their characters are frequently the way they wish they were in real life, rather than the way they perceive themselves, and a lot can probably be learned from that dichotomy. This often has the unfortunate side effect of people’s darker side coming out under the cloak of Internet anonymity, with the justification that “it’s not real murder” allowing them to revel in assassinating other players. Presently, the Veterans Administration is using videogames to allow combat vets with PTSD to relive and resolve traumatic experiences in a way that acknowledges the validity of real and fictional lore by bringing them closer together.

    Second, to address my father’s comments, I used the original Jungian topology rather than the Myers-Briggs derivatives to develop 16 personality types that players could choose from for their characters that would provide a starting set of values. From there, the player could change those values (slowly) through experience. By including a set of values, I was also trying to prevent players from being so practical (aka mercenary) with their characters, placing more importance on self-preservation, loyalty, family, etc. Although I never published the RPG (it was a tabletop game), I did playtest it extensively for many years. However, I saw how small the market was (and how dominated by a few popular systems!) and decided to scrap it except for personal use. I was able to use some of it later as part of my Master’s thesis though, so it wasn’t a complete waste of time (in addition to being a fun exercise).

    Chris

    • Mike Langlois, LICSW says:

      Hi Chris, fascinating game design. Have you heard of gameful.org? You may want to check it out.

      I think it is important to distinguish between lore and role-playing here. We choose our roles in the game, but generally the lore is mapped out/storied for us. Thoughts?

      • Mike, I never heard of that site before but I just joined and it seems like it’s starting to pick up steam. Thanks for the link!

        That’s a good point about the lore, but isn’t our personal lore and our reaction to it just what we tell ourselves about the world? Kind of the same way that The Silmarillion is what Tolkien tells us about his world? There may be a lot more to the subjective interpretation of the world’s “lore” through the lens of our own “character” than the factual state of the lore itself. Of course, as a non-therapist, I’m really just guessing on this based on what I’ve encountered among gamers. Or was this your point all along and I am only just now getting it?

        • Mike Langlois, LICSW says:

          Hi Chris, you make a great point. I think lore is always communal in nature to begin with. We are all speaking with other people’s words and navigating with other people’s maps. But where I get at the personal interpretations you mention would be the way I question a patient about what parts of the lore are especially meaningful or evocative to her.

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