As much as I enjoy watching Errant Signal (after all, he’s where I grabbed the term kinaesthetics from), he also has a tendency to use certain buzz words or phrases that get my teeth grinding and my eye twitching. I’ve long since found the term “skinner box” overused, and he is no stranger to using them to swiftly describe his thoughts towards a game’s general design.
So when he briefly described Destiny as a “power fantasy” in his video review, I twitched and snarled, gnashing my teeth for a moment before watching the rest of his analysis. Yet that bad flavor remained in my mouth. It refused to go away.
I decided before writing about “power fantasies” that I would see what academic psychology papers I could find on the matter. All I could find were definitions and articles concerning narcissism and Megalomania, or power dynamics in regards to sex, specifically with women’s sexual fantasies. On occasion I’d find material regarding women and science-fiction and fantasy genres, but almost nothing to define what a power fantasy actually is, nor how it relates to gaming. Yet a simple search just for “power fantasy” yields endless articles and forum threads focused purely on gaming, save for this TV Tropes definition, which is explaining an attribute or momentary state of a character within a fictional work.
In other words, “power fantasy” is a term that has no real definition, yet is circulated constantly within the gaming industry.
So let’s try and understand what most writers mean when they describe a game as a power fantasy. From what I can tell, any game whose mechanics focus on the player using a myriad set of abilities or fully stocked arsenal to conquer foes and thus become victorious is a power fantasy. Does that sound like a biased definition? Because I’m trying not to sound silly as I type that out. If we were to really simplify what a power fantasy is in regards to how the audience engages with entertainment, it is a story involving a violent conflict where the protagonist emerges as victor.
This means that a power fantasy is one of many aspects of escapism, just as romantic comedies that end happily ever after are their own form of escapism. We dive into these games so that we may escape our mundane, everyday life and feel like a champion.
Or is it really that simple? Are video games always about escaping, or at least for a power fantasy?
What sets games apart from a medium like film or literature, as always, is interactivity. This means the player cannot just sit idly by and allow the fantasy to play out. They must participate, and thus there is a risk of failure. Every time the player dies, it means you must repeat earlier trials or suffer some other form of consequence. Most video games, the ones typically deemed a power fantasy at least, rely on challenge heavily for engaging the player.
If I wanted to fantasize about being powerful, why would I want to be challenged?
Perhaps it is the sense of accomplishment that is thus being criticized, then, or offhandedly being dismissed. “Oh, it’s merely a game that perpetuates a cycle of challenge so that when the player, who just so happens to have the odds in their favor, is victorious, they are euphoric in the illusion of accomplishment”. This is the general attitude I imagine when people describe something as a power fantasy.
That’s just insulting. Not only to players, but to the designers of the game as well.
Let’s take my recent post on inFamous: Second Son into account. The game has the potential to be frustrating because, if the player relies too heavily on their powers and not enough on their own wit, then they will often be met with failure. The game, about super powers, actually has the potential to completely fail as a “power fantasy” due to the limitations put onto the player for the sake of challenge. Yet if the player could just drop in and blast everything to smithereens without so much as a slightly red tinge of health loss, it wouldn’t be a satisfying experience. Cathartic? Mayhaps, and there are certainly players that open up certain open world games or other such genres to release some of that frustration.
More often than not, that catharsis is not complete without the challenge. If a player has the opportunity to screw up, to completely fail or only succeed by the skin of their teeth, then getting through that scenario expending barely a percentage of ammunition and taking no damage is going to be much more satisfying, and thus cathartic, than if they were to merely walk in, press some buttons, and get the same end result.
Around now is when I spend several paragraphs discussing Dark Souls, but at this stage I don’t think I need to.
I would argue that players are drawn to certain types of game for a sense of accomplishment and reward. Yes, there is a sense of escapism to that. After all, some of these players could be stuck with dead end jobs, be it in the cubicle, behind the register, or behind the push broom. No sign of a reward is available, no indication of advancement. It could be video games are the only place in their life where they are met with any sort of challenge, and thus there comes a sense of accomplishment to coincide with it.
These are completely separate from a power fantasy, however, and if players are drawn to certain kinds of games for that purpose then it is not necessarily by the game’s design.
Terms such as “power fantasy”, aside from being vaguely defined for the purposes of games journalists to dismiss certain categories of games as if they are somehow inferior or simplistic in nature, are rather insulting to the reasons people design and play video games. While there are certainly video games that exist with no purpose but to drop the player into a sandbox where they can stomp on any and all within their surroundings, they are few and far between (and most often take the shape of the LEGO® games, specifically designed so the greatest challenge children have to face are simple puzzles).
So instead of dismissing a game as a “power fantasy”, as a games writer, consider a designer’s goal for the game and what steps it takes for a player to become successful. What challenges they must overcome, the form that they take, and how the game indicates to the player that they’ve just accomplished something. Even if the game is designed in the player’s favor, that doesn’t make it a “power fantasy”. User-friendly, perhaps, but not a fantasy designed for the player to take out their wrath on an imagined aggressor.