So this started as a potential podcast episode, but decided to spend a bit more written time discussing some of the intricacies of my attempted solo podcast episode. After listening back to that last episode, as well as getting some much needed feedback, I decided to take some of the general concepts discussed in the last episode and spend a bit more time on them. For those who haven’t listened, it was a short exploration of Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild’s mythology. Most importantly for our consideration today, I talked about how the mythology is explored through interaction with the game world. This is a much discussed area of video games often known as “world building” – where the construction of the fictional world is understood through interactions and dialogue, making the immersion much deeper. Today, I want to talk a bit more about this process, and look at it from an anthropological angle.
Like most academic disciplines, anthropology has many different branches, each with their own unique approach. To be clear, I often define myself as a cultural or social anthropologist, and so this is where I’ll be primarily drawing from today. So whose culture am I … anthropologizing? Perhaps in the last episode, I would have answered we were exploring two social circles: the world of Hyrule, and the world of the gamer. This would actually be a bit of a misnomer on how video games work more generally speaking. The game world is not set apart drastically from the physical world of the gamer.
Let’s explore this a little further with a look at one of the most famous works on the study of play in culture: Huizinga’s Homo Ludens. Huizinga sought to demonstrate the overarching presence of play in what is commonly referred to as “Western” culture. His work, like many of the early and even contemporary scholars on play, focuses on children, though not exclusively. I mean this as both an explanation of the work, as well as a criticism. The study of play has always been seen as being associated with childishness – children are the ones who play. Adults do not play – and when they do it’s written differently: its sport, or ritual. These words are given loftier goals and ambitions than the word “play”. This dichotomy of play is one which Huizinga both attempts to disrupt, as well as often feeds into. And yes, I know this sounds contradictory, but reading Homo Ludens often gives this impression of flipping between the two stances. We can chalk this up as being a product of his time, but it’s worth bearing in mind if you want to run off to go write about Huizinga’s famous work.
What Huizinga is perhaps most well known for is his concept of the magic circle of play. This idea has been taken and spread to many areas of game studies, including video games. In essence, the idea is this: when we begin to play, we set this game as separate. We demarcate the special time and place in which the game occurs, following specific rule sets. In essence, we have now set ourselves apart – like when people step into a magic circle. When the game is over, we leave the magic set-apart play circle, and life returns as normal. The amount in which play affects the outside non-play life, and how much we can really understand the reality of a magic circle of play is a hotly debated topic which would take us even more off topic then we may already have found ourselves. For our purposes now, just know I think that a set aside notion of play as separate from the rest of reality is quite frankly unrealistic to how people play: children or adult.
No matter where I go in my research and explorations, I will never say that video games are not play. They’re fun. If they weren’t so fun, it wouldn’t be the leading entertainment industry. Video games are play first, but that does not always mean that they remain only in that circle. The act of play does not end with the opening of the magic circle when the console or PC gets turned off, but it continues and stretches into the everyday reality of the player.
Most of this can be seen in the way that popular culture becomes embodied: tattoos, cosplay, even something as simple as shirts (stay tuned for posts exploring this). I’ve previously done research on the Legend of Zelda, and the way connections for the community occurs. One participant began by telling me “I’d grown up with Zelda.” As they continued, they demonstrated the way the magic circle extends outside the game by saying that the game made “the outside world more special too.” Some were less eloquent, simply saying they “couldn’t fully put into words” why a particular narrative was their favourite. The role of family, and other loved ones, played a large part in their retelling of the time with the games. Cosplayers also discuss their connection to the game in a wider way than just interest: Jessica Nigri, for instance, talked about how she chooses characters based on personality traits she wishes to take on.
And, like most of my discussions here, we’re going back to mythology. And I can already hear you asking, “Why myth? We’re talking about embodiment here!” But, aha!, I say back, myth and embodiment go together!
When we think of mythology, we, now, typically think of these old texts and stories, like the Odyssey or Prose Edda. But myths are not simply written and read – they are explored and performed. Studying the narrative of the myth – the words of the myth – is missing a large portion of what a myth is.
And this is where the concept of implicit myth steps in. This has been mentioned on this blog before, but definitely bears repeating. Implicit mythology, in the beginning of its use by Lévi-Strauss, was about the other ways myth is experienced and interacted with – the performance of myth, the engagement of myth, the emotional experiences of myth, etc.
The connection to implicit mythology and video games has been explored in a recent publication by an amazingly wonderful academic in the journal Implicit Religion (cough cough). If video games are mythology, than world building is a form of implicit mythology.
World building establishes rules of the world of the game, and it fills out the history and characters who are not necessarily main protagonists or antagonists. Often this happens through side quests, or activities other characters in the world give the playable character which does nothing to advance the main story. Other world building happens through exploration in the game world, in which players find small clues, symbols, or architecture which gives life to the game world. World building is not necessarily present in all games, nor is the presence of world building necessarily indicative of particular genres. World building is subtle, individualized, and has the potential to be missed by the player, though it is scripted in dialogue, or item and location descriptors. So world building inhabits both perspectives of myth we have: the written narrative, as well as the performance of this narrative within the game world, or both explicit and implicit myth.
World building and the performance of myth helps (but is not necessarily the only way) the gameworld impact the physical. Let’s take an example from Breath of the Wild and the side quests involving Koko. Koko is a young child in Kakariko Village. These side quests have you play games, cook food, and generally get an insight into Koko’s life. You discover that her mother was killed by the evil Yiga clan, and her father was forced to spy for them in order to protect his children. Koko sneaks down to grieve at the graveyard alone. If you talk to her at this point, she tells you that she understands what happened to her mother, but that she has to be strong for her father and sister.
Koko’s story illustrates a greater point about the main plot of the game. While you, as the player, is trying to fit the evil the world, a human element is introduced through Koko. It makes the reality of the presence of evil more obvious to the player. Its not some innocuous presence – it directly impact each character you encounter in the world. These moments act as emotional catalysts to impact the narrative of the player and the narrative of the game through the performative and personal nature of the implicit myth.
This is world building in action. It doesn’t force you to play it or experience it, but it isn’t not present. It’s there, individualised, experienced differently by the different performers of the game, or the gamers. World building makes things more immersive because they help to establish the break down between game world and gamer world, by showing us the fuzzy boundaries of play.