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In part one of Games and the Imagination I discussed some of the aspects of gaming that remain unaccounted for by the conventional language of games design. I explored the idea that for many gamers an underlying fantasy is the primary factor in attracting them to a game, and that there is a complex imaginative relationship between a player and a game. Understanding this relationship and why and how games evoke such fantasies and experiences could revolutionise the way we think about games and how we design them. To do this, we need a framework that we can use to interpret these experiences and relate them to games design. Psychology seems like an obvious framework and it was the first to which I turned, but as I discovered there were fundamental problems in using psychology to interpret the kinds of experiences described in part one.

When I began to study this area I had initially hoped to find straightforward psychological theories that I could apply to my thinking in video games. Instead I found an unbridgeable chasm dividing one ideology from another, a division running deep within psychology with imagination and subjective experience at its heart. On one side of this divide lie the schools of cognitive, behaviourist and biological psychology, their theories and research being limited to the aspects of the mind that can be verified objectively using scientific methods. On the other side lie the psychodynamic and humanist psychologies, concerned mainly with personal subjective experience and basing their work on the philosophy of phenomenology, which states that in any investigation we must start with our subjective experience, it being the only viewpoint open to us with any certainty.

The problem is, that while the objective (or "third person") viewpoint has been extremely successful in providing models of behaviour and in describing explicit concepts such as learning and memory, it has had less success in the first-person, phenomenological realms of experience, consciousness and identity. As such, its proponents either limit their work to the non-subjective or take the extreme view that consciousness and subjective experience are secondary phenomena or completely illusory and do not represent an accurate context from which to view reality.

The phenomenological, first person viewpoint has a similar problem. Although it has been successful as a framework for a large number of psychotherapies and as an essential component in literary and cultural analysis, it has had difficulty finding an objective, scientific base in the theories offered by the third person perspective.

As psychologist William Glassman puts it (after D.N Robinson) "..it seems we are forced to choose between a psychology which is not scientific, and a science which is not psychology!" (Glassman, 2000). In approaching the imagination we are forced to choose the former, at least until we have a theory that successfully unites the first and third person approaches, since the experiences described in part one and indeed the whole idea of game playing lie within the context of first person experience1.

Having decided on which side of the border we are on, we now have the second problem of finding a set of concepts to interpret these experiences. The first person realm is a vast sea of interconnecting and conflicting approaches, from depth psychology to cultural studies and post-structuralism. All of these perspectives are equally valid and no single viewpoint can encompass the entirety of first person experience (Of course, if you accept the postmodern critique of science, then the third person view is in no better position). This means that anything we say about first person experience will be an interpretation, not an explanation, one viewpoint amongst many others.

One of the most interesting and useful viewpoints that we can use to explore video games and the experiences they evoke is that of Jungian depth psychology. Although it is controversial in academic circles2, Jungian psychology has been a great influence on the humanities and on many artists, writers and film-makers. Its concepts seem to fit video games like a glove, offering us a set of ideas that we can use to explore the complex relationship between a player and a game, and indeed between a designer and a game. It could also radically change the way we look at genre, violence and the process of playing amongst other things. Jungian psychology is a complex and multifaceted subject and I can only give the barest introduction to it in such a short article. This brief introduction is only intended to show how it relates to games design, and to give the reader the knowledge necessary for understanding the design concepts that can be derived from it. Readers wanting a deeper understanding of Jungian psychology are directed to the books listed in the bibliography. Lets start off by exploring the psychology of play and fantasy, subjects that underlie every aspect of game playing.

Fantasy, Play and Projection

Play has long been recognised as a fundamental part of human, even animal nature. Psychologists and educationalists see play as being a natural form of learning. Through play, nature trains the biological and psychological functions necessary for life, from hunting and physical survival, to social co-operation and cultural participation. On a cognitive level, play encourages the development of our concepts about the world. By toying with objects and ideas through playful experimentation we develop an understanding of the physical world and our place within it.

But there is more to play than just encouraging adaptation to our surroundings or the development of rational skills. The great theorist of play Johann Huizinger believed that it was the basis of all forms of ritual and represented the foundational impulse behind many forms of art and drama. He also maintained that far from being a wasteful exercise or the antithesis of work, play was essential to the well-being of society (Poole, 2000; Rheingold, 1991).

Although the educational and social aspects of play are widely known and accepted, introverted play, fantasy and pure make-believe are less well regarded. This may be due to the extroverted bias of our culture or to Freud's popular notion that fantasy represents a regressive means of escaping from reality. But according to Jungian psychology, fantasy is just as important as any other kind of thinking and in fact, is essential to healthy psychological growth. Just as extroverted play orientates the individual to the outside world and helps him comprehend it, introverted play or fantasy, according to Jung, orientates the individual to his inner world. In the stories, figures and landscapes of fantasy, an individual plays with different elements of his own personality rendered in symbolic form (Stevens, 1999).

This is not to say that extroverted and introverted play are mutually exclusive. I'm sure many readers will remember playing with toys or other objects and investing them with a meaning quite unrelated to their actual function. By projecting his imagination (often unconsciously) onto an object, an individual gives it a new and personal meaning. This allows him to concretise his inner fantasy play by representing it with symbolic objects. Thus a stick becomes a gun, a teddy bear becomes a comforting friend and a collection of blocky sprites becomes a menacing foe. Projection is used in this way by play therapists, who know that a child, who may not be able to verbalise or consciously understand her feelings, will often enact personal issues through toys, with inner processes, conflicts and goals mirrored symbolically in the stories and themes of play.

The Game as Imagination Space

I think that the concept of projection goes some way in describing how a person becomes immersed in a video game. Through identifying consciously or subconsciously with the different characters, narratives and processes in a game, the player is able to explore personal issues, goals and ideals, as well as participate in those transmitted to her by her culture. This doesn't just mean that a player will identify solely with a game's controllable characters, it means that the game as a whole will act as a kind of "imagination space" with enemies, themes, landscapes, items and processes all reflecting a particular imaginative concern. The interplay of two opposing characters or political groups for example, may symbolise an inner conflict. A satisfying union, such as the moment in an RPG when a particularly enigmatic or dangerous character joins the player's party may symbolise the resolution of an inner conflict represented by the characters differing natures. Of course seeing everything in a game as a projection of the imagination is a best case scenario. Since most games have fixed processes and plotlines, they won't all relate to the concerns of every player. But as games increase in complexity and freedom, they will be able to accommodate many different playing styles and personal goals, mirroring the inner dynamics of the players personality. This idea of a game as an imagination space may sound unusual but it has an interesting historical parallel in the form of ancient Greek theatre.

When a citizen of ancient Greece went to the theatre, he didn't go to be mildly amused or to view the kind of lightweight nonsense that passes for entertainment today. He went there to experience catharsis, a release of deep feeling that to the Greeks was related to the purification of the senses and the soul. The key to catharsis was mimesis, a combination of the suspension of disbelief, the ability to empathise with the characters on-stage and the ability to internalise the drama as it was performed, In other words, to relate to the drama on a personal, imaginative level (Rheingold, 1991). To the Greeks, catharsis was a healthy way of dealing with the great themes of life and death, and it's not for nothing that the term is retained by psychology today, to describe the release of emotion related to the resolution of an internal difficulty. Such catharsis may also occur within our digital imagination space, when an event occurs of particular resonance to the gamer, such as the union of two formerly opposing characters or the surmounting of a difficult obstacle, though often at differing levels of intensity.

Another parallel is found in the work of the great German novelist and Nobel laureate Hermann Hesse. In his novel Steppenwolf, Hesse explores the possibility of literature representing "..the ego as a manifold entity." He also advises the reader, "not to regard the characters of such a creation as separate beings, but as the various facets and aspects of a higher unity" (Hesse, 1927).

But what are the various facets and aspects of the psyche that we project onto a game? Can we say anything general about them that we could use in game design or are they utterly unique in every person? And how do the inner concerns of an individual relate to and identify with the epic and often otherworldly themes found in games and fantasy? To answer these questions we need to turn to Jung's metapsychology, that is, his map of the imagination.

The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious

  The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious
  The Anima and Animus
  The Archetypes and the Individual

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The Series
  The Primacy of the Imagination
  Approaching the Imagination
  The Game as Quest
  Integrating the Imagination