Upcoming Events
Unite 2010
11/10 - 11/12 @ Montréal, Canada

GDC China
12/5 - 12/7 @ Shanghai, China

Asia Game Show 2010
12/24 - 12/27  

GDC 2011
2/28 - 3/4 @ San Francisco, CA

More events...
Quick Stats
67 people currently visiting GDNet.
2406 articles in the reference section.

Help us fight cancer!
Join SETI Team GDNet!
Link to us Events 4 Gamers
Intel sponsors gamedev.net search:

The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious

Many readers will be familiar with the notion of the unconscious or subconscious mind, that aspect of the psyche that contains all that consciousness is unaware of. This includes such things as memories, forgotten experiences, subliminal perceptions and habitual tendencies such as the ability to drive a car without thinking about it. Most popular formulations of the unconscious regard it as a tabula rasa, or a blank slate upon which a person's experiences are written as he or she goes through life. This view leads many to the conclusion that all minds are utterly different, or that the personality is entirely constructed by society and circumstance. As well as failing to take biology into account, with the fact that all brains share the same basic mechanisms, this idea failed to impress Carl Jung, who for nine years had conducted a study of the delusions and hallucinations experienced by sufferers of schizophrenia.

Jung noticed, when studying the dreams, fantasies and delusions of his patients, that many of them contained images and ideas that could not be related to a patient's life history. They could, of course, be explained away as meaningless mental irregularities, but he also noticed that these images and ideas were very similar to ones found in mythical and religious symbolism from all over the world. As psychiatrist Anthony Stevens explains, "Jung gathered a wealth of evidence which persuaded him that this universal symbolism was due less to individual experience or cultural dissemination than to the structure of the human brain and to a fundamental component of the unconscious psyche which was shared by all humankind" (Stevens, 1999). Jung called this fundamental component the collective unconscious.

Within the collective unconscious, Jung posited the existence of archetypes. These are fundamental psychological patterns that relate to the universal symbols described above. As Jung explains,"The concept of the archetype.. is derived from the repeated observation that, for instance, the myths and fairy tales of world literature contain motifs which crop up everywhere. We meet these same motifs in the fantasies, dreams, deliria and delusions of individuals living today..These typical images and associations are what I call archetypal ideas" (Storr, 1998). Although Jung's archetypal hypothesis is controversial2, some thinkers believe that it might represent a first-person view of such third-person concepts as the cognitive schemata of cognitive science and the evolved psychological mechanisms of evolutionary psychology; although it is not yet clear how much of an archetypal pattern is inherited and how much is culturally transmitted (Glassman, 2000; Stevens,1998).

Typical archetypal ideas that often appear in myths, dreams and fantasies include, the hero, the devouring monster, the wise old man or woman, the father, the mother, the "dream woman" the "dream man", helpful animals and the dangerous enemy. There are also archetypal processes such as the heroic quest, the descent into the underworld, the slaying of a dragon, sexual union, the rising and setting of the sun, birth and death. These archetypal ideas symbolise the universal components and processes of the psyche and can often evoke a strong emotional impact.

This is not to say that an archetype is a mythical image or being. Mythical images, along with those found in dreams and fantasies are representations, or symbols of the archetypes. Archetypes themselves are innate psychological patterns with no content of their own, that take on the appearance of real life images that relate to them in some way. For example, one person may have heroic fantasies of being a cyberpunk hacker, bringing down the systems of evil corporations and another may have fantasies of scoring the winning goal in the World Cup. Although the content of these fantasies are different, and the personalities of the wannabe hacker and the football fan may be utterly divergent, the basic form of their fantasies and the emotions associated with them are the same. Both examples depict the heroic triumph of a special individual, a universal theme of great antiquity, and both have similar related emotions; the feelings of mastery, personal strength, self-confidence and victory. In both individuals the hero archetype is at work, but it is expressed in different ways depending on their respective personalities and backgrounds. These are simplistic examples, just to illustrate the nature of the archetypes as "virtual" patterns that take on the image of things that are related to them in a person's life. Much more could be discovered by exploring feelings and attitudes relating to different parts of a fantasy, sometimes revealing things that may be other than heroic.

As well as appearing as the imaginary beings and landscapes of dreams and fantasies, archetypes can be activated by images and people in the outside world. Two powerful examples are the "dream man" or "dream woman", the anima and animus. Have you ever seen a person of the opposite sex, either in real life or an image, and being struck with an overwhelming emotion beyond mere instinct; a feeling that he or she is "the one?" This person has a magical, eternal quality, and when contemplating her face, your soul aches with an almost spiritual longing. He may appear to you as everything you have ever needed; when you are near him you are lost in rapture, when you are apart, you fall into a pit of darkest despair.

If, as a man, you have seen this woman, then you have met what Jungian psychology calls your anima, or soul-image. According to Jung, every man carries within his psyche the image of a woman, the anima. She appears to him in dreams, often as a guide, often as a magical being of almost painful beauty, sometimes as a dangerous seductress. Often she is projected, quite unconsciously, onto a real woman, investing this woman with her magical qualities, commonly obscuring the real woman underneath. Sometimes such projections can lead to lasting love, sometimes, when the real woman breaks through the projection and the man realises that she is not who he thought she was, he may accuse her of having "changed", leave her, and go off in search of his anima princess, another woman who by chance embodies his inner love.

The animus is Jung's term for the corresponding male image within a woman's psyche. In dreams and fantasies he may be seen as a hero, sometimes as a rogue. Another symbol of the animus is as a brutal, animal-like male, as found in the fairy tale, Beauty and the Beast. Again, women often see their animus in real men, sometimes leading to a stable relationship when the real man underneath is understood, and sometimes causing great difficulties when the animus projection blinds her to reality. These examples show the power of projection, and also the power of the archetypes. They are not to be regarded as mere abstract concepts or ideas, they are the fundamental forces of the psyche.

Here's another example, of great relevance to video games. Imagine a timid young boy, fearful of risk and somewhat overdependant on his parents. One day he sees a cartoon depicting heroic adventures. The boy feels a great emotional resonance when watching the show, watches it every week and starts playing imaginary games based upon it, seeing himself as his television hero or sharing the same adventures. He might imaginatively summon his favourite characters to himself when he encounters difficult situations or before sleep, when he is alone in the darkness of night. Gradually, and with parental support and understanding the boy becomes more confident and independent.

This TV show has activated the boy's hero archetype. This archetype often comes to the fore in dreams and fantasies whenever courage and strong self-identity are needed. The heroic games of children are expressions of this archetypal pattern that will arise quite naturally as part of their development, through conquering the dragons of dependence and fear, a child becomes less emotionally reliant on his parents and begins to build a stronger sense of identity. In this example, although the child may have had vague feelings of unease surrounding his initial situation, and may have had dreams containing heroic imagery, the TV show gave him concrete images that he could relate to and emulate. Through their similarity to the inner archetype, the images of the TV show become emotionally resonant symbols of it and make the unconscious qualities of self identity and courage known to the conscious mind. Through fantasy and play the child will eventually integrate the aspects of the hero archetype represented by the TV show into his conscious personality. The hero and the heroic quest are found almost universally in video games, and contrary to popular belief, are not limited to childhood concerns. I will explore these archetypes and their relevance to video games in more detail later.

The four most important archetypes, essential to any understanding of Jungian psychology are the shadow, anima, animus and self. These primary archetypes generally appear in most dreams and fantasies and in many video games, under various symbolic guises. In many individuals, the shadow is the first one to appear in dream and fantasy life and is a constant factor in the development of personality (Jung, 1964).

The Shadow

The shadow often (but not always) appears in dreams and fantasies as a threatening enemy representing the aspects of the unconscious mind that are unknown or repressed because of the attitude of the conscious mind towards them. In other words, the shadow is our "dark side" and will taint other archetypes depending on our relationship with them. A simplistic example is the straight laced business man who dreams of threatening anarchists or bohemians storming into his office and causing a scene. A Jungian interpretation of this dream would be that the bohemians symbolise an unconscious creative talent, or attitude towards life that could be useful to the dreamer but remains outside the conscious personality because of his attitude towards it. This doesn't mean that the dreamer should drop everything and become a bohemian, it means that he should try and integrate a little more creativity and spontaneity (or whatever he associates with bohemians) into his life, qualities that for whatever reason his conscious personality finds threatening.

The shadow is often projected onto others. Perhaps our business man may be moved to rage whenever he encounters free-spirited creative individuals and will associate them with all kinds of evils. If he understands his dream and acts upon it, he may later dream of less threatening or even friendly bohemians, and will probably develop a more tolerant understanding of their real life counterparts.

A person who sees himself as a free-spirited bohemian however, may dream or fantasise about having conflicts with threatening straight laced business men, reflecting qualities that he consciously finds unpleasant, but may be useful to him, such as the ability to organise and think rationally. Working with the shadow is a real moral responsibility as it forces us to confront what we do not accept in ourselves and often project onto others, sustaining such problems as racism and homophobia. To deal with the shadow is to deal with the ancient problem of good and evil on a personal level.

Jung's shadow is pretty much the same as the notion of the Other, which is found in cultural studies and describes the way one culture represents those different from it. As Ziauddin Sardar describes it, "The most common representation of the Other is as the darker side, the binary opposite of oneself: we are civilised, they are barbaric; the colonialists are hard-working, the natives are lazy.." (Sardar and Van Loon, 1999).

Although the shadow often appears threatening, it may also represent qualities that the dreamer finds positive, but does not attribute to himself. A person might dream of a friend or compelling stranger of the same sex who displays qualities that the dreamer finds admirable, but is afraid of integrating into conscious life.

People might try to integrate the entire shadow or fight it off at every turn, but this is impossible. The basic facts of individual existence, that a person is one thing and not another, that a person says yes to some things and no to others, implies the basic opposition of ego and shadow, me and you, good and evil. The task of the individual is to develop an understanding of their shadow and what it tells them about themselves, to integrate what they can and negotiate with what they cannot.

The shadow appears almost universally in video games, as every enemy and every threatening character or idea. A gamer might choose games that depict the destruction of a certain order of enemy, reflecting his own relationship with his shadow. A designer may also create enemies and processes that reflect his own inner concerns. I`ll return to this important subject when I discuss using archetypal images in games.

The Anima and Animus

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

  Printable version
  Discuss this article

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