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The Archetypes and the Individual

The archetypes and the collective unconscious are in Jungian terms, the lowest level of the unconscious psyche, their patterns shaping the layers above. But as we have seen, the archetypes appear in dreams and fantasies as images from personal life. We have also seen that archetypes appear as positive or negative images depending on our relationship to them. In other words, they are coloured by the experiences we have in life and by our conscious attitude towards them. In Jung's model of the psyche, our relationship with the archetypes that determine how they appear to us is shaped by the personal and cultural unconscious.

Above the collective unconscious lies the personal and cultural unconscious. The cultural unconscious contains all the unconscious assumptions given to an individual by the society he or she grows up in. Some writers do not refer to a cultural unconscious, as strictly speaking, all these experiences are mixed up with personal ones, but I will separate them as it allows an entry point for cultural studies, which as I will show, is an essential subject when using archetypal images in games. The personal unconscious is similar to the traditional view of the unconscious mind described at the start of this section. It contains all our memories, forgotten experiences, subliminal perceptions and habitual tendencies. It also contains our complexes.

The basic units of the personal unconscious that shape our relationship with the archetypes are the complexes. I'm sure many are familiar with the term complex, as it has entered popular use as a term describing all manner of psychological problems, but few are aware of what a complex actually is or how it arises. When an archetype is activated it gathers to itself ideas images and experiences associated with the situation or person that activated it. This bundle of experiences, emotions and ideas surrounding an archetype is a complex. A good example, given by psychiatrist Anthony Stevens, is the activation of the mother archetype in a child. According to Jungian psychology, every child is born with an innate expectancy of a mother figure, the archetype of the mother. This archetype becomes active when the child experiences a woman whose behaviour is similar to the child's innate expectation of a mother. Sometimes this woman may be the birth mother, sometimes it may be a foster parent, aunt or older sister. The emotions and experiences associated with this mother figure form a complex, surrounding the archetype's emotional core (Stevens, 1999).

The forming of complexes is completely normal, but they often cause suffering. An example of this is given by Anthony Stevens. Stevens described a woman whose childhood had been dominated by a brutal, tyrannical father. This woman's father archetype was activated only partially and only the law-giving, authoritarian aspects of the father archetype were built into her father complex, with the loving and protecting aspects of the paternal archetype remaining unconscious. Stevens continued to describe how this woman kept being drawn to bullying men, but at the same time she had an unfulfilled longing for a man who would give her love and protection. According to Stevens, this woman's dreams fantasies and behaviour showed that she longed for someone to activate and fulfil the unconscious aspects of her father archetype (Stevens, 1999). As well as demonstrating the harm done by bad parenting, this example also shows that archetypes are complete, that they contain every aspect of fatherhood, motherhood, herohood and selfhood, and that once activated, they seek completion and conscious realisation. The archetypes in their total form are often symbolised in world mythology as figures such as Mother Earth or Gaia; as ultimate father figures such as Zeus, and as ultimate heroes such as Odysseus.

Our relation to the archetypes and the content of our complexes is also shaped by the culture we grow up in and the unconscious assumptions that we pick up as a member of society. An example is a society that promotes and encourages the view that a hero never shows his feelings. These emotions and images bound up with a particular society's view of what makes a hero represent a kind of cultural complex, since it is held by a large number of people, and will be transmitted to members of that society whose own complexes are formed by such images. These cultural complexes, held by large numbers of people, are often projected on to others and often affect the way a society functions. They can be harmful as sociologists and cultural critics have shown. But such complexes cannot be argued with, reasoned with or overthrown by revolution; like personal complexes, which in fact they are, they require healing and transformation.

The gradual process of working through complexes and integrating unconscious contents into the conscious personality form Jung's theory of psychological development, the individuation process. Unlike some theories of development that focus on social adaptation alone, the process of individuation describes a life long and personal process of increasing self awareness, maturity and self realisation. Individuation is a natural process of the psyche, occurring the background of one's life, but it can be arrested by traumatic experiences, harmful complexes or a faulty attitude towards the unconscious. Individuation begins with the awakening of self consciousness and self identity in a child, and continues through the whole of life with the gradual integration and conscious understanding of the unconscious material that appears to an individual in their dreams fantasies and projections. The culmination of individuation is a successful relationship with the self, the archetype of wholeness that represents the totality of the individual psyche.


Complexes, such as a woman's struggle against a tyrannical father figure and her search for his loving counterpart form the characters, themes and set-pieces of the inner dramas that are enacted in dreams and fantasies and projected on to the outside world. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that the emotional resonance that a player associates with certain video game characters and themes derives from a projection of the players current psychological situation.

The fact that games are interactive allows a player to go beyond the passive projection or mimesis of theatre and literature, and to consciously take part in their fantasy. Thus the woman described earlier might be particularly drawn to a game that depicted a tyrant as an enemy and the rescue or discovery of a loving male figure as a goal. Whether such a game could help her therapeutically is debatable, but by seeing her inner concern and the path to its resolution within a game, and by being forced by its interactivity to make decisions regarding her inner situation, the woman is given a concrete set of ideas and images that might help her in some way. At the very least, this game and its challenges will be very relevant and involving to this particular woman.

By seeing images that reflect unconscious archetypal potential, a gamer may in some cases be assisted in his personal development. The emotional resonance experienced when unconscious archetypal potential is projected onto an image may account for the popularity of certain game characters and themes, and give a reason why some gamers like dressing up as their favourite character, or spend time drawing them or writing fan fiction. A gamers favourite character is a symbol or a reflection of unactivated archetypal potential. By playing the game, drawing pictures etc. the gamer is trying to integrate the aspects of the archetype represented by the character into his or her conscious personality.

The process of resolving inner conflicts and integrating unconscious material may sound like very unusual subjects for a game, but this process is reflected in many games already, because it is symbolised in myths and fairy tales as the heroic quest. In part three of Games and the Imagination, The Game as Quest, I will explore the heroic quest and show how it operates as a symbol of the development of consciousness and identity. I will also show that far from being the preserve of RPG or adventure games, the heroic quest and the individuation process appear in the majority of genres, in a large number of games.


1: Selecting a first person viewpoint from which to interpret the imaginative relationship between a player and a game is fraught with difficulties. As we have seen there is a schism between the third person, objective viewpoint, and the first person, subjective viewpoint. Within the first person viewpoint there is a further schism; between a perspective that regards the psyche as a social or linguistic construct (the tabula rasa view described earlier) and the Jungian viewpoint that states that the psyche is based on fundamental inherited psychological structures. Most schools of aesthetic or cultural criticism focus on the former, because it has a strong base in linguistics and semiotics which are ideal tools for understanding structures of cultural meaning. This viewpoint has already been successfully applied to video games (Poole, 2000) and I regard it as highly important. But I maintain that any attempt to understand video games must include personal psychology and address the issue of personal meaning, and that any personal psychology that claims that the psyche is a tabula rasa is incomplete, as overwhelming third person research will attest. The relationship between a player and a game is a complex one, and any "playability theory" must encompass cognitive, personal (in the sense of something having a unique resonance and meaning to an individual) and cultural domains.

What is needed is a dual integration; firstly between a first person psychology that admits the existence of universal (i.e. inherited) psychological structures, and a first person psychology that admits the intersubjective, cultural and contextual nature of the material based on those structures; and secondly, an integration of the third person objective viewpoint and the first person subjective viewpoint. The first integration is a conceptual matter, the second is known by consciousness researchers as the "Hard Problem." Until such an integration takes place, anything said about the psychology of video games, and indeed the psychology of anything, will be limited and provisional.

2: Jungian psychology is controversial in academic psychology because it is a first person theory, and like all first person theories it cannot find a sound base in third person research. It is controversial in first person academic fields such as cultural studies, because it claims that the psyche is not a total social construction and because Jung's complex, heavyweight writings have often been misunderstood. As it occupies a middle ground between the first and third person realms, it is in a difficult philosophical position, but as I stated in the note above, the only way for psychology to go forwards is to embrace an integrative approach, and Jung's ideas may provide a stepping stone towards that.

3: The description of the anima and animus, as the female "image" within a male and the male "image" within a female is not to make any judgement regarding homosexuality, it is just the common description used by Jungian writers for ease of understanding. Since the archetypes are psychological and emotional patterns with no content of their own, they are not innate images of men or women, but the feelings and ideas associated with them. Therefore, the anima "feeling" of a homosexual man, that is, the feeling of a desirable, or perhaps dangerous "other" will be symbolised by a male image or projected onto a man.

Bibliography and Suggestions for Further Reading

Glassman, William, Approaches to Psychology (2000, Open University Press)

Hesse, Hermann, Steppenwolf (1927; 1965 Penguin)

Hyde, Maggie, McGuinness, Michael, Introducing Jung (1999, Icon)

Jung, Carl Gustav, Jaffe, Anelia, Memories Dreams, Reflections (1963; 1983, Flamingo)

Jung, Carl Gustav, Von Franz, Marie-Louise, Henderson, J.L., Jacobi, Jolande, Jaffe, Anelia, Man and His Symbols (1964; 1978 Picador)

Poole, Steven, Trigger Happy, The Inner Life of Video Games (2000, Fourth Estate)

Rheingold, Howard, Virtual Reality (1991, QPD)

Sardar, Ziauddin and Van Loon, Borin, Introducing Cultural Studies (1999, Totem)

Stevens, Anthony, On Jung (1999, Penguin)

Storr, Anthony (editor), The Essential Jung (1998, Fontana)

About The Author

Richard Dare develops games for Smartphone and PocketPC. He would be very interested in hearing from anyone who would like to discuss his ideas or take them further. He can be contacted at: richardjdare@hotmail.com

©2004 Richard Dare

  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