Monday, February 4, 2008

A ninth reason to hate The Hero's Journey

io9 posted eight reasons why the Hero's Journey sucks. While I do not necessarily agree with all their reasons, or even with the statement that it "sucks", I do have my own bone to pick with Campbell. The Hero's Journey is often elitist and undemocratic.

For the most part the Hero's Journey requires there be something special about the hero. They are freaks of nature, or mutants, or most insulting: born and destined to rule. Luke Skywalker is stronger in the force than almost everyone else, Anakin Skywalker has more bugs in his blood than everyone else and is the product of immaculate conception to boot, Jesus is the son of God, Rand is destined by prophecy to be the Dragon Reborn, Taran is destined to be the High King by birth, Gandalf and Aragorn have all kinds of destiny and superhuman wackiness going on. These stories all assert (I am going to argue with myself in a second, stick with me) that there are certain people who are just born better than the rest of us, they are destined to rule us and decide our fate, we do not really get a say in our own future because we cannot compete with them. Comic book superheroes are the best (worst) example.

This is not an original thought or realization on my part, David Brin for example, has written along these same lines. Why do so many of our stories feature these supermen? Why do we construct myths that tell us, contrary to our cultural values, that there is a divine right of kings? Is it really hardwired into us, like Campbell says? If it is how do you explain other writings that appeal to many of the people reading this, like say the U.S. Constitution or Marx? Maybe so many of our stories are still like this because our whole form of storytelling is built up around it. Not because of some internal need but because of the conditions under which man's earliest stories were written. Throughout most of history man was ruled by people who claimed they had the divine right to do so. These were not people claiming to be slightly wiser, or a little bit stronger than the rest of us; these people claimed that they were destined by god, the force of history, or magical comets to rule over everyone else. They were not first amongst equals, they were a race unto themselves. How could they stories from that time have served anything but this notion, especially when those in control were often the only ones who could write things down?

The argument can be made that in fact the stories I listed do not promote rule by elites, you could argue that they in fact attempt to subvert that very idea. Jesus may be God's son but he is raised by a carpenter. Anakin was a former slave. Rand came from a poor farming village. Taran was an assistant pig keeper. The Lord of the Rings wasn't really about Aragorn and Gandolf it was about common hobbits. Luke fought against the rule of elites by disregarding the pontifications of crazy old Yoda time after time. I would argue that all of these are a stretch at best, because at the end of the day all of these characters still possessed either powers, or destiny that the rest of the world did not have. Even the hobbits have the power to resist the ring that humans do not, a regular human could not have gotten the job done.

You can also argue that the values present in the Hero's Journey are embraced by western societies like the U.S. Well over half of this country believes that Jesus is the son of God and the king of man (I am not arguing this fact, just pointing it out). Subscribers to Milton Friedman want to limit the control of democratically elected governments (especially dispersed forms like legislature) putting more power in the hands of private corporations run by economic elites. Many Marxist societies (the U.S.S.R.) have based their government on a small circle of elites competing amongst themselves for the direction of the government.

Blah, blah, blah, what does this have to do with MMOs?

This thought process has infected our games, and may be getting in the way of more fun. We believe that competition to sort out who is elite and who is not is the natural order of things and design our games that way. Games are designed to facilitate competition between everyone. Even when there are cooperative elements (like PvP sides, or guilds) they are always designed to foster the vomit inducing, corporate buzz word coopertition (yep, spell check say "Not a word"). I personally feel that this has gotten even worse as the MMO has "evolved", WoW is all about the e-peen and MMOs are now completely over-parsed to find out who is putting out the highest DPS. ery often the foundations of teamwork are thrown out the window to compete for the top damage spot. Things like the Armory and actually displaying a numerical value for your damage only encourage this.

Is there a viable alternative though? Hasn't competition proven to be superior and the way of the future? How can cooperation be fun?

Cooperation is a viable alternative. I realized this recently while reading Susan Faludi's excellent book Stiffed. In the book she explores how masculinity in America has changed since World War II. She makes some very strong, well supported arguments that humans (men in the book) have a deep need to contribute in a meaningful way to the whole. That men fulfill their feminine side by nurturing society in the form of their country, military unit, or even football team. She also argues that the current competition bent in western society is undermining men's ability to fell fulfilled. They often express this need through things as simple as a high school football team booster club.

That was an example from, well women's studies of all places (I may be placing my far from feminist claim in danger here with my intellectual crush on Miss Faludi). But I can hear the echo of Tipa's comment from my sci-fi post here "All of this high minded stuff is great but how will it be fun?" you are all asking? Cooperation is fun, and cooperative games are often the most fun kind. One of the most fun board games in the last few years is Arkham Horror from Fantasy Flight Games. In this game a whole bunch of players cooperate to defeat an Elder God. We have played this a whole bunch of times and it wasn't until the last time that I even realized there was one paragraph of rules to determine who had done the best over the course of the game. We decided not to use it because it might ruin the game.

Finally the game that the whole idea of an MMORPG is based on is cooperative. In Dungeons and Dragons there is a team effort by the players and the dungeon master to have a good time, and tell a good story. Anyone who has every played in a game where the DM competes with the players can tell you that it sucks.

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