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Video Games and the Hero’s Narrative

July 1, 2020


After finishing the Lord of the Rings spin-off Shadow of War, I was looking for a new RPG (role-playing game), and Dragon Age: Inquisition seemed appealing. It checked off all the right boxes for me—at least when it comes to RPGs:

Box #1: Does it take place in medieval times?

Box#2: Can I use magic?

Dragon-Age meets both of these requirements quite splendidly. Plus, I get to battle wild dragons, so call it an all-around win. Yet what draws me to this game and others like it is not so much the cool fight sequences, amazing graphics, or expansive world-maps as its epic nature—its ability to stimulate within my soul a feeling of gallantry.

As I mention in other articles, video game culture is not as superficial as one may think. There is a reason so many people are drawn to it. Simply put, video games tap into something deeper than the virtual. It is not mere entertainment. The gaming industry is becoming a medium through which uniquely human desires are explored and manifested.

As such, it is important that philosophers and theologians understand the various trends and common themes within video game culture. This will allow for substantial dialogue with the current generation as well as an appreciation of the topics, concerns, and needs most important to them. In my own study as both an avid gamer and Catholic theologian, I recognize numerous leitmotifs underlying the overall development of video game culture. In this article, we will pinpoint one of the most common—namely, heroism.

The aspiration to be a hero is in the heart of every human being. It is innate. When I was boy, I used to run through the wetlands of Florida wielding a mighty sword (although it appeared to be only a gnarled cypress branch to the common bystander). My quest? To fend off bandits in the wood. My two younger brothers remember it well; they were the bandits. Alas, the cruel fate of a younger sibling! They still ask when it will be their turn to play the warrior and my turn to play the bandit.

The point is that everyone wants to save something. Or, more precisely, everyone wants to live for something other than themselves. Egoism is flat, finite, and boring. Altruism is multi-dimensional, largesse, and exciting. Our world is small when we are the largest thing in it. But, to discover I am not everything! That is the most enthralling of deductions. For it is “the meek that shall inherit the earth” (Matt. 5:5) because they are the only people humble enough to wonder at its grandeur.

The human heart soars when it lives for another; when self-denial leads to self-gift. This is the quintessential attribute of being made in the “image and likeness of God” (Gen 1:26). God is not a lone ranger; he is not by himself. He is a unity of persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Each of these persons exists for the other. Likewise, our human nature, being an image of the Trinitarian nature, is fully actualized only when it is given away. That is why human history is riddled with stories about heroes both fictional and actual, from the legendary tales of Gilgamesh and Beowulf to the inspiring biographies of St. Joan of Arc and George Washington. Our admiration of these characters is rooted in recognizing their achievement of that uniquely human capacity for self-sacrifice. We see exemplified in their lives, struggles, and conquest a reminder of what every person can do if they escape the confining boundaries of their ego. Every hero is venerated as the embodiment of what every man and woman desires to achieve.

Gamers are not immune to this fascination for heroism. There are 2.5 billion gamers in the world. In the United States, over 60% of the population plays video games on mobile, PC, or console devices (2019 Entertainment Software Association Census). Among those games, one of the most popular genres is action/adventure RPGs such as Skyrim, Horizon Zero Dawn, and Kingdom Heart III (as you can tell . . . I’m a PS4 guy). These types of games are characterized by epic storylines and daring journeys. Virtual heroes and heroines must traverse fantastic worlds while battling dangerous foes for the sake of an ultimate goal. The feeling one gets when playing these games is invigorating. For many, such games are tapping into a part of their humanity largely unstimulated in the real world. It is hard to feel heroic about a 9-5 job in a cubical. Yet, in the mountains of Druadach or the city of Meridian, one can find all sorts of incredible ventures.

This tendency toward heroism in the gaming industry is quite encouraging. It means that there are still heroes out there waiting to be summoned. I see this especially among the students in my parish school. They are fascinated by the lives of the saints. Every time I visit campus, the kids ask me to tell stories about St. Catherine of Siena, St. Ignatius of Antioch, or other saints in Church history. Even the middle schoolers are riveted. These are the same kids who go home and play video games. When St. John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council, he called the Church to “read the signs of the times.” In other words, he invited us to keep our pulse on the various movements and tendencies of contemporary society. The Church does this not to be popular or take on the logic of the world, but rather to identify the longings of the human heart as they manifest themselves in cultural trends. Once these longings are recognized, the Church must then minister to them and find ingenious ways to preach the Gospel.

I have argued in previous articles that video game culture is one of the most fertile grounds of evangelization. The gaming community is filled with souls ready to be guided and formed. They are good people with hearts that desire greatness. All we need do is steer them in the right direction and allow them the opportunity.