Why do we love RPGs?
- Edwin McRae
Why do we love RPGs?
I’m going to put this to you. What if it’s about the gods? Yes, Aphrodite and Zeus, Thor and Odin. I’m speaking from a strictly western perspective and those are the two pantheons that arise in games time and again. Greek and Norse. These are the examples I’m going to draw on but there are many other divine influences besides them. They’re just the ones that tend to pop up in video games and Marvel movies.
Why do we love RPGs? Is it because we want to be ‘godlike’? Is it because, like gods, we love...
During the Viking era, the population of the whole Scandinavian world was a few million, at most.
By 400BC the population of the entire Greek world had reached around 13 million.
Joseph Smith and his Book of Mormon is revered by 14.8 million Mormons.
In 25BC, Emperor Augustus ruled a Roman Empire of 56.8 million citizens.
Pewdiepie has 88,937,000 subscribers and his videos get between 6 million and 18 million views per day.
Pewdiepie gets more daily attention than the Greek and Norse gods combined during their religious heydays. Does Cthulhu get 6-18 million prayers per day? That’s probably why the sea levels are rising. ;-)
Even the trailer for Thor: Ragnarok got 136 million views in only 24 hours. That’s Chris Hemsworth pretending to be Thor. And not even the original Norse Thor. The Marvel version of Thor. Which makes me wonder if Disney/Marvel have ever paid the Scandinavian people for the right to make comics and movies out of the god they created? No, let’s not open up that can of serpents.
If we convert the ancient concept of 'worship' into the modern concept of 'attention', then Pewdiepie and Chris Hemsworth receive up to ten times the amount of daily worship than Apollo or Thor ever did. I picked Apollo as the comparison to Pewdiepie because Apollo was variously recognized as a god of music, truth, prophecy, sun and light and poetry. Yes, Apollo was an entertainer. But in actual fact, if we were to keep with Pewdiepie’s cultural roots, then he’s probably a cross between Odin (God of Knowledge) and Loki (Trickster God and Shapeshifter), with a bit more emphasis on Loki.
Following this logic, if receiving massive amounts of attention (worship) makes an individual godlike, then why do we give people like Pewdiepie and Chris Hemsworth so much attention?
I know this isn’t yet relating directly to RPGs, but I’ll get there soon, I promise.
Piece of the Action
We 'worship' Pewdiepie and Thor because we want a piece of that action. By giving attention to Pewdiepie, by subscribing to his channel, we get to swim for a while in the invigorating ocean of attention that he inhabits. It’s not just for entertainment. A cat playing a Playstation can be just as enjoyable as a Pewdiepie video. But even if that cat gets 1 million views, that’s not the same as being part of an 89 million-strong ongoing viewership. We watch, we laugh, we forget. We watch a Pewdiepie video, we laugh and we forget everything except Pewdiepie himself. Try to remember what color the cat was three days later? Tough challenge. Try to visualize Pewdiepie? Piece of pie.
What about Chris Hemsworth as Thor? We give our attention to Thor because of the awesome things that Thor does. He performs massive feats of physical prowess. He shrugs off punishment that no mortal frame could bear. He calls down lightning from the sky. That’s all serious godlike behavior. And through it all, you have Chris Hemsworth looking ridiculously composed and handsome. In Thor: Ragnarok, Hemsworth and Thor are one and the same. Before Hemsworth’s Thor, you probably imagined a big, blond, bearded guy with a hammer, right? Nothing more specific than that. Now, when someone says “Thor”, guess who you're more likely to visualize first. That’s right. Chris Hemsworth.
I’m not saying we think Hemsworth is a god. I’m saying that we think of him as godlike. And by watching Thor: Ragnarok we get to spend some time in Thor’s world and bask in Chris Hemsworth’s godlike aura.
We get to forget our own frailties and lose ourselves in the worship of something godlike. Because to worship something godlike is to feel closer to something godlike.
What could be better than that?
Being a Role-playing God
That’s right. Being Thor.
Funnily enough, I haven’t come across a decent game where you actually get to play as Thor. For this kind of experience, we have to turn back to the Greeks.
In God of War, you get to be Kratos.
KRATOS (Cratus) was the god or personified spirit (daemon) of strength, might, power and sovereign rule. He and his three siblings--Nike (Victory), Bia (Force) and Zelos (Rivalry)--were winged enforcers for Zeus.
The latest God of War earned $131,000,000 in its launch month alone. If the entire Greek World of 400 BC gave Kratos the equivalent of a dollar a day in offerings, it would take over three months to accumulate what this one game earned in one.
Let’s stick with Greek mythology but shift to a different game. Ubisoft hasn’t disclosed its actual sales figures but Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey sold an estimated 1.4 million copies in its first week after launch. It’s easy to see how God of War is a godlike simulation. But what about Odyssey?
In Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey you play a misthios - a person with a particular set of skills that can be hired for work. Basically, a freelancer. In this case, as Kassandra, your skills are that of a mercenary. Sounds all very humble until you start to experience her skills firsthand. It’s not long before you are performing martial feats that Perseus and Heracles would have been proud of. Perseus and Heracles are both sons of Zeus, and as demigods are the very definition of godlike.
And so is Kassandra. She is so far above being a frail human that the comparison becomes almost meaningless. She’s a demigod.
But if Ubisoft had just handed all that power to the player at the very beginning and said, “go be godlike”, we would’ve had about five minutes of fun and moved on to find something more rewarding.
The secret sauce of a good RPG is that the player needs to earn their godliness. Pewdiepie started with zero subscribers. Kassandra can be knocked over by a humble wolf or bandit at the beginning of Odyssey. Godhood is actually pretty boring. Thor: Ragnarok is a two-hour blast of fun, but could you watch that movie if it was 50 hours long? Could you watch Chris Hemsworth be awesome for the equivalent of a busy working week?
I really hope your answer is, no.
The most engaging element of RPGs is that there is a clear, measurable path to godliness. If we put in the time, practice the gameplay, and learn about the game world through the story, then we will eventually unlock those godlike abilities. As we pick up better loot, we will even start to look godlike as we strut around in our Legendary gear.
These are Pewdiepie’s humble beginnings, from Wikipedia - “In 2010, during his time at the university, he registered a YouTube account under the name PewDiePie. The following year, he dropped out of Chalmers after losing interest in his degree field, much to the dismay of his parents. After failing to earn an apprenticeship with an advertising agency in Scandinavia, he then decided to focus on creating content for his YouTube channel. In order to fund his videos, Kjellberg began selling prints of his Photoshop art projects and worked at a hot dog stand. Kjellberg soon gathered a rapidly increasing online following, and in July 2012, his channel surpassed one million subscribers.”
Pewdiepie has been posting videos to Youtube for nine years and has undoubtedly earned his godlike number of followers through sheer work and stickability. Imagine just how good you would be at Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey if you played it every day for nine years. Actually, it takes a leisurely completionist about 200 hours to finish Odyssey so it simply doesn’t have the scope for that kind of time and effort investment.
But will Kassandra’s martial abilities seem to outstrip Pewdiepie’s YouTubing abilities by many levels of divinity? Will she seem like a goddess to his celebrity? Yes, it will certainly look that way while you’re inside the game. Pewdiepie might have been able to attract 89 million viewers, but a maxed-out Kassandra has the power to murder anyone and anything in the ancient Greek world of Odyssey.
RPGs = A Clear Path to Divinity
That’s why RPGs are so powerful. They enable us to claw our way up from mere mortal to a demigod, like an intern ascending the hierarchy of some divine global corporation. If we do what we’re told and achieve the performance targets, we shall ascend to the godlike status of an executive.
The RPG system recognizes that we want to transcend our mortal frailties and anxieties, that we want to feel godlike. It lays out a clear and achievable path to get there.
These are what I call the Four Pillars of Divinity. They support the aqueduct upon which you travel from mortal to a demigod, from being an unknown peasant to the very center of a virtual world. Because, just like 89 million people are watching Pewdiepie, every single virtual inhabitant in Odyssey’s ancient Greece is there to react to you. The player.
Massive Attention + Exceptional Abilities = Godlike
And we don’t have to struggle away for twenty years to become an executive in Divinity Corporation. We don’t need to work for ten years to become a Youtube sensation. In fact, in neither of those cases is the result even guaranteed. Shit happens. Twenty years at a corporation could just lead to a modest redundancy package after a Limited AI takes over your number-crunching gig. Ten years of YouTubing effort might only lead to 20,000 views per day, earning you $1000 per month. That’s not to be sneezed at, but it’s not godlike.
We only need to invest 200 hours into Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey to immerse ourselves in a godlike experience. No, we won’t be godlike when we switch off the game, but at least we’ve had a taste.
The Journey from Mortal to Demigod
Why is it then that we find RPGs so satisfying if we’re just following someone else's directions to a place of fictional godliness?
Let’s be honest. Not all of us are comfortable with the prospect of failure. Yes, we’re told that we’ll succeed if we 'just keep getting up' after those knockdowns. But we know that’s not necessarily true. We might work our guts out, achieve a morsel of success and then die of cancer. That’s life. You might achieve your dreams. You might reach godlike status like Pewdiepie or Chris Hemsworth. Or you might not. Life has no guarantees.
RPGs do come with guarantees. You will max out your character. You will reach godlike status within the game world. You will get to sip from the chalice of divinity. And all we ask in return is 200 hours of your life.
An RPG is a place where you can work hard, enjoy your work and know that you will receive the fruits of your labor.
The RPG is the journey and the destination. That’s why I keep going there, and I suspect that’s why you go there too. That’s why we love RPGs.
Enjoyable Effort + Guaranteed Achievements = Godlike
And congratulations! You have complete the RPG Insight Quest. You have earned 1000XP and a Nugget of Pure Understanding.
About Edwin McRae
Edwin is a narrative consultant and mentor for the games industry.