I’ve read a few articles and posts criticizing Video Games being too much about Power Fantasy. The dynamics found in leveling a character, getting better gear, defeating an enemy, accumulating resources, exploiting an environment, etc. is all about dominating something else and the 4X genre would be its marquee. The aesthetics contained in Power Fantasy is a turn off to a minority of players, who fall into the trap of criticizing the entire industry unfairly. The reason why I say it is unfair is because I believe there is a very valid reason why Video Games naturally gravitate towards Power Fantasy.
Video Games tend towards Power Fantasy because Games are about the Play of Measurement and measurement is essentially another term for power.
This was beautifully captured in Carroll Quigley’s The Evolution Of Civilizations which talked about how the first hierarchies of civilization arose by their ability to track the measurements of the stars:
... The chief tasks of the priesthoods, at the later date, beyond their obvious religious functions, were the study of the stars and the keeping of the records of celestial observations. From this evidence we might infer that, at some remote date, some unsung genius or, better, some observant family, saw a connection between the advent of the flood and the movements of the sun — two events that had not previously seemed connected. This individual or family noted that the rising sun appeared at a slightly different point on the hori- zon each morning, finally reaching a limit where it hesitated for a few days before it began to return. We would say that the position at which the sun rose moves 47 degrees of the full circle of the horizon over a period of some 180 days or more. Thus was born a rudimentary idea of the solar year, the full duration of the sun's movement back to its starting point. In time these observers noticed that the flood always came about the same number of days after the sun reached its most southern rising point. With this infonnation the observer was able to estimate roughly the day on which the flood would arrive each year. This calculation the discover- ers kept secret, for their own profit, using the knowledge to work on the fears and superstitions of their neighbors, try- ing to convince others that they possessed magical powers enabling them to foretell the arrival of the flood, or even the power to make it arrive. The original discoverers of this in- formation could hardly have told the arrival of the flood within a span of time much less than ten days. However, the fear engendered by the flood was so great, increased by the realization that the crops would fail if it did not arrive, that some, at least, accepted the discoverers' claims and yielded to their demands for tribute. The discoverers probably offered to reveal the time of the flood in advance to those who would contribute a share of their crops, or perhaps they even threatened to bring the flood or to keep it away if they failed to obtain promises of tithes from the crops of their neighbors. However skeptical these neighbors might be of such claims the first year, no more than one lucky forecast was needed for most of them to become willing givers. After all, in such an important matter, it is safer to be on the right side. The ignorance of the majority made it easy for the possessors of this specialized knowledge to use it as proof that they had supernatural powers. Moreover, it was not necessary to convince a majority or even many of the neighbors. If any small number contributed, a surplus would accumulate which could be used, in the form of flood- protection embankments or irrigation ditches, to provide very concrete evidence that it was worthwhile to belong to the new organization. Thus came into existence the central institution of ancient Mesopotamia — the Sumerian priest- hood.
Sumeria is regarded as one of the first civilizations because it had a class of ‘experts’ who possessed knowledge about how the world worked. These experts did not understand the physics of how the Earth rotates and revolves around the Sun, but they observed that annual flooding re-occurred when stars were aligned in the night sky a particular way.
It was this ability to observe, track, and predict via measurement of the stars than allowed the experts (priests) to demand and receive surplus grain as tribute, and then allocate it (another kind of measurement) for societal improvements and personal aggrandizement. This then led to the creation of new classes of experts like artisans who in turn lead to new layers of social stratification, giving birth to the dynamic of civilization. A dynamic that has continued unabated across human society for over four-five hundred years (2900 BCE).
We have civilization and its inherent stratification because we measure. Those that command expertise in measurement are given positions of prestige and power. As societal surplus accelerated, additional experts and bureaucrats were tasked to achieve a variety of goals including a more enlightened culture, a more vigorous economy, a more powerful military, and more dynamic technology.
It is Western Civilization‘s command of measurement through the practices of Science and Technology that has helped Western Culture be exported across the world. It is the West’s ‘Scientification’ of politics, humanities, business, and warfare that has resulted in:
- The Military’s ability to wage warfare through measurement (rocket trajectories, manufacturing weapons en mass, physics leading to the Atom bomb).
- Democratic elections captured through the measurement of politics (voting, collecting votes, winning seats).
- Economic values that is dominated by measurements (business finances, logistics, GDP, stock markets).
- Cultural values that is dominated by the entertainment industry.
Games effortlessly combined with computers (science & technology’s first child) leading to brand new ways to play via Video Games. With Games being about the Play of Measurement, and civilizations being about power over measurement, it is natural for Video Games gravitate to the aesthetic of power.
Even when measurement is about benign-practices like engineering (bridge building games, physics games), harvesting (Harvest Moon), and relationships (The Sims), we are still shown that power comes in many forms of measurement. After all, even relationships are a form of influence and thus power.
While some will object to the aesthetics found in Power Fantasies, it is unwise to do so. A Power Fantasy represents the tip of an iceberg and hidden underneath the surface we find the deep dynamics of power. Games are simply a mirror to all of it.