[Nintendad Coffeehouse] The Video Game Protagonist and Me

Written by Thomas Haroldsen

Fight Or Flight?

Fight or flight? Do you know which one you are? Which response do you default to under stressful situations? Perhaps a mix depending on what’s going on? I for one typically fall under the flight category. On occasion I’ll stand against my nature and hold my ground and fight. Even stubbornly so. So how does fight or flight relate to gaming? How often do we power up our console of choice and load a selected game to immerse ourselves in a new world? Even games set in our cities during our timelines provide fantastical outlets to see things from an alternate perspective. We have many opportunities to step into the shoes of another and live life differently than our reality.

A Whole World to Explore

There’s a certain joy in tearing open the cellophane wrapping from a newly purchased game. Sitting down in quiet anticipation as a new world unfolds. Learning to walk all over again in preparation of exploring untold wonders and new adventure. I love a good story but more than that, I love a good universe. New lands seemingly untouched. At least by me. Adventure around every corner. The chance to say, “YES!” instead of the dreaded “no,” which dictates so much of real life. Try to imagine the start of your favorite game. Or pretty much any game for that matter. Follow along with me for a moment, (sure, there are hundreds if not thousands of exceptions) as we explore a few examples. What if we booted up Super Mario Bros for the first time and said, “nah, I don’t think rescuer is in my job description.” Then turn left and walk off the screen? Or if Master Chief thought this wasn’t his war and broke down his rifle and hung up his helmet. Choosing to stay in your cell of safety when Emperor Uriel Septim and his Blades pass through a secret chamber instead of following them into Oblivion. The point is, games would end before they even started. There would be no adventure. No world to explore. No prince or princess to save.

Imagine a minute longer that there’s a knock at your door. Not in a game but in real life. You open it a crack to a stranger on the other side, shrouded in shadows. They say there’s a car parked outside and you need to get in to save the world. Or perhaps you’re at a fast food joint during your lunch break and you witness a heist across the street. The police have yet to arrive but waiting for you is a car with its door ajar, beckoning you to give chase to the thieves. Would you do it? Would you change your course for the unknown? Maybe a mustachioed man with a red cap emblazoned with the letter M pops his head out of the sink while you wash your hands. He pleads that only you can save the “Mushroom Kingdom” if you only follow him down the drain. I don’t know about you but I’d likely stagger backward and if I don’t fall on my butt, I’d be out the door without so much a glance over my shoulder. Stopping a heist is certainly not in my job description, and I’d probably be arrested for stealing a random car. If the burglars don’t kill me first. And a stranger at the door insisting I leave the confines of my home to go for a ride? My parents cautioned me about that trick when I was just a little tyke.

NO THANKS! I can justify saying no with multiple reasons, or perhaps excuses? Therein lies the beauty of video games. It’s a far more immersive media outlet than say film or television. It offers escape and wonderment. It can evoke nostalgic feelings of our ever fleeting past. It gives us the chance to say yes instead of no. We can be in control and dictate what to do and when to do it. Sure, some games give more freedom in this regard compared to a linear experience. Yet even those with a linear narrative or world allow us to partake in what’s happening. We can dare and brave obstacles which would normally cause fear or panic. 

All About Choices

Some games even give us a chance to emulate choice to dictate and even alter the outcome. Some of these choices may seem irrelevant, only to circle back later. I recall my surprise rather vividly the first time I played through Chrono Trigger and was brought to trial. Little did I know, eating a random lunch just sitting out would bite me back. I had been programmed with preceding games that anything I could pick up, was owed to me. I would walk into pixelated houses and loot chests and cupboards without a second thought. I never expected a videogame to subtly introduce choice and consequence the way this role-playing game did when I was a teenager. Though the outcome was the same, my second playthrough was not. I chose to be a model citizen to sway the entire jury to my side. I made the choices. 

Ultimately we can feel safe when we play these games. We can say yes when our bespeckled friend opens a wormhole and prompts us to leap into the unknown to save a beautiful stranger we’ve just met. We don’t have the same worries and fears holding us in place. “I can’t join the Stormcloak rebellion! I have a wife and kids who rely on me. I have to tend the farm to produce an income.” Maybe that’s why so many RPG characters have amnesia. If they knew they would be fired from their 9-5 job and shirk their responsibility to their family they would never pursue an unknown entity a world away.

Fade Out

Regardless of how you classify yourself as a fight or flight individual, there’s always room for evaluation. My spouse is very much a fight person. There is no injustice too small for her to ignore. As I pointed out above, I lean toward flight. If something starts to go down that doesn’t involve me, I can masterfully fade away into the background like a ghost. However, there are times when I should fight and times when my wife should not. I am well past my tutorial stage but I continue to level up. It’s during our daily experiences that we can evaluate the type of person we will be and when to stand up or down. May we ever look to be the hero of our own tale and remember, we always have choices.

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