Jacki Morie, Celia Pearce: “The uses of digital enchantment: Computer games as the new fairy tales”

October 18, 2008 | Vienna, Austria

Speaker: Jacki Morie, Celia Pearce
Host: Vienna Games Conference: The Future of Reality and Gaming

In this paper we argue that digital games have come to fill the cultural niche traditionally occupied by fairytales, and that they are ideally suited to realize some of the unique characteristics of this genre of folklore and literature. Arguably one of the most influential authors on game narrative and genre, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote extensively about fairytales, authored fairytales and considered his great epic work of high fantasy, “The Trilogy of the Ring,” to be a fairy tale of sorts. He argued that fairytales were not about fairies per se but took place in the “realm of faerie,” the magical world that fairies inhabit. “The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords.” [1] The “realm of faerie” provides a context for archetypal characters and narratives that express the inner life of the child and the process of transitioning to adulthood, a universal theme with has equal resonance with adults. In The Uses of Enchantment, controversial psychologist Bruno Betttelheim argues that “The motifs of fairy tales are experienced as wondrous because the child feels understood and appreciated deep down in his feelings, hopes, and anxieties, without these all having to be dragged up and investigated in the harsh light of a rationality that is still beyond him.” [2] “…the internal processes are externalized and become comprehensible as represented by the figures of the story and its events.” [3] These externalized processes can be seen in a wide range of digital games that put the player in the role of fairytale heroine, or more often, hero. Single-player adventure-style games such as the Zelda and Final Fantasy series, Ico, Shadow of the Collosus, Beyond Good and Evil, Okami and the Longest Journey series bring the unique affordances of the computer as a purveyor of magic to bear on this classic literary genre. Science fiction author Arthur C. Clark famously asserted that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” [4] Frederick Brooks, in The Mythical Man-Month [5], brings another level of refinement to this by describing the alchemic conjuring qualities of the computer thusly: “One types the correct incantation on a keyboard and a display screen comes to life, showing things that never were nor could be.” Indeed even the nomenclature of MUDs, in which programmers are referred to as “wizards,” seems to confer this quality of magical enchantment to the very creators of games themselves. Given its propensity for magic, the computer is particularly well-suited as a means of expression for the fairytale genre, shifting the focus from empathy with a central character engaged in an epic journey, to endowing a player with the agency to fulfill his or her destiny. We see the trajectory of the “realm of faerie” in the tradition from Tolkien’s literary masterworks to the contemporary MMOG. Tolkien’s world formed the inspiration for the tabletop role-playing games of the seventies, particularly Dungeons and Dragons, which gave rise to the MUDs of the 1980s and finally the fully realized multiplayer 3D computer fantasy worlds of the 1990s to the present, and the recent release of Lord of the Rings Online. This instrumentalizaton of fantasy environments through mathematical constructs provided a vital transition for the fairytale genre from the world of words to the world of numbers, and hence the world of computers. Today, the fantasy worlds of Tolkien, as well as the new fairy tales of game developers, have been rendered in their full glory via the “correct incantation on a keyboard.” While it remains to be seen how or if these new digital fairytales will stand the tests of time as their literary counterparts have done, we argue that they fulfill a similar and vital role in providing today’s children a sense of ritual and power in their own hero’s journey from child to adulthood. References [1] Tolkien, J.R.R. (1966). The Tolkien Reader. New York: Ballantine. [2] Bettelheim, Bruno. (1975). The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. New York: Alfred K. Knopf. [3] Ibid [4] Clark, Arthur C. (1962). Profiles of the Future; an Inquiry into the Limits of the Possible. New York: Harper & Row. [5] Brooks, Frederick P. (1975). The mythical man month: Essays on software engineering. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.