The identity in which we inhabit a game is a profound rhetorical element. It has one of the greatest capacities for personal interaction with storytelling and is easily one of the most overlooked and assumed narrative devices. In considering the hegemony of games, we look at what is the status quo and what profound examples break it. I believe the best example of this is a game known as Final Fantasy VI.
The first in the extremely popular Final Fantasy series to have a female main character, Final Fantasy VI had the most developed storyline of any in that series to date (or any game to date, for that matter). It was originally developed and released in Japan by Squaresoft (now Square-Enix) in early 1994. It was then translated to English and released within the United States near the end of that same year. Structured like other role playing games of that series, Final Fantasy VI consisted of dungeons, playable characters, events, towns, and battles.
The game opens with an unfamiliar kind of lead character immediately under player control. A young, mechanical armor controlling woman named Terra is trudging through the snow during the opening credits. This is done through an, at the time, impressive use of mode 6 perspective movement. We grow familiar with Terra as her soldier partners begin to discuss her vague origins because Terra is completely unfamiliar with who she is or what she is doing. The player, also unfamiliar with Terra’s (and, subsequently, their own) origins begins to slowly grapple with who they are. And thus, the theme of emergent identity clings hold of Final Fantasy VI and does not let go.
And what is it about emergent identity that has so much to do about gender under the current paradigm for game development? The answer: just about everything. The “empowering role of male super-soldier” is not present in this game. Players are not immediately thrust into the super killing shoes of Master Chief and sent off into the fray to win a decisive battle for the fraternity of space marines, no. Instead, players are wiped of identity, and to a small extent, definitive purpose. They then spend the remainder of the game developing their own reason for existence. Up until the last dictated event of the game, Terra never feels truly secure as to who she is. It is not until the final sequence of the game that she somberly declares, “I know what love is” where she refers to the children she had taken care of for the past year but was forced to abandon. I believe it is this self-attributed identity that is so important for a game to become an open and fair play environment for all potential players. Taking a very confident step away from the typical game archetype of conquering hero, this game takes a major risk by alienating, or at least challenging, its audience. In doing so, however, the roles that players create or interpret become as numerous as their own opinions of Terra, the opinions as themselves as Terra, and Terra’s opinions of herself radically change and become open to analysis.
The importance of this identity practice becomes even clearer when it is compared to the most successful wide-audience games. Myst, one of the highest selling games of all time, presented a nameless protagonist that may or may not have any objective at all. The Sims, one of the most prolific games among female audiences, is an exercise in developing interrelationships and character identity.
The cultural impact of emergent identity is irrefutable. This approach seems to be the perfect foil to Henry Jenkins’ sense of narrow identity development in regards to 19th and 20th century boy culture. Here, we have a game that does not embrace “mastery and self-control” but instead embraces personal realization. Final Fantasy VI even challenges the Jenkins’ girl culture by pulling Terra from her maternal domestication so that she can continue on in the game.
Your personal identity is not the only aspect of the game that requires an emergent appreciation. Half way through the game the entire world itself is wiped into apocalypse, with almost every linear narrative device being ripped from existence. The game does not end here, though. Instead, the game populates the ruined world with characters that have been part of your party and you must slowly see how they have populated the dead planet. This strongly supports the character’s personal development as they begin to revive and personalize the dead world with their presence. Brenda Laurel once said “at the heart of core content is environment”, she could have more accurately have said “at the heart of personal attribution is environment”. (Laurel 85) Here it is perfectly true, but to such a degree that is becomes a narrative device. Not only are players relating to a flamed and barren environment, the characters that populate the game are.
The question still remains, how does this break the hegemony that currently dominates the game industry? The answer is clear, the players’ role and environment are neither simple to understand or easy to accept. In doing so, the player is faced with a unique kind of challenge that in many ways is a challenge of literacy. By removing themselves the typical and conservative choice many developers at the time had been making, they neither label the character as one that should be feminized or masculanized, but instead create a character that must be explored. I believe this would come as a welcomed solution to those that fight the hegemony of the game industry. The Lucidia Culture that warns of the “masculine universe” in their cooperative work, The Hegemony of Play, will find that this universe is instead an empty one, wait for an avatar to find meaning inside of it.
Fron, J., Fullerton, T., Morie, J. & Pearce, C. (aka Ludica) "The Hegemony of Play." In Situated Play: Proceedings of Digital Games Research Association 2007 Conference. Tokyo, Japan, September 2007. Jenkins, Henry. "Complete Freedom of Movement: Video Games as Gendered Play Spaces" The Game Design Reader, ed. Salen, Katie and Eric Zimmerman.MIT Press:Cambridge, MA, 2006. 330-363. Laurel, Brenda. (2001). Utopian Entrepreneur. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001.
Fron, J., Fullerton, T., Morie, J. & Pearce, C. (aka Ludica) "The Hegemony of Play." In Situated Play: Proceedings of Digital Games Research Association 2007 Conference. Tokyo, Japan, September 2007.
Jenkins, Henry. "Complete Freedom of Movement: Video Games as Gendered Play Spaces" The Game Design Reader, ed. Salen, Katie and Eric Zimmerman.MIT Press:Cambridge, MA, 2006. 330-363.
Laurel, Brenda. (2001). Utopian Entrepreneur. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001.