Be the better of your world and everything in it — that’s power. The child staying up past bedtime, the worker telling their boss to get lost: people enacting their will and breaking the rules, free from comeuppance and consequence. Video games, they say, are made to bring that fantasy to life.
And that’s almost right: video games do empower us to act in ways we never could have before, freeing us from those pesky real-world constraints. But that’s wrong, too. Video games are drenched in the edicts of a designer telling you precisely what can’t be done — a distant parent who wants you to grow in ways that make you thankful you surrendered that hard-earned cash.
But that fantasy stumbles in the face of that catchy chest-opening jingle or that oversized text littered with arbitrary numbers. In a medium where a mere sound or pop-up is specifically engineered to keep you in the worlds it creates, power is the last thing you would ascribe to its audience.
All-powerful, then, we are not.
But it’s not clear why we’d want to be, either. Power fantasies are static, unmoving entities — wholly perfect and complete. They’re psychological alcoves we use to hide from our ever-changing realities. They blunt the trauma imposed by life, giving us the power to briefly hold consequence and comeuppance at bay — if only in our imaginations.
Video games aren’t that, then. They’re littered with consequences. There’s a setting that dictates just how consequential our actions are: difficulty modes. They let us decide just how much that distant parent can punish you, with that selection being one of the few instances of control we actually have.
But video games do exploit our desire for power, holding it to ransom until the credits roll. It might be a grueling three-month grind for the ultimate raid drop or that final, distant point on a never-ending skill tree. That, there, is a power fantasy in the most literal sense — a construct used to entrap us with the ultimate power we think is to come. Level after level, we toil to bring it to life.
By putting that reality just beyond reach with new gear and new levels — something that couldn’t happen if we wielded true power — we never quite get that fix. In a video-game world, we’re almost nearly all-powerful because games wouldn’t work otherwise — there’d simply be nowhere to go. In contrast, power fantasies make us as good as we’re ever going to be. Wholly compete and unmoving.
We’re David in a world where almost everything is Goliath — and we strive to stand at eye’s height with them by game’s end. That desire is the hand-crafted treadmill designers use to keep us playing. To actually fulfill it — or fulfil it too soon — is game-design suicide.
Games are a progression fantasy, a competency fantasy, a power-chase fantasy — but never quite a power fantasy. They’re about swapping what little power we have here for a different kind of power. A change of pace, perhaps, but not always a change of place. That de-powered protagonist is an entry point to ease us into the ascendancy to come — a benchmark to help us appreciate that eventual progression.
Metroid’s Samus Aran is a character defined by her lack of power, a woman whose trademark is to obtain that which she has lost. Only once we’ve fallen can we truly appreciate the ascent.
We forget, too, that we oft become characters who are powerful in our world, and merely competent in theirs. Fallen Order’s Cal has abilities we could only dream of in our world — that’s why we become him. But they aren’t necessarily all that exceptional in his. We could choose to swap that power in real life instead: a doctor finds power in the domain of a hospital, a firefighter finds power in a burning house.
Yet we often don’t because the acquisition of such power — or competency — is a slow, harsh slog that takes actual decades to achieve. That makes video games particularly dangerous, as they offer the satisfaction and immediacy that little else can. They’re a distraction from real pursuits that have could have positive real-world impacts.
That’s not to say we’re without power in the games we play. Leap buildings, lift heavy objects, drive fast cars — we almost always wield objectively more power than our real-world selves. But our nefarious counterparts often leap taller buildings, lift heavier objects, drive faster cars. They’re the constraint that prevents video games from becoming a power fantasy. They’re the boss, the parent — the school-yard bully who absolutely must be stopped.
And that’s the positive message here: power, competency — whatever label you want to use — has to be earned. It’s to say that life, real or digital, is full of challenges that can be overcome by getting good. Cheats and microtransactions contradict that message and prove that video games aren’t a power fantasy because they turn them into one. Unlimited ammo, walk through walls: effortlessly best anything in your respective digital world.
Power must be earned, power should be used for good — valuable lessons that video games have the unique ability to embody. If film, television, and books are couriers of that message, then games are undoubtedly its practitioner. We can become practitioners in the real world, too. We can take lessons from that pursuit of power — repetition, persistence, ambition — to help us develop our own powers in the real world. With those, we can work together to make that world a better place, and turn that distant fantasy into tomorrow’s reality.