Why Symbolism is Integral to the Gaming World
If your high school English classes were anything like the ones I took, then you probably had a huge unit on symbolism and read Animal Farm or The Lord of the Flies just to do an essay on how the symbolism in the books correlate to aspects in your life. That’s when your world came crashing down and you started to pick apart your video games to see if they hold any secret meanings. Okay, maybe nothing that extreme, but your English teachers can breathe a sigh of relief that some things you learned didn’t go to waste.
The same concept of symbolism that is in the previously mentioned novels is littered n the games we have come to adore. They play on our current emotional state, our socioeconomic standings, and our overall experiences we have encountered in our life. Symbolism pulls us into the story line subconsciously.
Typically most symbolism we see in video games are representative of four areas: religion, politics, protection, and technology.
With over half of the world’s population practicing some form of religion, it’s no surprise that a lot of symbols in games hold a deeper religious meaning. No, nothing subliminally messaging you to put on your dressy clothes and go to church on Sunday type meanings, but one that shows how historical and current events influence our lives.
Commander Shepard is the hero of the universe after saving it from a superior sentient race. He/she has to do all of these missions and favors for the many political and military leaders to get their support or just save their skins. You can correlate this with the religious “shepherd” term, which illustrates God’s care for everyone since humans tend to put themselves in the way of danger and unable to take care of or guide themselves. Commander Shepard could be seen as a shepherd, since during the entire three games they are seen picking up the pieces of the other races and taking care of the Reaper threat, in turn protecting the citizens just like a Shepherd would do their “flock”.
Tying into religion while also maintaining a political ideal are the Templars in both Assassin’s Creed and Dragon Age. Both are a strict militaristic religious order that stresses to achieve the betterment of humanity by exercising control and influences over the population’s masses. In Assassin’s Creed, their purpose is to bring humanity up from their primitive roots, because of the belief that freedom is chaos that will bring down civilization.
In Dragon Age, the Templars of the Chantry are used to protect the world from the dangers of magic and to protect mages from a world that fears them. They are able to invoke certain rights and rituals to control the mage/magic population in a way they see fit. These groups are the equivalent to the Order of the Knight Templars of our world from the Crusade era. Symbolically, one could see the control that the Catholic and other sects of the Christian religion have on our world leaders and laws. Marriage equality, woman’s rights, and other issues are becoming more controlled by a religious influence in our government systems. If we take the plight of the Mages and Templars and Templars and Assassins and put us into their places, it’s a warning of the power the government has over their people and we need to be prepared to stand up for what we believe in.
When we are scared or depressed we turn to something as a form of protection. This is more prominent in younger children, as things such and nighttime, storms, and strangers terrify them. This is often where an imaginary friend comes in. They are not only a playmate, but in the mind of a child serves as a protector, being kind and gentle towards them and vicious towards people or things that terrify the child. We can symbolically see this displayed in the relationship between Big Daddy and Little Sister in the BioShock series. He serves to protect the Little Sister from the splicers and the other “baddies” that can destroy her innocence.
Going back to the symbolism in Mass Effect, it’s evident that they live in a world where technology has become very advanced. Add in the Reapers and that (metaphorically) could be where we are headed in the near future. The Reapers symbolize our addiction with technology and our drive to advance it, to the point where technology is starting to take over every part of our life. We are so dependent on smartphones, the internet, anything that can make our life easier. It also draws a parallel between the Reapers taking over the universe to the fact that many can’t do basic functions our parents and grandparents could do without the need of technology. We have forgotten the art of snail mail and people younger than us (in the 10-18 age range) can barely do simple addition problems without a calculator. In a nutshell, we are too dependent on technology to the point it could be our demise as a civilization.
As much as all this sounds like a bunch of conspiracy theories, it’s an integral to how we perceive video games. We have our own interpretations of characters, worlds, and mission which can be influenced by the events in our lives. The way I interpreted the above scenarios could be totally different from what you derive from it (for example a friend of mine said Reapers looked like metal lobsters who are angry about being eaten). Ironically enough, the fact symbolism can be interpreted many different ways is one of the reasons video games get a bad reputation from non-gamers, especially in the wake of violent tragedies. So, the next time you play a game you really enjoy (or not) , I challenge you to look for symbolism in that game and what you interpret it to be. Bonus points if you let me know what you have taken away from your games.