When I started playing Guild Wars 2 at launch I was sucked into the personal story. In fact, I was so drawn into the plight of Tyria that I would rush through content just to get to the next phase of my epic storyline. Sure, I started out humbly enough, a simple human raised on the mean streets, but it seemed pretty clear that I was destined for greatness. I was progressing from saving orphans to, apparently, saving the world. I mean, sure, I was still serving under others, but... pretty soon my moment would come.
And then suddenly there was this Trahearne guy, a sylvari NPC that I was supposed to be helping, because there was slightly more greatness in his destiny than in mine. Except that he was a reluctant leader, and he was always whining, and he was always freakin’ dying, and I was always saving his ass, and... well, I digress. Reuben “Sardu” Waters and I have joked about our trials with Trahearne during a few Monday morning meetings, and it turns out the sylvari is fun to pick on. (If you’re interested some day, go ask Reuben whether he thinks sylvari—plant people—are capable of farting. He has theories.)
Given the choice between watching passively and being a hero, most gamers (and by most I mean all) would choose the heroic route. And most MMOs acknowledge that. But games fall short when they try to make heroism a...
B I G E P I C T H I N G!
I used to like games that told me my character was special and bound for glory.
“You’re our savior!”
“Holy shit, it turns out you’re an immortal daeva!” [At least until you get to level 20 and everything turns PvP on your ass. Thanks a pantload, Aion.]
“All hail the Hero of [Fillintheblank]!”
“Only YOU can prevent forest fires!”
Well, you get the idea.
Lately, though, the whole hero thing seems contrived. A gimmick. Not very authentic or believable. To be honest, I think I’m burned out on heroism. It’s not that I don’t want to do heroic things; it’s more that I don’t want to be set up as someone Great, Special, or Uniquely Gifted. That stuff's played out.
Everyday Heroes Are Where It’s At
The world doesn’t need any more rock stars, celebrities, gurus or cult leaders. This occurred to me, when reading John “Boomjack” Hoskin’s awesome column about how ordinary people did heroic things at the scene of the recent shooting in Ottawa, Canada. John wrote:
[The] building blocks of success are formed over dozens of hours of practice and play, but the fact of the matter is that there are distinct moments when these epiphanies happen, when the clouds part, when the light goes on over the player’s head and they suddenly ‘get it.’
Those moments are magical or perhaps, in some cases, surreal.
Canada had one of those moments last week. A terrorist murdered an unarmed soldier standing watch over our national war memorial. It was the act of a coward, meant to create fear and generate panic, but in that moment, that terrible, horrific moment the magic that true gamers (and not the GamerGate miscreants) feel when they play games with their friends was magnified a thousand fold as citizens ran forward, towards the shooting, putting themselves in harm’s way to help... a fallen soldier.
It occurred to me that the problem with wanting to feel like a Big Deal is ego. It’s impossible to have an enormous ego and also work selflessly for the greater good—I believe those things are mutually exclusive. The real heroes are the people who help not because they want to be important, but because they believe others are important. Think of all the heroes we see in our everyday lives. Here are just a few random examples:
- Captain Sully Sullenberger. In 2009 US Airways Flight 1549 struck a large flock of birds while departing New York’s LeGuardia Airport, disabling both engines. Captain Sullenberger quickly and calmly determined that he would need to crash land the plane on the Hudson River. Because of his cool head in a crisis, not to mention his piloting skills, all crew and passengers survived the crash. Sullenberger accepted the accolades with humility. “One way of looking at this might be that for 42 years I've been making small, regular deposits in this bank of experience, education and training,” he said. “And on January 15 the balance was sufficient so that I could make a very large withdrawal.”
- Benjamin Clark. On September 11, 2001, Clark saved hundreds of lives by fearlessly helping to evacuate the 96th floor of the World Trade Center South Tower. And he would have made it out (those he was assisting did), except that he stopped to help a woman in a wheelchair on the 78th floor. He wasn’t a firefighter or police officer—he was a chef working at Fiduciary Trust Company.
- David Fredericksen. This August, Fredericksen, an ordinary truck driver, happened upon an extraordinary scene—a car that had t-boned a semi-truck’s fuel tank outside Biloxi, Mississippi. Sensing there must be people trapped inside the car, he charged into the inferno, armed with a fire extinguisher. Together, he and his passenger rescued a one-year-old toddler and her grandmother from the flames. No one, including the driver of the t-boned semi, received serious injuries.
Hell, even animals can be heroes. Check out this hero cat, who rescued a little child from a vicious and unprovoked dog attack.
In all of the cases I cited—except maybe that of the hero cat, because cats act alone—there wasn’t a solitary hero, just one who spurred others into action. Sully had the assistance of a brave copilot, helping him in the silent cabin as they brought the plane down, not to mention a flight crew who worked to keep passengers calm and safe. Benjamin Clark was one of countless heroes during 9/11—some have been recognized, while others certainly must have given their lives with their selfless acts remaining forever unknown and unsung. When Fredericksen hopped from the safety of his truck cab and ran toward a conflagration, his passengers and other bystanders took his cue and rushed in to help, as well. We humans often do our best when things are at their worst.
It may seem like an odd request, but I’d like the games we play to embrace a little more of that communal spirit—the heroism of the everyman and everywoman—rather than attempting to make us, the players, feel as though we’re Destined for Greatness from the start. I don’t need to be the last Dragonborn, or an immortal daeva, or the Hero of Lion’s Arch... I just want my contributions to make a difference.
When I think about the stories I’ve told of great things that happened in MMOs—times where I felt important and necessary in whatever role I played—they’re never about times when I was a solo adventurer completing some quest that branded me a hero. I don’t talk about the time when I jumped into a personal story instance in Guild Wars 2 and Trahearne (an NPC, remember) and I defeated the Sovereign Eye of Zhaitan. (I had to look that up to recall it, which shows that it didn’t have that big of an impact on me.) Instead, most of my stories begin with, “I remember when my guild...” or, “Some of my guildies and I had this perma-group, and...”
Video games and MMOs make too much of Epic Heroism, and I think that after the initial buzz wears off the idea of being Great or Special or Gifted we all long for something a little more realistic, a little closer to home. Unless we’re impossibly narcissistic, we hope to contribute to a greater whole—to be part of, “We did it!” rather than, “I did it!” Joining together with others and playing a role in overcoming danger or diversity is what makes us feel as though we really matter in the end.