Id, Ego, and the Super Ego Bros.
Sigmund Freud had some strange ideas, many of which are being revisited by today’s psychologists while others have been completely debunked. But Freud’s Id, Ego, and Super-Ego have stood the test of time. This article is meant to be an introduction to these psyche structures and their connection to video games. Well, think about some successful games: Grand Theft Auto IV, Fallout III, and Modern Warfare 2 come to mind for myself. I believe that each one of these exemplifies one of Freud’s psyche structures, Grand Theft Auto IV prods our Id, Fallout III lets our Ego shine and Modern Warfare 2 represents our Super Ego. Any game that makes us assume a role resonates most when it pries into one or more of these psyche structures. The first and most ancient is the Id.
The Id, as Freud describes, is the inner animal. It’s represented by our lower brain handed down to us by our reptilian ancestors. The fight-flight response comes from there, as well as our impulse to seek out pleasure. Nowadays, we aren’t constantly running, fighting and following every impulse that we have. We are constantly at odds with our Id, but we’ve always found ways to satisfy our inner animal. Take for example Grand Theft Auto IV: I took control of Niko Bellic. I stole cars, killed prostitutes and caused incalculable amount of damage in Liberty City, including trying to get as many wanted stars as possible. The game put me in the position to follow every impulse. Although there were moments in the game where Niko could redeem himself, the basis of his character was about having sex, killing people, and stealing things for money. That is the essence of the Id: do what you want, when you want and damn the consequences. Many open world games give us this opportunity, but given this series reputation and mission style it pushes the player to go berserk with their wanton desires. What about your favorite game? Does it allow you to unleash your inner animal?
The Ego is the check between the Id and reality. Obviously, we cannot indulge our inner animal all the time if we wish to live in a structured society. The counterbalance is the Ego, our projection of what we think we should be. The Ego is probably closest to the real us. It operated under the reality principle. Freud described this as how we deal with our urges and obligations of our Id and Super-Ego. This brings my second example, Fallout III. Throughout the game, the character has a chance to do ill or good in a post-apocalyptic setting. Story lines unfold based on our actions. One of the first major decisions sets us on the path of Id or Super-Ego. The town of Megaton can either be destroyed or saved by the player’s actions. If the player chooses to destroy the town, he or she will be rewarded with money and a home. Save the town and the player will receive virtually nothing for the time being, but you become the hero. The game’s narrative continues to unfold in this fashion until its climax. The first time I played I chose a basically good path, probably about 80 percent of the time. A point that was well illustrated in the book Freakonomics by the parable of the Bagel Man (if you haven’t read it, it’s a great book). As with all games, we are controlling an avatar. There is a disconnect between us and the game world, as deep as it may be. Falloutgave me the chance to be good or evil and I chose a path that allowed me to project my idealize self. And that’s what I think made the game so successful as with many Bethesda titles.
That leaves the Super-Ego. This Freudian concept is essentially society’s ideal. It’s the opposite of the Id. For society to function, we must deny our Id because we’d become a society of Phineas Gages if we did not. In Modern Warfare 2 became various American soldiers fighting off various enemies, from Russians to anti-government militias in Brazil. The game (single player campaign) is structured for us to be brave, follow orders, and be patriotic (if you’re American, if you’re not American then you should be ashamed). And, like most Americans, we can only run for about five seconds. There’s a deep sense that we’re fighting the “bad guys”. A bad guy with a bad Russian accent starts a war in the hopes that he’s written a check that America’s face can’t cash. But we do, and if I recall correctly, we stop the evil traitor Shepherd and save America! AMERICA, OH YEAH! OH YEAH!
Overall, the best games delve into our psyche and reek havoc. Our minds are a constant struggle between the forces of the Id, Ego, and the Super-Ego. We cannot deny that we are animals. Nor, at the same time, can we deny that we are different that the other species that share this world. Human beings are a contradiction, these psyche structures are at odds with each other. Our condition of being self aware weighs heavy on us. That’s why I believe the best games are those that allow us to escape this contradiction for a while. In a virtual world we can fully engage one piece of our minds and forget the contradictions, cast the moorings aside and drift as we please. They play to our fears and lust with our Id. They let us be what we’ve always wanted to be, setting our Ego free. Or they put us in the shoes of our society’s hero’s and sometimes our anti-heroes if they’re being rebellious. So when we play games, at some level, they are playing us.