Media functions as a barometer for society’s collective unconscious, much as myth and folktales did in pre-electronic times. Mythology from every culture the world over contains references to dismemberment, indicating that it’s a primal fear shared by all humanity. And with good reason: few things are as revolting to the mind as the thought of one’s corporal body, or worse, eternal soul, being rent asunder. It’s more horrifying than mere death, carrying an added dimension of psychological terror rooted in the disintegration of the self. Dismemberment is the ultimate fear, and therefore the ultimate punishment for transgression against the laws of gods or men. See Dante’s Divine Comedy, Goethe’s Faust, Shakespeare, or any number of stories in Greek, Roman, Chinese, Mayan, or Aztec mythology for examples.
Above: An image from Dante’s Purgatorio, depicting a severed head
Over the centuries, much has been written by philosophers and psychologists about dismemberment as a symbol for the fragmentation of identity. Dismemberment has also come to represent subconscious fears of family disunity, disempowerment, and out-of-control situations. If we look at the period of time over which this year’s games were developed, say 2004-2008, we see a nation and a world divided by war and controversy. Ohio election results. The Downing Street Memo. Madrid bombings. London bombings. Valerie Plame. Scooter Libby. Katrina. Abu Ghraib. Guantanamo. Extraordinary rendition. Warrantless wiretapping. Jack Abramoff. Tom DeLay. Larry Craig. An Inconvenient Truth. Sub-prime mortages. The AIG executive retreat. Economic collapse. How’s that for a fragmented society? Add to this mix the heartbreaking death toll in Iraq and the sight of our brave soldiers coming home missing arms and legs, and it’s easy to feel like the world is being ripped limb from limb.
Above: A nation divided
It’s no wonder that we’d turn enthusiastically to videogames for escapism during such a period of disunity and chaos. And it’s no wonder that disunity and chaos are the primary psychological indicators for dreams about dismemberment. What we really want is to be whole again. Another reading of the situation could be that in these games, we are the ones doing the dismembering. As such, they represent a sort of revenge fantasy, a wrathful destruction of those who would wrong us. Again, this speaks to the feeling of powerlessness and disharmony brought on by the events of the last few years. Coincidentally (or not), dismemberment is the punishment for the sin of Wrath in Dante’s Inferno. Either way, the sudden prominence of dismemberment gameplay would seem to be a manifestation of our deep-seated anxieties about the state of the world.
Above: Real-life trauma reimagined in game form - click here to see the reality (WARNING!!! GRAPHIC REAL IMAGE OF WAR WOUNDS FOLLOWS)
Distractions like videogames can help keep us from dwelling on negatives, but either directly or indirectly, our preoccupations and fears will manifest themselves in the content we consume. Like mythology and psychology, media presents a roadmap of the subconscious for those who know how to read it. Our psychic hobgoblins are trotted out on screen, set loose by cunning media sophisticates who’ve tapped into the psychic energy that terrorizes, arouses, or otherwise titillates the groupmind. Media constantly strives to out-sensationalize itself, so maybe from now on every game will feature ritualistic dismemberment. Or maybe 2009 will be the year taboos against sex in the mass media finally evaporate for good. When that happens we can discuss how Obama’s message of Hope and Unity represents America’s (not-so-) secret desire to knock boots.
Dec 31, 2008
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