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Psychological anthropology in video games
by Kevin Sultan on 01/05/14 09:17:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.



I have always been interested in storytelling although my professional career rarely gave me the opportunity to put in practice my knowledge. During my researches, I notably attended psychological anthropology lessons at the Pierre Mendes France University of Grenoble (FRANCE).

Wikipedia defines the psychological anthropology as "an interdisciplinary subfield of anthropology that studies the interaction of cultural and mental processes. This subfield tends to focus on ways in which humans' development and enculturation within a particular cultural group shape processes of human cognition, emotion, perception, motivation and mental health."

In other words, the psychological anthropology analyzes the mechanisms of the collective unconscious and tries to define the approach of each culture regarding a wide range of themes. Thus, I am convinced that this field can be used in video games to better anticipate the player reactions and to encourage the emergence of specific feelings.

I will start this article introducing the mechanisms of the collective unconscious and I will then analyze the theme of "monsters".

This blog article includes spoilers about The Last Of Us.


A matter of images


The term "image" comes from the Latin word "imago" which refers to funeral masks painted during the first centuries of the Christian era. Images as studied in psychological anthropology are not strictly physical representations of either persons or places. It can have an infinite number of forms: family photographs, furniture, stamp collections, jewels, musical instruments...

These images are described as relics or artificial images contrary to natural ones which are the immaterial results of an inner process triggered by striking memories. In fact, the artificial images only play as intermediaries to remind the natural ones / the past experiences. No matter the kind of object, it refers to a relationship that only an initiated person can decipher.

A portrait from
Faiyoum Basin

A person sometimes transfers his image to his close relations. The most common example deals with collections: stamps, statuettes, rocks... Indeed, offering collectibles often becomes some kind of game / ritual. It is likely that the relations moreover get steeped in this spiral by definitely binding the collectibles to the collector.

It is important to note that an image never dies out: it remains latent as any unconscious mechanism. Although collections generally end in storage rooms like photographs fade, the collector always keeps the natural image deep down within himself. It can rise again while facing a similar relic, even several decades later.

These two characteristics actively participate in the development of the collective unconscious while applied to a larger and deeper scale. It is notably due to the propagation over centuries and the assimilation since the early childhood of tales, proverbs, religious teaching and any cultural elements .

That is how tales like Little Red Riding Hood or Three Little Pigs for example have matched the wolves to the archetype of the predator in the Western culture. Yet, wolves only attack man at extremely rare occasions. It is even venerated as protectors in other cultures, especially in Japan.


Wolves in the Western culture

Wolves in the Asian culture
(picture from 
Princess Mononoke)

Contrary to the example here-above, most of civilizations share the same images especially in ancient ones where religions hold a primordial position. There are the collective images that we should take in consideration.


The Monsters

The theme of "monsters" is shared by almost all the civilizations. The classical definition refers to hybrid creatures stuck between two worlds. Here some examples from the Greek culture:


Cerberus: a three-headed dog, son of a Titan and a woman half-human half-serpent. It guards the entrance of the underworld on the banks of the Styx. Venomous snakes coils around his neck. It represents the absence of expiation: mortals must face the acts done in the past, the present and the future (hence the three heads).


Gorgons whom the most famous version deals with the beautiful Medusa transformed in a monster by the envious Athena. These creatures have snakes for hair and can turn anyone who looks at them to stone. It represents the powerlessness of mortals facing Gods. In Ancient Greece, a lot of people used to wear gorgonians (amulets showing a Gorgon head) to protect themselves from curses and evil spirits.


The Minotaur: a blood-thirsty creature with the head of a bull on a body of a man. It borned from a white bull sent by Poseidon and King Minos' wife. In reality, the Minotaur might be King Minos himself and represents the consequences of yielding to one's primal pulsions.

Classical monsters are repulsive, hostile, primal (in contrast with the modern society), have several arms, sticky tentacles, large glassy eyes… They are frightening especially for children who have many nightmares until 6 years old. Thus, nightmares are an important part of the cerebral maturation process. It allows the child to exteriorize the anxiety he can’t express by other means. The fact that most of the monsters are anthropomorphic i.e. look like humans greatly participates in this process by binding the child’s anxiety to himself.

Using monsters in horror games can make the player jumping and create an insane / disturbing atmosphere like the Silent Hill series. This is however an "easy solution" which only works in the short term: facing monsters becomes a routine and the game tension considerably decreases once the player has overcome his fear. Likewise, the player unconscious matches the monsters to the player anxiety and generates satisfaction / relief while defeating it. The best example that comes to my mind is Doom 3 which gradually becomes a classical FPS where the player can easily guess where next enemies will spawn breaking the surprise effect and psychologically getting him ready for the fight.

Let's now study the modern definition of the term i.e. the image nowadays people have. You can see below a street interview carried out in 2005 by the social studies department of the Pierre Mendes France University. The question asked was: "What do you consider as monstrous?".

Results from the street interview

The people who were questioned often answer "Outlaws" (Human / Real) which includes all kinds of criminals from juvenile delinquents to serial killers. Serial killers are always described by Medias and victims’ families as "monsters", "aliens" or "predators". People don’t choose these words randomly. Indeed, binding the image of monsters to criminals sentenced for dark or barbaric acts is a perfect way to differentiate ourselves from something we can't understand and at the same time to define our own identity (for further information about this self-defining process, see also the Valladolid debate or the trial scene in Planet of the Apes if you prefer sci-fi).

The Last Of Us is an excellent example to both support this differentiation process and to show that classical and modern monsters can work together in a same story.

The first hours introduce the gameplay, the outbreak, the new world and the two protagonists – Joel and Ellie. The Infected get more and more monstrous to maintain the player under pressure: Runners, Stalkers, Clickers and then Bloaters. To prevent him getting bored, the story gradually focuses on relations between survivors and takes a darker turn. The more the protagonists encounter human opponents, the more they look like Joel who is himself described as “a brutal survivor having lost everything he valued in life and with few moral lines left to cross”.

The story finally reaches its climax during the Chapter 9 “Lakeside Resort” when Ellie meets a group of survivors leaded by a character named David – Joel is supposed to be dead at this moment. It turns out that David and his group are terrifying cannibals. The soldiers and the raiders that Joel and Ellie previously met were acting as groups / entities without any leader. At the contrary, David acts as a catalyst and embodies the perfect archetype of the shadow as Joseph Campbell described it - i.e. the darkest side of the protagonist pushed to the extreme. By facing David, the player absolves the Joel’s past behavior and affirms himself as a genuine “human”. This is – in my humble opinion – the best part of the game.

The dramatic structure of The Last Of Us as I felt it (click to enlarge)

To summarize, classical monsters are certainly frightening in the short term but the player naturally fights it as a defensive reaction and as a part of an unconscious process of self-defining. At the contrary, facing humans in video games has a deeper impact on the player as it refers to the cruelty of the real life, the fear to get involved in such events and forces him to face his own dark side. Of course, enemy soldiers represent a direct threat but like the player they could have families, future plans, be following orders they not necessarily agree to, be protecting someone or simply be trying to survive. Questions the player wonders about at least unconsciously.



The psychological anthropology is a kind of large-scale mix between sociology and psychology. I strongly believe this field can be useful to anticipate the reactions and the feeling of most of the players while facing specific situations This is the reason why I will continue to explore the matter during next months through additional themes – probably about the forests or the ability to “shapeshift”.

I hope you enjoy the read. Feel free to comment, any feedbacks would be appreciated.

Here some related books:


EDIT 08/01/2014: the descriptions of the classical monsters has been updated to better underline its psychological meaning.

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Luis Guimaraes
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Very nice! Looking forward to the next articles :D
But please add spoiler warnings :(

"facing humans in video games has a deeper impact"

I guess that's true, but IMHO what defines us as humans in comparison to all other real and ficitonal life forms is our brains, not our shapes. So 99% of the time we're facing "humans" in 'games they're not really humans, just brainless humanoid enemies.

Without a hint into the psyche of the agents with a minimum deal of intimacy to it (citing Bioshock here as an example of it done right), we cannot stabilish the differendce between "human" and "cardboard target with humanoid shape" in 'games.

Thanks for writting the article it's very interesting! :)

Kevin Sultan
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Hi Luis

Thanks for your feedback.
(There already are red spoiler alerts in the introduction)

Luis Guimaraes
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I missed them :( Or rather, maybe I saw it but was too entertained by the article's body to keep that in mind.

Kevin Sultan
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I added an additional warning. I hope other people won't miss it.

Jarmila Mackova
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Great article, thanks a lot. I found myself wondering about several movies and books I´ve seen or read (i.e. Battlestar Galactica)..with some "tricky heroes/monsters".. now I see them in a different point of view...

Ben Sly
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Huh. I'm pretty surprised to find someone referencing the Valladolid debate outside of the context of South American history. I never expected to see mention of it outside of researching historical bases for my own game.

Regarding classical monsters versus human enemies, I view both classical monsters and dehumanized humans as occupying the same place on the scale; with both, the similarity to real-life humans is an expression of how much the creator wants the audience to understand the enemies. Sometimes that is desired, sometimes not. In most games, it frankly isn't desired. That's largely because in most games enemies are just a nearly endless stream of obstacles to overcome; making enemies meaningful enough to challenge your moral sensibilities into is very hard to do when the gameplay is focused around you gunning down hordes of identical foes. That's a large part of why games favor obviously inhuman villains - whether it's because the enemies are literally inhuman, Nazis, crazed cultists, zombies, or whatever else, the gameplay demands masses of expendable fodder that is fun to slaughter. Making villains human and relatable requires that you either also carry through that promise in gameplay or incur the ludonarrative dissonance of telling the player "Yes, these are human beings with families, beliefs, hopes, and dreams - now kill 20,000 of them before they kill you."

Even if the gameplay isn't focused around killing things, there is still a need for simple repetitive behavior in whatever gameplay there is both because that's the only thing that computers can model with any ease and because the rules need to at some point be explained or demonstrated to the player. That type of behavior is very evidently inhuman; it's hard enough to get human-like behavior out of enemies in combat, but far, far harder to model it where the goals of the AI characters aren't just "kill the player".

Outside of those game-specific limitations, there's still some major parts of human psychology that inspire us to write monsters instead of humans as enemies. Simply put, by portraying enemies as inhuman, it becomes easier to fight them. In fantasy and fiction, the author do so by making them literally inhuman; in the real world, it takes prejudice in whatever form (racism, elitism, ethnocentrism) instead. Undeniably inhuman enemies make for simpler plotlines, which are easier to mold into stories that resonate with their audience (and/or justify action sequences).

Kevin Sultan
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Hi Ben,

Regarding the Valladolid Debate, the event is studied in both Literature and Philosophy in French high schools. Thank you for your clarification about generic opponents, you made me realize that I misspoke.

Andreas Ahlborn
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Very interesting read. Loved the dramatic pulse graph, very insightful and a lot work to do properly (which i felt you did). Will check on your follow-ups.

Edwin McRae
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Really well put, Kevin. Over at Path of Exile we've festooned our land with classical monsters but have instinctively placed distorted or psychotic humans as our major bosses and villains. Glad to see there's some scientific justification for that :-)

Cheers and am looking forward to your future articles on the subject.
Edwin McRae
Lead Writer - Path of Exile

Kevin Sultan
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I am back after a month of intense work. Thank you for your comments. Regarding the use of classical monsters in video games, I misspoke: I was talking about villains / big bad wolves. Monsters of course embody efficient generic obstacles and are useful to create instant challenges. I wrote a new version of the article on my portfolio, feel free to read it again.