Last year, it occurred to me that I was an adult. Living abroad, earning my own living, and paying taxes and rent. These were all things that adults did, so it finally dawned on me that if I wanted to properly embrace adulthood, I would need a plan. I would have to answer the question: what kind of man should I be?
So on a humid summer day in August, sitting in my new apartment, I wrote a list of five professions that I felt every man should strive to become–or at least adopt the positive traits associated with those professions.
Surprisingly, I developed this list rapidly. Each profession, or “aspect”, simply made sense to my own worldview. Here’s the final list (in no particular order):
I will talk about each of these aspects in a moment, but overall, they all share a common quality: each one can be exemplified by a historical or literary figure. In other words, each aspect has at least one historical figure and one literary figure who serves as a paragon of that particular virtue. For instance, when I considered the Prince category, I immediately thought about the example of George Washington. Now obviously he was not a literal prince, but he fits the virtues of the category.
I admit that when I made this list, I was not thinking about video games. In fact, in my own way, I was developing the list to escape the pull of virtual worlds in favor of conquering real life. But as I think about the list, and as I think about the fact that video games are developing into a more mature art form, I also realize that characters in video games might make acceptable role models for my five aspects.
To explore this point and to discuss the rationale behind the professions I highlighted, I present the Five Aspects of a Man in historical form and video game form.
“Capability is Divinity”
The Warrior was the first aspect I identified, for reasons I imagine are fairly apparent. Basically, I believe that a man (or at least the kind of man I would like to be), should be physically able to deal with challenging situations and mentally strong enough to engage with these challenges effectively.
Note that I am not claiming that a Warrior must be good at swinging a sword or able to bench press twice his body-weight. I defined the aspects according to their applicability in the real world–a real world in which fighting a dragon is extremely unlikely.
Having said this, sometimes we find ourselves in situations that require a certain physical dexterity to succeed. For instance, we may witness an accident that requires the strength and endurance to carry someone to receive medical aid. We might encounter a dangerous situation, which requires our speed or agility to escape. We may even encounter a situation in which retreat simply is not an option; a fight requires a Warrior’s physical ability.
The Warrior must also maintain his health and have ownership over the things which might present trouble down the road. A healthy diet and disciplined exercise regimen are qualities which benefit the Warrior, and ultimately, the complete man.
Lastly, a Warrior must also have the mental fortitude to use his physical capabilities effectively. It’s not enough to deadlift 150 kg. One must also be able to do so under extreme stress, otherwise the man is nothing but a gilded husk–impressive on the outside, but empty on the inside.
Historically, we can see the example of a great Warriors as generals or strategists. Sun Tzu’s The Art of War gives the reader a window into the worldview of a great Warrior. Sun Tzu’s strengths as a military tactician weren’t born from raw strength; instead, his brilliance was his understanding of the use of efficient applications of strength and the overall maintenance of discipline across all ranks.
Sun Tzu – The Warrior
We might think of our bodies as an army, and apply Sun Tzu’s understanding of warfare to our physical selves. From Chapter 6 in The Art of War:
“To be certain to take what you attack, attack where the enemy cannot defend.
To be certain of safety when defending, defend where the enemy cannot attack.”
In other words, pay special attention to strengths and weaknesses and apply the strengths to situations as they arise. A quick man must use his speed and a strong man should use his strength. The quick man should know his limits though, especially with respect to strength. The same applies to the strong man and speed.
In video games, there is no shortage of Warriors, but the one who stands out for me is Ezio Auditore from Assassin’s Creed II, Brotherhood and Revelations.
Ezio Auditore – The Warrior
While not the most physically imposing of video game characters, Ezio is an excellent paragon of the Warrior’s virtue. He is incredibly healthy, able to scale urban environments using a combination of floating grace and raw muscle. He’s also aware of the fact that his strengths do not lie in an open fight. Using quickness and agility to his advantage, Ezio picks out his targets carefully while managing the rest of the external environment so as to not get into an impossible fight. Capability and efficiency are core values for the Warrior–and Ezio is a fantastic exemplar of this virtue.
“Knowledge is Power”
The second aspect I developed, the Scholar, is another fairly obvious choice. Whereas the domain of the Warrior lies primarily in the physical world, the Scholar’s world is devoted to the advancement of the mind.
Everyone can be a Scholar, regardless of intellectual potential (i.e. IQ), because just as the Warrior need not be strong or fast in the conventional sense, a Scholar need not be intelligent per se. Of course it’s helpful to be able to memorize and apply facts, but this is not an absolute requirement.
A Scholar’s most important trait is his innate sense of curiosity in the world around him. It is not important that the Scholar remember every detail, read every book or study every subject; what IS important is that the Scholar be willing to accept knowledge from all sources as being potentially valuable.
Ignorance is a condition in which all of us live, but the acceptance of ignorance is unacceptable because it prevents us from seeing opportunities for improvement. Scholarly pursuits drive us to better ourselves, and perhaps more importantly, understand other people’s positions in a less-than-superficial way.
From a historical standpoint, Scholars have advanced knowledge for the benefit of humanity and for the benefit of themselves. Ben Franklin is an excellent model for a Scholar’s better qualities, particularly since he was not the kind of person who would absorb information and do nothing with it. He was an inventor, a statesman, theorist, scientist and politician–and what’s more, his undying sense of creativity and curiosity have defined a critical part of the American psyche. In other words, for many Americans, Franklin serves as a model for intellectualism and tenacity, all in service of patriotism.
Ben Franklin – The Scholar
Excerpts from Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac shed light on his brilliance and his worldview:
Hunger never saw bad bread.
Fools make feasts and wise men eat ’em.
Three may keep a Secret, if two of them are dead.
Poverty wants some things, Luxury many things, Avarice all things.
The Doors of Wisdom are never shut.
Franklin here teaches us another important virtue of the Scholar. A good scholar does not carry with him pretension. Being smart is one thing. Being able to educate others in their own language is quite another. What value is there in having a brilliant teacher who cannot find the words or the manners to impart wisdom? A true Scholar, like Franklin, can teach effortlessly, using the right mannerisms. In Franklin’s case, humor is the gateway to the mind.
Video games are not havens for Scholar characters. Whereas Warriors can devastate foes with unrelenting force or beautiful choreography, Scholars are mostly limited to background support roles. They are viewed as tactical liabilities, who exist only because their specialized knowledge makes them a necessary–if unwelcome–addition to the battlefield.
One notable exception to this trend comes from Mass Effect 2. Mordin Solus is a Salarian scientist and an superior Scholar. Not only does he assist with the back-end scientific research required to defeat the main Reaper antagonist in the game, he is also a potent soldier, capable of leveraging his knowledge of technology to great effect in combat. Furthermore, Mordin sees value in all knowledge, not just facts that can be easily and directly applied to battlefield technologies. One of the most memorable moments in Mass Effect 2 happens when the player character interacts with Mordin in his science lab. Mordin admits to having studied Earth’s great musicals. He then proceeds to sing his rendition of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Major-General’s Song”. Why would he do this?
Mordin Solus – The Scholar
While Mordin probably understood that the value of such knowledge would be un-quantifiable, it would allow him to better understand the human species, and as consequence, work with them on future pursuits–including the destruction of a Reaper. A true Scholar understands that knowledge in service of building alliances is as valuable as knowledge in service of advancing tangible pursuits.
“Born to Lead”
The third aspect I identified was the Prince, and he is the first that requires a bit more explanation. Essentially, the Prince is the aspect who can lead men and assume responsibility for his own life and his own career. The first question that should be addressed here is: Why the Prince? Why not the King?
Perhaps the answer to that question is a function of my own upbringing. I did not come from wealth, and I do not expect to be awarded a noble rank by some long lost uncle in the near future. All that I’ve attained, I’ve attained as a reward for work, or in some cases, luck. Under no circumstances however, have I been given something purely because of who I was. I was not born a king, so it seemed to be an inappropriate aspect to assume.
More importantly though, the Prince must learn to act like a King. A Prince is not born with the capabilities of a King; he must learn how to lead in order to earn the respect of those who follow him. The Prince must learn diplomacy, strategy, persuasion and a whole host of other talents in order to advance in standing at Court (i.e. the real world).
Furthermore, the Prince never stops being a Prince. In life, we must always learn to cope with new situations and strive to prove ourselves to the world, before we are ready to assume the proper throne. The fact that the “throne” does not really exist is of little consequence; it is the drive to improve our station in life that defines us in a fundamental way.
Historically, there have been many princes, but far fewer “Princes”. The aspect of the Prince need not be represented by a literal prince. In this case, we can look to George Washington as a Prince, even if he was a founding father of a country which rejected the monarchistic tradition wholesale.
George Washington – The Prince
Even though George Washington was not the most brilliant military leader the world has ever seen, his foresight and demonstrated fortitude still won him the affection and admiration of a new nation. On December 23, 1783, after the British Army had retreated from American shores, George Washington officially resigned his post as Commander of the American Army, an action which shocked the aristocracy in Europe. Why would a man give up so much power if there was no threat to it?
The answer, whether he intended this or not, was that by giving up power, Washington’s reputation as a selfless leader of the Revolution was cemented forever. His mediocre record as a military commander paled in comparison to his virtuous leadership potential in the political arena. By making one small sacrifice, Washington gained enormous power and prestige.
To quote historian John Shy, Washington was “a mediocre military strategist but had become a master political tactician with an almost perfect sense of timing and a developed capacity to exploit his charismatic reputation, using people who thought they were using him.” Shy’s quote is an excellent summary of what it means to be a Prince. To lead through coercion or bribery is unsustainable. To lead through subtle and well-timed action is the path to enduring success. After all, how many other presidents won all of the Electoral Votes at election? Only a master leader could accomplish such a feat.
We should return to Mass Effect to understand the Prince’s virtue; this time, we must look at the protagonist himself (or herself), Commander Shepard. Interestingly, unlike other characters in Mass Effect, Shepard’s past and present are determined by player choices. Shepard could be male or female (I will use masculine pronouns for the sake of simplicity though), have an array of military/origin backgrounds and act extremely aggressively or exceptionally diplomatically. And yet, despite all of these variables, Shepard always displays the qualities of a Prince.
Commander Shepard – The Prince
His actions speak volumes. He is able to lead a team to defeat a galactic threat, the likes of which no living creature had ever fought before. And when you consider the types of people he was forced to recruit, the success of his mission seems all the more unlikely. How do you lead a group composed of mercenaries, soldiers, scientists, superheroes, robots and other powerful (and opinionated) crew-members? You become a Prince.
Shepard does a couple things through the Mass Effect series that are true reflections of the Prince. First, he always demonstrates authority. Although he is often willing to listen to his crew’s opinion, his decision is final. There is no second-guessing the Commander’s authority. This authority has been earned not merely by title; after all, what respect would an ex-convict have for a military officer? Shepard’s real authority came from demonstrations of competence. He didn’t just give his crew orders; he gave them a reason to follow those orders.
Second, Shepard always presented the mission as a challenge that, if failed, would affect everyone equally. This wasn’t about one man or one species; the mission required the resources of all sentient life, otherwise all life would be destroyed. This common purpose approach allowed Shepard to frame his orders in such a way that conflicting opinions within the crew appeared petty by comparison. A true Prince can manipulate social structures and expectations to ensure a positive outcome.
“Eloquence for a Chaotic World.”
And now we get to the weird one. The value of strength, intelligence and leadership ability are self-evident. What about the Poet?
Not every person in the world will put together the same list of aspects. An individual’s chosen aspects are reflections of his or her own preferences and what he or she values most. For me, the ability to speak clearly and beautifully is a virtue worth its weight in gold. Not only does the Poet represent this clarity of expression, he also represents an appreciation for art and the possession of a certain kind of charisma needed to persuade people. Unlike the Prince, the Poet does not persuade to lead; instead, he persuades to move people’s emotions. Think of a man trying to convince a woman to give him her (real) phone number or someone trying to get an audience of friends to laugh at a joke. These emotions are powerful motivators, and can build enduring, fulfilling relationships. Where the Poet goes, his friends follow.
The Poet is a synonym for the Bard, otherwise known as William Shakespeare, the greatest Poet in English–and possibly human–history. His command of the English language is reflected his Folios. How can one man paint so many portraits of such an array of human emotion? It takes a genius; it takes a Poet.
William Shakespeare – The Poet
A Poet does not drown himself in imprecise and vague language. Just as the Scholar must be able to teach, the Poet must always be able to communicate to his audience. If we look at Shakespeare’s Sonnet #29, we can see that the meaning of the poem is as relatable today as it was hundreds of years ago:
When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
(Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth) sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
The ability to talk about emotions is lost on many men. The ability to talk about emotion in a way that gets the listener to relate is a rare feat. To inspire emotion is to inspire action.
A keen understanding of art is a valuable pursuit for a man because it allows him to understand the manner by which we might express emotion in powerful and meaningful ways. The study of art also helps defend against the temptation to only value pursuits which hold tangible value.
Unfortunately, the Poet is often lacking in video games. This might be a limitation of the medium, or it might just be that developers haven’t had as many opportunities to put in extremely well-written characters who themselves appear eloquent.
But when such characters do appear, they are quite striking. The Engineer (Engie) from Valve’s Team Fortress 2 is a good example of a Poet in games. Violent, intelligent and speaking with a distinctive Texas twang, on the surface, the Engie does not seems to belong in the same league as Shakespeare.
That is until you watch this video:
Clarity of speech and purpose help set the Poet apart from the philistine. Although as a character, the Engie is not particularly well developed, there appears to be a depth that has gone untapped. Here is a character who can build amid a world of destruction, and still express his feelings. In a modern world of chaos, it is the Poet’s place to introduce order and clarity.
The Engie – The Poet
“Everything has a Price.”
I’m not just talking about money with the Merchant, although that is certainly an important factor. Of all the aspects, the Merchant is the most practical, and in some key ways, the most important. The Merchant focuses first and foremost on efficiency and the concept of limited resources.
As human beings, we have access to a limited world and a limited amount of time to interact with that world. The greatest crime in the eyes of a Merchant is not spending money recklessly; at least that could yield some pleasure, which is presumably a goal in life. The greatest crime isn’t wasting physical resources; it’s wasting time, which once spent, can never be recovered.
In order to improve the four other aspects, a time investment is required. Training at a gym, reading a book, studying how to be a better leader and practicing speech all require a time investment, one which might be wasted on more short-term pleasures. A Merchant understands the relationship between the value of resources. For a Merchant, every action is an investment, but every action also has a price.
When I was in primary school, Thomas Edison was held up as an icon of American ingenuity and creative intelligence. He invented the light bulb for crying out loud! We would be crouching in darkness were it not for his brilliance! Edison has fallen out of favor in recent years however, mostly due belated internet outrage at his actions against Nikola Tesla, a man who was genuinely brilliant and probably should have received more recognition in his lifetime.
Thomas Edison – The Merchant
Having said this, just because I wouldn’t say that Edison was a Scholar, I would definitely say he was a Merchant. He was a very smart man with a keen sense of business knowledge. One does not hold over a thousand patents by not understand the value of such knowledge.
More importantly, Edison understood the value of the resources at his disposal, both in terms of material and manpower. Whereas Tesla had a brilliant mind, Edison knew how to tap into the brilliant minds of all those who surrounded him. Herein lies the Merchant’s greatest strength: an appreciation of the fact that everyone and everything is valuable in its own way; the trick is to know when to bring those resources to bear.
Video games often present merchants as actors who help the player protagonist achieve his or her objectives by offering services, information or goods in exchange for money. Pretty much every role playing game has merchants who, in spite of not having particularly memorable personalities, serve a critical role. Fallout 3’s wandering merchants, such as “Crazy Wolfgang” are typical of this archetype.
Crazy Wolfgang – The Merchant
Beyond the regular merchant characters, we can also talk about the entire player experience as being an exercise in playing the role of the Merchant. Any game that gives the player limited resources is forcing that player to pick an optimal path through their avatar’s life. Do I spend my credits on a new piece of armor or do I use that money for skill training? In this way, we see a direct analog between games and life: everyday, we must choose to place our time and resources into certain tasks, which can help or harm us in the long run. Along the way, we must also find time for fun, lest we lead a joyless life.
The Complete Man
As we have seen, the complete man is a combination of things. He should be strong, smart, able to lead, eloquent and resourceful. These are the qualities I view as being important, but others may add or subtract various parts. Perhaps some men think that true manhood encompasses the “Servant”, “Architect” or “Diplomat”. These people might be right, but the point of this entire exercise was not to figure out exactly what the perfect man is–as if such a thing could even exist! The purpose of this exercise was–and is–to create a framework upon improvements can be built. So far, in my own life, the framework has held together nicely, yielding a number of positive outcomes including weight-loss, promotions and a new sense of purpose.
Now when I play video games, I think about them as being a possible source of inspiration. Frankly, it’s a small goal of mine to be as capable as possible, so that if I were ever placed into a situation that called for a hero, I might be able to respond effectively.
But as we have seen, video games do a great job at focusing on some aspects of the ideal man (i.e. the Warrior), while ignoring other important aspects (i.e. the Poet). This raises the question as to whether or not games as a medium have room for these more subtle characteristics. Novels and film have both done excellent jobs bringing complex and nuanced characters to life, but these characters are still extremely rare in games.
While I continue to work on improving myself, I will look to video games to see if there are any major shifts in character portrayal. Maybe the introduction of the next generation of consoles will give developers the technical freedom to do some spectacular things in storytelling. Or maybe they won’t. Either way, I’m looking forward to the future of gaming and examining portrayals of characters as ultimately being reflections of the values society holds most dear.
Until next time.