Get Out Of My Head: Video Games and the Threat of Mind-Control

December 28, 2009

“Get Out Of My Head:” Video Games
and the Threat of Mind-Control

By Dan Liebman

From Bioshock to Psychonauts to
Divinity II – games have long used the notion of telepathy and using mental
powers

From the moment we are born, we
become carefully attuned to the many dangers of our universe. Yet none compare
to the timeless, invisible threat that is mind-control.

Yes, people have feared the security
of their cognitive processes for years. We cower before the hypnotist, who may
secretly implant volatile thoughts in our brains. We shun the psychologist, wary
that someone may invade the deepest levels of our mental vault. We avoid the
clairvoyant fortuneteller, who may peer into the darkest recesses of our souls.
Can you even remember the last time you visited a psychic? Of course not. You’re
terrified of having your mind cracked open like a salted pistachio. We all are.

When you first traversed the
treacherous ruins of Rapture in Bioshock, you weren’t thinking about the “how”
and “why” of everything that played out before your eyes. You were enjoying the
pretty water effects, shooting lightning from your fingertips, and unloading
countless magazines into overbearing paternal figures. Only as the adventure
came to shocking conclusion did you come to grasp the horrifying truth: you are
nothing more than a brainwashed puppet. With some unscrupulous conditioning,
you’ve been trained to obey your master’s every command.

Yet as disturbing as these
head-games might be, our attitudes change swiftly once the tables are turned. In
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, players were given many opportunities to
play with the minds of other characters in the game. In a frantic combat
scenario, an adept of the Force can cause his foes to become petrified with
fear, or even hopelessly confused. More interestingly, these abilities could be
utilized in conversations with NPCs to alter the outcome of events. If your
character was somewhat lacking in charisma, no worries – the Force can have a
strong influence on the weak-minded. Of course, this takes the player down
something of a moral tightrope; the Jedi Bastilla will chastize you for relying
on “Force Persuade” when legitimate reasoning would suffice.

However, delving deeper into someone
else’s psyche requires more than just a branching dialogue tree. Psychonauts was
hailed as one of the greatest platforming adventures of its time, and with good
reason. The entirety of the gameplay centers on the exploration of minds, quite
literally collecting the “emotional baggage” and confronting the deeply-rooted
fears of the individual in question. Fortunately, the protagonist is a
benevolent character, so his psychic adventures are largely welcomed by the
hosts.

The same cannot be said of our hero
in Divinity II. Much of the gameplay emphasizes personal choice within the
context of the greater world. Using experience points as currency for
mind-reading, the player has an opportunity to glance into the minds of NPCs to
determine their ulterior motives and gaze upon their innermost thoughts. This
information may then be used to the player’s advantage. The opportunities for
double-crossing are, for lack of a better word, mind-boggling. Ever wanted to
con a con-artist? Now’s your chance. How and when you use this ability is
entirely up to you. This level of empowerment should enable the hero of Ego
Draconis to become the very thing we all fear – a sword-wielding, telepathic
rogue who plays by his own rules. To build a game upon such a premise sounds
like a dream come true. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say these developers
have been reading our minds.