PAX South 2019: Let’s Talk About The Psychology of Zelda

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The Psychology of The Legend of Zelda - PAX South 2019

The Legend of Zelda series is a personal favorite of mine and has been since I was very young. But, it has never occurred to me to question why I adore the series; why do I keep buying these games? In fact, why do thousands of people love this series?

A group of clinical psychologists and academics asked the same question and evaluated the game series for various psychological themes. The result of which was an edited volume, The Psychology of Zelda, with essays describing and evaluating various psychological themes found in The Legend of Zelda series.

But we weren’t discussing this at an academic conference, we were at PAX South 2019 in a packed room, and one of the biggest theater at the venue. The themes discussed in the panel were also some of the ones included in the edited volumes, with some of the presenters having authored the essays behind them. You can see the chapter topics below.

This book was featured in a panel at PAX South. The panelists were all subject experts in the feild and most were contributors to the edited volume, of the same name.  Dr. Anthony Bean , Dr. Stephen Daniel, doctoral candidate Louise Grann, Dr. Ryan Kelly, and Dr. Raffael Buccamazzo (Dr. B).

Dr. Bean is a clinical psychologist whose interests include archetypal identification and video games as therapeutic tools. Dr. Daniel is an assistant professor at Appalachian State University with research specializing in communication and psychological constructs in gaming. Louise Grann is a doctoral candidate at the University of West Georgia and whose research interests is in the experience of gamers and what she refers to as ‘transcendent play.’

Dr. Kelly is a psychologist in Charlotte, NC as well as the co-founder of GeeksLikeUs. Lastly, Dr. Raffael Buccamazzo is the clinical director of TakeThis, a mental health non-profit that runs all of the AFK rooms across the country, and the co-founder of a geek therapy clinic called SavePoint Behavioral Health.

 

This panel was a platform for the panelists to express why they love the Zelda franchise but also summate a sample of the chapters in the book. The first question posited to the panel of writers and psychologists was: Why do we love this game? Each game has a very similar premise. The only thing that differentiates one game from another are the mechanics involved. So, knowing this, why do we buy these games?

The simplest answer to this is: these games have immersive qualities. Dr. Kelly posited that people are drawn to this game because it is an allegory for our lives. It is one of the best projective games out there. The characters and relationships represent us and our lives.

Each game is a story of loss, a story of overcoming difficulties, and a story of becoming your own hero. And we can connect to this. Link was also purposefully made mute so that people could better project themselves onto him. Dr. B also adds that people love these games because Zelda is a story of hope. And we all need hope in our lives.

The first theme considered at the panel was the hero’s journey and perseverance. Dr. B noted that obstacles are important in our lives. Without stress and being forced to figure our way through difficult situations, we don’t learn resilience. As such, the idea of locus of control is important in these games. When you have an external locus of control, the world dictates your fate and actions.

In juxtaposition, Link has an internal locus of control. He overcomes obstacles because he believes he can; he overcomes obstacles because he dictates his own fate and actions. This is important for people to learn in order to overcome obstacles in our own lives. However, we also need to understand that some of the bad things that happen to us can be situational; it’s not always our fault when we fail.

Archetypes are also an important part of the series, and another theme featured in the book. The most blatant archetype in this series is that of the orphan. Dr. Bean explained that the orphan archetype always begins the same way: you start out abandoned, alone, cast out, but you rise to overcome various obstacles and become your own personal hero.

This is very true for a lot of video games. Specifically for Link, he has to go through all of his challenges, all of the temples, in order to grow as a person and become a hero. On the idea of archetypes, each temple seems to have symbolic meaning. The most obvious symbolism is in the water temple. This temple represents being reborn and washing away your past.

This series can also act as a model for PTSD. Most people know about post-traumatic stress disorder. But, as Dr. Kelly talks about, not many people know about post-traumatic growth. This type of growth is development through adversity.

Adversity can be quite damaging, especially at a young age when we don’t have developmental tools to deal with it. But, if we can move on and use this adversity for personal growth, it can propel us forwards. In the game, Link never views himself as a victim despite all the obstacles and downfalls he faces. He is a survivor. He grows from adversity. And that’s something we can all learn from, we can grow from.

Another panelist couldn’t attend so Dr. Bean stepped in to talk about another large theme in these games: feminism. In the first few games, Zelda was a classic damsel in distress and Link was the classic hero who saved her. However, as the game series progressed, Zelda herself changes. In the later games, she is a much stronger character, and, in the newest game, outright rejects Link’s help. It brings up an interesting question, with how things are going, will we get a game where Zelda saves Link instead?

To back up the theme of feminism, Dr. Kelly posits a theory that the CBT Triangle in psychology is reflected by the Triforce. The CBT triangle is a triangle with apices representing thoughts, emotions, and behavior. All the apices are connected and affect one another. The Triforce reflects these in that its apices represent wisdom, strength, and action. Interestingly, most of the thought and wisdom in the game come from Zelda. And, most of what Link brings to the table is action. Therefore, Link would not be a hero without Zelda’s help.

Another theme posited at the panel, by Dr. Daniel, was how Majora’s Mask reflects the Kübler-Ross stages of grief. The stages of grief are as follows: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. No one person may go through these stages the same way. These stages don’t have to be in order and some stages may be entirely skipped. Dr. Daniel emphatically linked all these stages to areas in the game: denial can be linked to Clock Town, anger to the Deku King, bargaining to Snowhead, depression to The Great Bay, and acceptance to Ikana Valley.

The final theme addressed at the panel is one centered around Link’s dark reflection of himself. Grann states that Dark Link can be seen as a representation of Carl Jung’s “personal shadow”. This shadow represents the dark side of each of our personalities. This side isn’t necessarily evil, but simply a side that we reject of our own selves. Overcoming this personal shadow, this inner darkness, is an important step in Link’s journey.

This panel was definitely an eye-opener for me. I’ve previously been introduced to some of the themes represented in the Zelda series, such as the themes revolving around Majora’s Mask and Dark Link, but it was enjoyable to be introduced to new ones. I feel that because one of the panelists couldn’t attend, Dr. Rachel Kowert, we didn’t get a full rendering of feminism in the Zelda series, but the other panelists tried their best to fill in for her.

In the panel and the book, I think that they could have gone above and beyond by addressing the topic of trans/non-binary representation in the series, especially given it’s a hot topic in our society currently. Sure, it’s not necessarily a psychology theme but neither is feminism, strictly speaking. But, for me, Zelda is a wonderful game because it breaks down a lot of gender roles and stereotypes. Despite this, the panel was very entertaining and informative.

If you want to learn more about each of these themes, and many more, and how they relate to The Legend of Zelda series, grab this book. It comes out February 19th. If you’re interested in the panel itself, you can watch it on Twitch.