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Identifying Core Psychological Themes in the Legend of Zelda Video Game Series: A Focus on music learning, personality change and Jungian archetypes

By Derek Laffan

Role-playing video games (RPGs), such as the “Legend of Zelda” (LoZ), are becoming increasingly popular in households and schools worldwide [1]. It can be argued that RPGs are not just entertaining, but they are also enriched with psychological themes. Identifying psychological themes found in video games, further demonstrates the role of applying psychology in popular culture, and also demonstrates how video game developers use psychological phenomena to conceptualize storylines in game design [2].

This article seeks to identify and expand on various core psychological themes found in the LoZ video-game series. The psychological themes explored within highlight educational, psychoanalytic and personality features found in various LoZ video games, Why the LoZ? This popular video game series has been a fan favorite since 1986; Games Radar placed various LoZ titles in the top 100 of the greatest video games of all time (with “Wind Waker” securing second place). In recent years, the LoZ video game series has sparked so much interest that in 2012, an international orchestra, the Zelda Symphony of the Goddesses, was organized to promote the LoZ video-game music as an established genre of music.

About the Legend of Zelda

Aside from differentiating storylines, almost all of the LoZ video games are single player RPGs that involve puzzle solving, exploration of vast worlds, and first person action battling. The most recent LoZ video game is “Majora’s Mask 3D,” which was released on the Nintendo 3DS console earlier this year.

The LoZ storylines usually involve a character called Link, who sets out on a pre-destined journey to save the land of Hyrule from the evil desert king, Ganondorf. Various LoZ titles include this storyline: “Ocarina of Time,” “A Link to the Past,” “The Legend of Zelda,” and “Wind Waker.” Though other LoZ variations exist and have alternative storylines.

The LoZ games contain many psychological themes that gamers are exposed to every time they play. Although when gaming, the gamer is already experiencing a variety of psychological phenomena such as goal attainment, overcoming obstacles and problem solving, volitional play, and processing feedback [3]. It should also be noted previous attempts have been made to explain the psychological phenomena in LoZ video games, however it can be argued they were lacking in theoretical and empirical sources.

Core Psychological Themes

The core psychological themes are based upon signature appearances in related LoZ video games. The core themes include: music learning in “Ocarina of Time,” personality change in “Majora’s Mask,” and Jungian archetypes found in “Wind Waker” and “Skyward Sword.” Furthermore, the identified themes are not exhaustive and are not solely limited to specific LoZ video games. These three core psychological themes are thus explored.

Music Learning

In “Ocarina of Time” (OOT), introduced a new musical concept to the LoZ series that involves the gamer using the control pad to play a musical instrument; the ocarina. Playing the ocarina is an essential part of OOT gameplay. Link uses the ocarina to show his connection to the Hyrule Royal Family, to communicate with allies such as Saria and Navi, teleport to various dungeon locations, create rainstorms, turn night into day, call upon the horse Epona, and communicate with the dead. In order to play the ocarina, the gamer must use the control pad buttons and play the songs correctly from memory.

Playing the ocarina gives the video gamer a sense of understanding music composition and performance. This is an important aspect in relation to music education. For example, video games have been described as the ultimate education tool for music learning because of how accessible and engaging video games are [4]. Additionally, music games have the ability to make “work” feel like “play.” This poses as an educational advantage in order to encourage young people to learn about music [5].

One of the key processes that makes video games engaging for music learning is flow. Flow has been described as a process of optimal performance and occurs when people are deeply engaged in an activity so intensely that everything else becomes oblivious [6]. The flow experience has been listed as one of the reasons why professional musicians re-engage with music performance [7], and as the rationale for including games in the music classroom [8].

Though arguably video games with a physical instrument toy attached (such as “Guitar Hero” or “Rock Band”) may be advantageous when it comes to learning how to physically produce music [4], the “Legend of Zelda” OOT also incorporates self-determination features such as exploring a vast world, mastery of control functions such as sword techniques, and elaborate state of the art graphic features [8, 9]. Based on this argument, OOT may be more advantageous in engaging the learner in music composition and execution over other music-themed video games because of the additional gaming components demonstrated in OOT.

Personality Change

Similarly as in OOT, “Majora’s Mask” (MM) requires the gamer to use the ocarina to progress through the game. However, it can be argued a more prominent psychological theme emerges when the gamer plays MM—personality change. The storyline of MM involves an evil Skull Kid who takes possession of the demonic Majora’s mask and puts a curse on the moon to destroy the earth in three days. Link must progress through the game collecting and using a variety of masks in order to obtain the mask from Skull Kid before the three days are up.

How personality is associated with MM is literally in the meaning. The word “persona” means mask and is the basis for the concept of personality. When psychologists talk about personality, they normally mention how stable, internal, consistent, and how different factors that explain people’s behavior are [10]. In the context of MM, putting on the Deku mask for instance, transforms Link into a Deku Shrub and only allows him to use certain functions (stable), those functions can only be used when Link wears the Deku mask (internal). Link will act like a Deku Shrub every time he wears the Deku mask (consistency), and will act differently in certain situations if he wears another mask (different).

This personality change theme is also evident in the behaviors of Skull Kid, the primary antagonist of MM. Skull Kid is seen as a happy-go-lucky and mischievous character until he comes across the Mask Man and steals Majora’s mask, which is cursed. When Skull Kid puts on the mask his personality changes drastically. Je begins displaying acts of selfishness, violence, and narcissism. The personality formation of Skull Kid has previously been examined in a blog posted on the Zelda Dungeon fan site [11]. The author explains Skull Kid’s personality is represented by the Moon Children who can be found inside the moon. However, it is difficult to determine whether the Moon Children actually represent the personality of Skull Kid before or after he wears the mask because of the complex behaviors that are associated with wearing the mask, and the pre-existing behaviors associated with Skull Kid in previous LoZ video games.

Jungian Archetypes  

Nonetheless, Skull Kid himself is a notable recurring character in the LoZ video games. He is often seen as a joker who plays tricks on Link throughout the video games. In the personality theories of Carl Jung, the joker is an archetype of a person’s collective unconscious [12]. This means underneath the persona that was described earlier, people also have repressed behaviors unaware to them, which can appear as images that represent these repressed behaviors. If this theory is to be supported in the LoZ video games, then it can be argued recurring characters may be representative as archetypes of Link’s collective unconscious.

Many of the LoZ video games have recurring characters such as Link, Princess Zelda, Skull Kid, Malon, Talon, Epona, Ganondorf, Navi, and the Great Deku Tree. Each character may represent an archetype of Link’s collective unconscious. Ganondorf may act as the “shadow”—an archetype associated with the darker side of personality. The shadow represents jealous, primitive, and uncivilized behaviors that most people would not use to describe themselves. Additionally in “Wind Waker,” a character called Tetra, comes across as competitive towards her male pirate counterparts and embraces certain perceivable “masculine-like” behaviors such as flexing her muscles and out performing other pirates. This can be seen in a quote by Tetra below, who at the time was with her “sawabbies” trying to rob the bomb shop:

Tetra: “Alll right! Fine! Have it your way! We can leave town tomorrow, you big babies. But we're setting sail at first light, so no sleeping in! Understood?”

Pirates: (yelling) “Aye-aye!”

Tetra may be considered as the “animus” archetype. Carl Jung described the animus as the repressed masculine personality features that females possess.

The flipside of the animus archetype, is the “anima” archetype. In “Skyward Sword,” the character Ghirahim, the prime villain, may represent this anima archetype. Ghirahim caused controversy when he licked Link’s face in an effort to be villainous and distracting. As a reaction to this, many LoZ fans took to magazines such as Zelda Informer, to discuss how Nintendo made Ghirahim as an outdated offensive stereotype of a homosexual character [13]. However, the Jungian archetype of the anima, which has been bestowed upon Ghirahim in the present article, may refute these claims of stereotype, and portray Ghirahim as the intended character that he was meant to be.

Summary

Although the core psychological themes of music learning, personality change, and Jungian archetypes were identified and explored in the context of various LoZ video games, some limitations must be noted. “Ocarina of Time,” “Majora’s Mask,” Jungian “Wind Waker,” and “Skyward Sword” are LoZ video games that were released from 1998 onwards. It is possible that other themes may explain the aforementioned psychological phenomena more satisfactorily, if you consider the many LoZ video games that existed prior 1998 and the recent LoZ video games that were not mentioned here. Should this be the case, other researchers are invited to critique this article with references to theory and empirical studies that support their principle arguments.

Future LoZ articles could also focus on how the educational aspects (such as music learning in OOT) impacts children’s learning in classroom settings. Additionally, future articles could also identify how LoZ video games have played either a supportive or hindering role in the personality formation of individuals. Either way, it remains the LoZ video game series continues to be a much anticipated and popular video-game series, and will continue to be a source of psychological phenomena that enriches and promotes many psychological schools of thought.

References

[1] Entertainment Software Association. Essential facts about the video game industry. 2014. Retrieved from http://www.theesa.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/ESA_EF_2014.pdf

[2] Adams, E.  Fundamentals of Game Design (3rd eds.). Pearson Education Inc. 2014.

[3] McGonigal, J. Reality is broken. Why games make us better and how they can change the world. Johnathon Cape, London, 2001

[4] Hein, E. (2014). Music games in education. Learning, Education and Games Volume One: Curricular and design considerations. 2014. Retrieved from http://press.etc.cmu.edu/files/Learning-Education-Games_Schreier-etal-web.pdf

[5] Dillon, S. Music, Meaning and Transformation: Meaningful music making for life.  Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Newcastle, UK, 2007.

[6] Csíkszentmihályi, M.  Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. Harper Perennial Modern Classics, New York, 2009.

[7] Lamont, A. Emotion, engagement and meaning in strong experiences of music performancePsychology of Music 40 (2012), 574-594.

[8]  Przybylski, A. K., Rigby, C.S., and Ryan, R. M.  A motivational model of video game engagement. Review of General Psychology 14 (2010), 154-166.

[9] Ryan, R. M., and Deci, E. L. (2000). The darker and brighter sides of human existence: Basic psychological needs as a unifying concept. Psychological Inquiry 11 (2000), 319-338.

[10] Child, I. L. Personality in culture. In E. Borgatta and W. W. Lambert (Eds.). Handbook of Personality Theory and Research (pp. 80- 101). Rand McNally, Chicago, 1968.

[11] Freddie.  Majora’s Mask: The psychology of the Moon Children. Zelda Dungeon.net Articles. 2011. Retrieved from http://www.zeldadungeon.net/2011/08/majoras-mask-the-psychology-of-the-moon-children/.

[12] Fordham, F. An introduction to Jung's psychology: Archetypes. Mambo Open Source. 2004. Retrieved http://www.abuddhistlibrary.com/Buddhism/F-%20Miscellaneous/General%20Miscellaneous/An%20Introduction%20to%20Jung's%20Psychology/III.pdf.

[13] Zelda Informer. Is Ghirahim offensive? 2012. Retrieved from http://www.zeldainformer.com/news/is-ghirahim-offensive#.VamQPvlViko.

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