I’m guessing about, I dunno, 50% of you or thereabouts had a teddy bear when they were a kid. Or still do. The figure for that is about 30% of adults still have ’em. I’m not here to judge. We’ve still got a giant elephant in our closet that we haven’t been able to give away (because of, uh, reasons). Point is, we can get attached to inanimate objects. Or rather, we get attached to insentient objects because while I’ve been gaming these long twenty years past there have been moments, and I’m sure some of you might know what I’m talking about, when you’ve gotten attached either to some in-game object or an NPC.
Let’s talk about Halo 2 for a second. Now, I came to the Halo games very very late as I was on the Playstation consoles up until November last year. Wasn’t blown away by the story or the main characters (playing the games in reverse order probably didn’t help) but what I did notice was that the marines in this particular iteration were much more varied than in the other games. And, as is usual for a Halo game, you can also give them any gun you happen to be carrying which can turn any stumbling bullet-magnet into a vehicle-crushing bad-ass. And this of course led to the inevitable; I started to develop attachments for particular marines.
So my experience of Halo 2 was less ‘Ultimate Towering Badass Super-Soldier’, more ‘Fretting Hyper-Anxious Overly-Protective Parent/Guardian’. I spent most missions creeping cautiously about, or going ahead to clear the way so that no-one in my little clique would get hurt. If someone went down, the game was getting paused (after a long and lengthy ‘NOOOOOOO’ as their body goes tumbling about the room of course, as tradition dictates) to seriously consider the consequences of a restart. In fact, my main memory of the game wasn’t when whats-his-face was killed, or when that…other stuff happened. It was the sight of a sword-wielding Elite running toward Middle-Aged Marine Lady and her Spartan Laser of Justice and knowing that it was already too late. This after she carried me through most of the level on the hardest difficulty with her dead-eye aimbot skills and bellowing at any marine who dare complain of a little plasma to the face. Needless to say, there was grief all over the place.
There’s been a lot of games where similar phenomena have cropped up. Remember Elum, Abe’s trusty steed, from Abe’s Odyssey? What about individual Pikmin? Mass Effect 3 spawned hero worship over a generic enemy ‘Marauder Shields’, one of the last you fight in the trilogy. Anyone who’s played Pokemon will not have failed to develop some kind of affection for their team, despite any one of those guys being immediately and instantly replaceable with another, near-identical ‘copy’. I also imagine the old XCOM players of yore have had at least one soldier that’s defied the odds time and again to maybe earn themselves a little soft spot in the hardened gamer’s cracked and crusty heart. And you would have to be hard of heart indeed to drop that Companion Cube of yours into the furnace without a second thought.
So what triggers the attachment? Or more to the point, what triggers the need to implant personality or belonging onto either an object or an NPC? I had a gander at some papers which studied the psychology that goes behind teddy bears, safety blankets, and their ilk and came across some interesting findings. Seems that its not uncommon for teddy bears and other ‘doodads’ to be anthropomorphised; that is, treating them like sentient ‘dudes’. Why? Because it ‘evokes a sense of peace, security, and comfort. Its human nature to crave these feelings from childhood to adult life’ (Llorens, 2011; yeah, a reference, getting all academical up in here).
Teddy bears, or emotional surrogates, are counters to inevitable stresses created by accumulative social exclusions and/or stress that people invariably encounter in their day-to-days (Jarret, 2011). In Gaming, these surrogates have naturally popped up as NPCs who are ‘stock’ and often have little to no characterisation, a ‘blank slate’ as it were. And once they’ve been around long enough, or have performed some in-game action or feat that brings attention to them or marks them out as ‘individual’, this then ‘prompts’ the player to provide their own stamp of characterisation to them, turning them into personal creations of immediate emotional connection for the player.
So the next time you get overly attached to a hapless NPC who’s following you around for whatever reason, or you won’t trade your flaming wreck of a vehicle for a new one, or you refuse to leave a particular block behind as you move to the next puzzle, remember that what you’re essentially carting around is the new-age equivalent of the teddy bear and safety blanket. And his name is Stan. And he can get three miles to the gallon while nailing 720 front-flips, thank you very much.