This Game Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us: Bootstraps, Blood, and Social Mobility in Videogames


There’s an adage that adorns class­room walls, fills self-help books, and sum­ma­rizes inspi­ra­tional speech­es in sports movies all over: you are your own worst enemy, and the great­est thing hold­ing you back is your­self. The per­va­sive­ness of this belief is large­ly symp­to­matic of a neolib­er­al cap­i­tal­ist ethos that implores peo­ple to pull them­selves up by their boot­straps, refus­ing to admit that exter­nal forces can sig­nif­i­cant­ly affect per­son­al and social advance­ment. Of course, the “your­self” that oppos­es you is not an actu­al per­son or thing, but an idea. It’s lazi­ness or incom­pe­tence, emo­tion or lack of will — in other words, a dead­ly sin as either Christianity or cap­i­tal­ism would under­stand it.

Because of the dom­i­nant design philoso­phies of videogames, the medi­um is espe­cial­ly capa­ble of explor­ing the con­cept of social mobil­i­ty. You advance through a game, accru­ing cap­i­tal on the way — in the form of coins or musi­cal notes or souls or any­thing else — and grad­u­al­ly improve both your char­ac­ter and your­self through labor. Your work pays off, as vic­to­ry brings with it neat­ly wrapped, ribbon-tied end­ings. Evil is gone, and the pro­tag­o­nist can live a reg­u­lar life; there may even be a wed­ding (between a man and a woman) and some kids. Occasionally, games con­tain moments that explore the ways in which indi­vid­ual ide­o­log­i­cal sub­jects fuel the cul­tur­al sig­nif­i­cance of social mobil­i­ty nar­ra­tives. I’ll call those moments “self-duels.” They are instances in which you, as a char­ac­ter, fight some­thing that comes from or resem­bles you (a shad­ow, a mir­ror image, or some­thing else that makes the “self” that lim­its you tan­gi­ble and defeat­able) in order to prove your mas­tery over the game and the sys­tems that run it. Self-duels also tend to pro­mote or affirm the character’s sta­tus in a social hier­ar­chy, and there­by tie your mechan­i­cal refine­ment to in-game socioe­co­nom­ic suc­cess. The char­ac­ter’s social stand­ing, then, is as mobile as your skill level.

Contextualizing self-duels in their nar­ra­tives, how­ev­er, reveals that games that appear to endorse the glo­ries of social mobil­i­ty often doubt its legit­i­ma­cy. To start, the res­o­nance of social mobil­i­ty nar­ra­tives relies on the exis­tence of clas­sist struc­tures. There must be a top toward which we can aspire, and a bot­tom away from which we can fly. Many, if not most, games pro­pose that to nav­i­gate such frame­works you must be vio­lent, whether phys­i­cal­ly or eco­nom­i­cal­ly — you usu­al­ly achieve upward mobil­i­ty in games by defeat­ing ene­mies in com­bat, and in real life by com­pet­ing in mar­kets. In the case of self-duels, you bat­tle not just the out­side other, but also your own inner being. The self thus becomes an eco­nom­ic sub­ject fash­ioned and defined by the vio­lence of rigid clas­sism. And by impli­cat­ing you in that process, self-duels con­tend that social mobil­i­ty nar­ra­tives and the ide­olo­gies they sus­tain remain rel­e­vant because indi­vid­u­als and soci­eties buy into them. We act in ways that obey com­mands to aim for high­er socioe­co­nom­ic perch­es, and in doing so lend those com­mands author­i­ty. The self-duel ulti­mate­ly sug­gests that to achieve the truest social mobil­i­ty — the kind that does not lie on beds of the tram­pled and maimed — we must oper­ate out­side of the sys­tems that vow to guide us beyond clas­sism with one hand while pin­ning us inside of it with the other.

Final Fantasy IV, released in 1991 for the SNES, fea­tures a pro­to­typ­i­cal self-duel. Toward the game’s cli­max, Cecil, the pro­tag­o­nist, learns that he must com­plete the tri­als of the aptly named Mt. Ordeals in order to defeat his arch­en­e­my. At the mountain’s peak, Cecil under­goes a rite that sees him tran­si­tion from his class as a Dark Knight into that of a Paladin. (The Final Fantasy series refers to the spe­cial­iza­tions of char­ac­ters as either “class­es” or “jobs,” which is a won­der­ful socioe­co­nom­ic phe­nom­e­non in and of itself.) Cecil’s shift is basic in its sym­bol­ism: on his quest to both redeem him­self and defeat evil, Cecil aban­dons his dark power in favor of white-washed right­eous­ness. Simple.

The straight­for­ward­ness of Cecil’s trans­for­ma­tion belies its impli­ca­tions as a process. First, the how: in order to fully become a Paladin, Cecil must defeat his reflec­tion, which mate­ri­al­izes from a wall of mir­rors and takes the shape of Cecil’s Dark Knight form. He faces the phys­i­cal man­i­fes­ta­tion of his trou­bled past in order to, in his own words, “amend [his] past guilt.” Cecil man­ages to win the fight, and his self-duel con­ve­nient­ly leads to a cookie-cutter nar­ra­tive res­o­lu­tion. After a life­time on the run — from his par­ent­less youth, the atroc­i­ties he has com­mit­ted, and more — Cecil suc­ceeds in escap­ing his past. He ends the game by restor­ing peace, mar­ry­ing his lover, Rosa, and becom­ing the crowned king of the realm of Baron. Cecil’s self-duel, then, is the pivot that sets him toward an ide­al­is­tic, tra­di­tion­al lifestyle, rem­i­nis­cent of America’s fabled white pick­et fences and house­wives clad in apron-battle armor. It is an insis­tence that social mobil­i­ty is real and reach­able, despite the events, con­di­tions, and trau­mas that might bat­ter us. We need only strive.

With the end­ing of Final Fantasy IV in mind, we can under­stand the game as a tale of suc­cess­ful social­iza­tion. Cecil achieves social redemp­tion for the things in his con­trol (like his wrongs) as well as those beyond it (like his orphan­age) by assim­i­lat­ing into homo­gene­ity. When Cecil and Rosa get mar­ried, they replace Cecil’s frac­tured geneal­o­gy with an accept­able fam­i­ly struc­ture. They are het­ero­sex­u­al, wealthy, and pow­er­ful, with the mate­r­i­al strength to rule and pros­per. In short, they are as “nor­mal” and “suc­cess­ful” as a cou­ple can be.

But Cecil’s atone­ment, in prac­tice, is super­fi­cial. Rather than seek­ing to under­stand his inner demons, Cecil shat­ters them with the same vio­lence that they rep­re­sent. This legit­imiza­tion of com­bat makes overt the vio­lent chan­nels through which social mobil­i­ty flows. Cecil bat­tles him­self to both sur­vive and dis­play his exper­tise — his self-duel is thus rem­i­nis­cent of cut­throat eco­nom­ic com­pe­ti­tion, where sur­vival of the fittest and self-interest reign. While Cecil does take in Rydia, a young vic­tim of the vio­lence that turned him toward repen­tance, he never truly makes peace with his past. He flees it, prun­ing his inner being to become an accept­able sub­ject of the social frame­works in which he is nes­tled. There is no reawak­en­ing or change that results from Cecil’s self-duel. It occurs, and Cecil con­tin­ues to atone only vio­lent­ly, by wash­ing his sins in his own blood and that of his foes. He even includes Rydia, the child that he rais­es while on his warpath, in his vio­lent cru­sade, con­struct­ing with her an upward path built of bones and death.

Final Fantasy IV thus, rather than extolling the virtues of social mobil­i­ty, prompts us to ques­tion the fate of Rydia, a child who knows noth­ing of the world but a soci­ety in which move­ment occurs only through vio­lence. At the end of the game, when an eidolon (a fan­tas­ti­cal sum­mon­able enti­ty) calls Rydia beau­ti­ful, she states that “The heart is what’s impor­tant. Right Cecil?” In future remakes of the game, this line becomes, “The most impor­tant thing is that we are alike on the inside, not on the out­side. Isn’t that right, Cecil?” Both ver­sions of Rydia’s response are com­fort­ing tes­ti­mo­ni­als to shared human­i­ty, but they crum­ble before Cecil’s actions. “We” are not all alike. If we were, Cecil would not have had to defeat his reflec­tion in order to restore the nobler aspects of his human­i­ty — he would have spo­ken with it. His inner being would have taken a dif­fer­ent shape, a more uni­ver­sal one, rather than embody­ing the wounds that haunt­ed him. The self, then, is not an untouch­able spark that grants human­i­ty the pre­or­dained abil­i­ty to work toward suc­cess. It is a flick­er, a ghost that ide­ol­o­gy con­di­tions to look and behave a cer­tain way. That Cecil must put his self to the sword is ide­o­log­i­cal sub­ju­ga­tion; a realm in which we are all mate­r­i­al and eco­nom­ic, our liveli­hoods both depen­dent on and pow­er­less against vio­lence.

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Seven years after Final Fantasy IV’s ini­tial release, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time pre­sent­ed play­ers with a slight­ly dif­fer­ent inter­pre­ta­tion of the self-duel. In the game’s Water Temple, pro­tag­o­nist Link bat­tles an all-black palette swap of him­self, Dark Link, who tells you to “Conquer your­self!” This fight takes place atop a bed of water, which lit­er­al­izes the nature of the self-duel. It is an act of vio­lent reflec­tion, self-realization, and val­i­da­tion. However, Link’s func­tion as a char­ac­ter makes dis­cern­ing the nar­ra­tive mean­ing of his self-duel a bit dif­fi­cult. The Legend of Zelda games don’t fea­ture voice act­ing, which caus­es dia­logue in their worlds to feel muted (out­side of your head, at least). But, Link ups the ante of silence by refrain­ing from talk­ing at all. There are no text boxes that tell us what Link says or thinks, so, in a way, he is the per­fect role-playing char­ac­ter. We con­trol not only his rolls and sword swings, but also his thoughts. Absent our but­ton press­es and imag­i­na­tive extrap­o­la­tion, Link is a dummy, empty and wait­ing.

Therefore, to make sense of Link’s self-duel, we must ana­lyze the con­text of the game world. Dark Link doesn’t appear to have any nar­ra­tive sig­nif­i­cance bind­ing him to the Water Temple. He is sim­ply there, wait­ing for Link, in a cham­ber that might have housed him for­ev­er. His pres­ence in the dun­geon thus seems to be the­mat­ic more than any­thing else. He is a reflec­tion in a reflec­tive room in a ruin filled with the earth’s most basic unit of reflec­tion. But what does Link gain from fight­ing his shad­ow, besides the item that awaits him, nes­tled in a trea­sure chest and promis­ing progress through the game world?

The nar­ra­tive con­text of Link’s self-duel requires some suss­ing out, but proves to be fair­ly straight­for­ward. The game takes place in two parts — one in which Link is a child, and anoth­er in which he is a young adult. Link vis­its the Water Temple as an adult, but, in his child­hood, he had saved Princess Ruto (a mem­ber of the Zora peo­ple for whom the Water Temple is a sacred site) from dan­ger. An inter­est­ing thing hap­pened when Link saved Princess Ruto: she engaged her­self to him. Link had been look­ing for the Zora’s Sapphire, the third of a trio of jew­els that Princess Zelda (anoth­er princess, this one of the land of Hyrule) had sent him to recov­er. Before giv­ing it to Link, Ruto explained, “My moth­er gave it to me and said I should give it only to the man who will be my hus­band. You might call it the Zora’s engage­ment ring!” Link was obliv­i­ous to what that meant — the text that appears upon your obtain­ment of the Sapphire says, “Her most pre­cious pos­ses­sion? You don’t know what she’s talk­ing about, but you’ve final­ly col­lect­ed all three Spiritual Stones!” The game reminds you that, although flat­ter­ing, Ruto’s crush on Link is not his main con­cern. He has final­ly com­plet­ed the task with which Zelda entrust­ed him, and he can now run to her, gal­lant­ly, with prize in hand.

Link, with word­less devo­tion, very clear­ly loves Zelda. She ush­ers him from his life as an other — he is an orphan in a seclud­ed vil­lage in which he is the only mem­ber of his race — into one of hero­ism. Link’s adven­ture is his courtship, as he runs to the ends of the earth for Zelda, com­mit­ting years of his life to pre­vent the fruition of the storms in her night­mares. He goes above and beyond for his love, col­lect­ing not one but three pre­cious stones to appease her. As had like­ly been the case with the play­er, Link was an unaware indi­vid­ual wrapped up in an old-fashioned life tra­jec­to­ry. He worked in order to earn the pos­ses­sion of valu­able gems that would bind him to a woman — his jour­ney through­out Hyrule was an endeav­or akin to a gru­el­ing trek to the jew­el­ry store. That the game clos­es with Zelda send­ing Link back in time to his child­hood is Ocarina of Time’s rather painful, con­trar­i­an con­tri­bu­tion to the social mobil­i­ty nar­ra­tive: you can check all the boxes and jump through all the hoops, but, some­times, the world has a way of keep­ing things from you. Your boot­straps might be a lit­tle too far from your hands, your goals of social mobil­i­ty and its rewards might be a few sys­tems and life­times and his­to­ries away, and the princess might remain all that her title implies — high­er, dis­tant, and impos­si­ble.

Link’s con­flict with Dark Link, then, is not as cen­tral to his expe­ri­ence with social mobil­i­ty as Cecil’s self-duel was. But Dark Link him­self is a ques­tion mark — he might be the unknow­able ver­sion of Link that said yes to Ruto, ded­i­cat­ing him­self to her instead of Zelda. Perhaps falling in love with the for­mer would have yield­ed a more ful­fill­ing life than the one that Link lives, result­ing in suc­cess and fam­i­ly rather than a forced return to the past. Dark Link is the pos­si­bil­i­ty that Link is doomed to repeat his cycle of work and aging and heart­break, to keep fac­ing his inner dark­ness in the Water Temple, for­ev­er. To con­tin­ue return­ing to his gen­e­sis after Zelda thanks and aban­dons him anew. To work a life­time’s worth of work, again and again, only to learn that, in his case, love and labor aren’t enough.

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The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, released almost 17 years after Ocarina of Time, car­ries the torch with which Link set out in a vari­ety of ways. Kingdoms in dis­tress? Check. Love tri­an­gles? Check. A nar­ra­tive with the com­plex­i­ties of social mobil­i­ty at its roots? Check plus.

Geralt of Rivia, the game’s pro­tag­o­nist and its tit­u­lar witch­er, appears to fol­low the lin­eage of Cecil and Link to embody the pur­suit of social mobil­i­ty. Witchers are indi­vid­u­als who, after hav­ing gone through rig­or­ous train­ing and alchemy-induced muta­tions, hunt beasts and crea­tures with the use of their super­hu­man sens­es and com­bat abil­i­ties. The rar­i­ty and super­nat­ur­al nature of witch­ers feed into a myr­i­ad of stig­mas, caus­ing Geralt to expe­ri­ence the world as a per­son always on the fringes of soci­ety. But the way that Geralt finds a socioe­co­nom­ic place for him­self is the very thing that oth­ers him: his job of slay­ing mon­sters. He destroys enti­ties more dan­ger­ous and men­ac­ing than him, and there­by pro­vides social util­i­ty and receives accep­tance.

An easy-to-miss side quest con­tains a self-duel that speaks to the com­plex nature of Geralt’s work. After track­ing down a dop­pel­gänger that had been steal­ing from mer­chants in the city of Novigrad, Geralt faces the deceiv­er in com­bat. Immediately prior to the fight, the dop­pel­gänger morphs into a phys­i­cal clone of Geralt. The ensu­ing bat­tle proves anti­cli­mac­tic, though, as the faux-witcher sur­ren­ders after a few swings of Geralt’s blade. Geralt has a vic­to­ri­ous quip locked and loaded, as always: “Might be able to look like a witch­er, but that won’t make you fight like one.” Geralt doesn’t admon­ish the dop­pel­gänger for imi­tat­ing his image, as what mat­ters is not how he looks, but how he fights — or, in other words, how he func­tions as an eco­nom­ic actor, given that his work con­sists of killing fiends for a liv­ing. Because ulti­mate­ly, Geralt’s job title is the name of the game, the engine of its plot and play, as well as the ver­bal judg­ment that passers­by spit at him like venom or a slur. If his effec­tive­ness were to lose its value, Geralt would be noth­ing, the skin on a defeat­ed dop­pel­gänger.

However, rather than cement­ing Geralt in a lin­ear social spec­trum, Geralt’s self-duel proves that he oper­ates inde­pen­dent­ly of clas­sist divides. It is telling that, after defeat­ing the dop­pel­gänger, you have the choice to either kill it or let it live. Geralt is con­tent in his place beyond the struc­tures that would bind his move­ment, killing not out of self-interested pur­suits of strength, but to fur­ther his mis­sion of pro­tect­ing his loved ones. His spurn­ing of the soci­eties around him allows him to swift­ly move between the ranks of their fun­da­men­tal­ly clas­sist frame­works, deal­ing just as often with ban­dits and thieves as he does kings. Geralt there­fore evokes idyl­lic social mobil­i­ty, but the way that he attains that mobil­i­ty is mean­ing­ful. He does not enter his self-duel with wish­es of meta­mor­pho­sis (in fact, he rejects the dop­pel­gänger as a reflec­tion of him­self, total­ly aware that it is a sep­a­rate being), nor does he work toward upward social move­ment. His only goal is to save his daughter-like ward, Ciri. He is vio­lent, yes, but sole­ly because the world is vio­lent to its core; because he must sur­vive to ensure Ciri’s sur­vival.

One of the game’s mul­ti­ple end­ings sees Geralt fully real­ize his repu­di­a­tions of clas­sism. After he secures Ciri’s safe­ty, he even­tu­al­ly retires to a life of quaint romance with Yennefer, the sor­cer­ess. So unlike Cecil, Geralt does not become a king, but unlike Link, he does end the game changed. He reach­es a life removed from soci­ety and the socioe­co­nom­ic stra­ta into which it breaks up its sub­jects. This might seem at odds with an ear­li­er, overt appeal that The Witcher 3 makes to the poten­tial of social mobil­i­ty: Jad Karadin, a witcher-turned-merchant, explains his change in pro­fes­sion by stat­ing that “Not one among us does­n’t dream of chang­ing our life. I sim­ply did not stop at dream­ing.” But Geralt’s jour­ney attests to the power of see­ing beyond hege­mon­ic nar­ra­tives and ide­olo­gies, and caus­es the “dream” of which Karadin speaks to rep­re­sent some­thing greater than the cap­i­tal­ist American one — some­thing clear­er and freer.

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There are many char­ac­ter­is­tics and con­di­tions that unite Cecil, Link, and Geralt. All three heroes are par­ent­less out­siders who, to vary­ing degrees, work with the well­be­ing of their fam­i­lies and friends in mind. They all also inter­act with roy­al­ty to vary­ing degrees: Cecil becomes a king, Link defends the daugh­ter of one, and Geralt par­lays with var­i­ous wield­ers of absolute power. The crowned rulers with whom the pro­tag­o­nists deal stand in for the elite atop soci­eties orga­nized around socioe­co­nom­ic imbal­ances, and the dif­fer­ing lev­els of indi­vid­ual change that Cecil, Link, and Geralt achieve all speak to the prin­ci­ple, or myth, of social mobil­i­ty. Sometimes, you can’t move — and when you can, you do so with vio­lence.

Self-duels are reminders that the union between you, games, and ide­ol­o­gy doesn’t end when the dol­lars leave your hand or drip from your bank account. It often per­sists with every meet­ing between you and con­troller, and with each mechan­i­cal con­ver­sa­tion and breath of pix­e­lat­ed air. Indeed, so much of what we find reward­ing about videogames owes itself to the ide­olo­gies that have shaped our lives. It feels sat­is­fy­ing to find rupees in trea­sure chests, and to scav­enge gold coins from corpses, because our mus­cles and the backs of our minds wel­come the acqui­si­tion of socioe­co­nom­ic cap­i­tal and the bet­ter­ment — how­ev­er mate­r­i­al — of our selves. So the self-duel doesn’t stop at the brink between the pro­tag­o­nist and the screen. It rum­bles with­in you, reach­ing com­ple­tion when the end cred­its roll and you have shown the game and your­self that you are done, devel­oped, and inde­struc­tible.


Niv M. Sultan

About Niv M. Sultan

Niv M. Sultan is a freelance writer currently working with an education nonprofit in Washington, D.C. He lets his video games and books mingle on the shelf, loves discussing the socioeconomics of pop culture, and plans on making the most of his new record player. You can follow him on Twitter @magnivicence.