Finding It Hard to Be a Knight?

A friend of mine is dissatisfied with the modern world—its strip malls and ATM machines, its speed limits and mediated experiences. "I would rather try my luck at a horde of orcs with a broad sword," he says, "than pay the Visa bill and look for parking."

He pines for days when life seemed to be constructed around heroic deeds rather than menial mouse clicks. Millions of others also long to escape into brave new worlds: Fantasy and science fiction are now front and center in our culture. Nine of the top 10 all-time, worldwide movie box-office kings are Lord of the Rings- or Harry Potter- based (or else conjure up rival science fiction/fantasy empires like Star Wars). Last year, J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix sold 12.2 million copies to become the biggest-selling book in the U.S. in 2003. Throw in piles of Xbox shoot-'em-up games, and you could say the geeks have inherited the Earth.

Why the surge in popularity? Legendary sociologist Norbert Elias suggested that in an increasingly structured society, fantasy books, games and movies create arenas for the "controlled decontrolling" of emotions. It's not socially acceptable to duel that surly human resources director with a stapler gun at 20 paces, and destroying a castle with a trebuchet isn't an option for the average white-collar worker. Instead, against a backdrop of magic and myth, heroic fantasy allows us to prove our mettle by saving some parallel world from easily identifiable bad guys.

Futuristic and magical scenarios now dominate because the cops-and-robbers thrillers and cowboys-and-Indians yarns of decades past just don't fit in our "increasingly multiethnic, culturally relativistic and journalistically examined world," says Gerard Jones, media scholar and author of Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes and Make-Believe Violence. No matter your politics, war stories or police stories just don't offer the same release anymore. "We can still enjoy police fantasies, but even those bring in so many complex political and ethical issues now that most of us can't really surrender to a wide-open good-guy vs. bad-guy fantasy in police garb. So stories of magic worlds, other planets and superheroes become our substitute."

Escaping to another dimension is normal: Most people spend about half of their time daydreaming and fantasizing, says psychologist Steven Jay Lynn, professor at the State University of New York at Binghamton and co-author of The Monster in the Cave: How to Face Your Fear and Anxiety and Live Your Life. "Daydreams and fantasy play a vital role in everyday life," he says. "They inspire us, regulate our moods and help us contemplate future possibilities."

That includes the possibility of violence and even evil. Parents who crusade against felonious games like Grand Theft Auto: Vice City may not want to hear it, but idolizing villains and identifying with the Darth Vaders and Lord Voldemorts can be liberating, says Jones. As children, play and fantasy let us practice what we will be later in life—as well as what we will never be. "Fantasies of physical conflict and danger have been branded 'violent' in recent decades by people who don't trust or understand them, but they can be some of the most basic, most natural and most valuable tools a child can have for the hard work of growing up," he says. Kids with the greatest anxiety about risk and the greatest reservations about exploring their own strength and destructive potential have the most urgent need for fantasy, Jones says.

But while children role-play to explore themselves, in adulthood the game changes. Grown-ups turn to fantasy for stress relief, Jones says. They also identify with make-believe heroes, seeing them as guides for self-improvement. Unfortunately, most shoot-'em-up games are so shallow that players gain no personal insight, says John Suler, a professor of psychology at Rider University in New Jersey and author of The Psychology of Cyberspace. He believes the most beneficial heroic narratives depict essential human struggles: betrayal, revenge and overcoming great odds. "In everyday living, we re-enact the classic conflicts and victories of the hero. We may not be slaying actual dragons, but the monsters in our lives and psyche pose no less a threat," he says. "A good hero story or computer-mediated re-enactment crystallizes in a vivid and symbolic form the challenges we face in everyday life—and a really good story offers us ideas as to how to surmount those challenges." Suler says games like Everquest and SimsOnline, which create a complex social structure and let players assume roles, can instruct us.

In Western culture, "how to be a hero" instruction has roots that go back to 12th century Norse sagas and ancient-Greek epic poems, points out University of Michigan Law School professor William Ian Miller, author of The Mystery of Courage. These legends taught both psychological and moral lessons, and pointed the way to bravery. "In Icelandic sagas, the character would say, 'I have not yet done anything saga-like,'" Miller says. "This type of epic wasn't just escape, but was designed to fantasize yourself into this action and this behavior." These heroic narratives featured imperfect characters who accomplished great things, despite their flaws.

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