Tower Defence Games As A Psychological Metaphor

I’m not particularly good at any video game genre, unless Tetris can be considered a genre all on its own. Naturally I have my shining moments, but these tend to occur at times when there is no one around to respond positively when I shout, “Did you see that?” except for, of course, my cat, who never pays attention anyway and doesn’t like it when I shout.

My problem has always been playing games with or in front of other people, and this is especially true for shooters. I’ve recognised this to be yet another downside of paranoia, a condition from which I frequently suffer. This mental disorder knows no bounds for me. I can be just as paranoid about people in other cars hearing or seeing me sing along to the radio as I am when walking down an alley past what appears to be a gang. I compare myself to an ever-ready feline — even the slightest stray from the norm sends me clutching to the ceiling. It’s the only acrobatic upside of believing that everyone is trying to kill you.

My inability to relax in even intimate public settings throws off my dexterity and makes me twitchy to the point that gaming superbly is near impossible. It’s the reason I hesitate to demo games at video game expos; I fear that important people or fans will witness me fail and deem me a horrible gamer unworthy of journalistic commentary, and this loss of credibility will get me fired from every outlet and I won’t be able to pay rent next month.

This kind of thought process is so common to me, it’s become comfortable. I’m comfortable being in a state of discomfort.

I moved in with two roommates recently because living alone in Southern California was beginning to wear on me, likely because of all the gangs. My new roomies don’t do a lot of video gaming, but they both occasionally reflect on their more fancy-free (read: “unemployed”) days when they were obsessed with a certain game called PixelJunk Monsters. This game wasn’t on my radar. In fact, I’d never even heard of it — and I pride myself on above-average game knowledge.

“What’s PixelJunk Monsters?” I asked them. They exchanged a glance, and exhaled with frustration. “Only the greatest game ever made,” one of them responded. I assured them if it were truly the greatest game ever made, I would have heard of it. “And to think we let you live here,” said the other one, shaking his head in disappointment. Only part of me was paranoid that they weren’t joking.

Days later, while cleaning up a corner of this bachelor pad that contained an inflatable Anaheim Ducks goalie, a windbreaker that the boys weren’t sure had been peed on or not, and a naked three-foot-tall plastic doll nicknamed “Olivia,” I found a surprisingly large stack of papers from 2008. Pages and pages of printed out pictures and text, covered with scribbles and notes — they were PixelJunk Monsters cheat sheets.

Ah, it was a tower defence game! I couldn’t believe it: the amount of planning and strategising done by two grown men for some animated PlayStation arcade title. You’d think they’d be doing something more adult, like betting away their rent money in a fantasy baseball league.

Out of every game genre, tower defence is the most unfamiliar to me. I don’t have a particular reason for avoiding these types of games; they’ve just never reached out and grabbed me. Looking further into this genre felt like I was discovering underground music that maybe wasn’t known for topping mainstream charts, but seemed appealing in its own unique way. I’m confident people will say that same thing one day about my band, The Ally McBeal Surprise.

I’ve noticed that one of my roommates, Shawn, plays tower defence games constantly, even on his iPhone, and the one he particularly loves is called Dungeon Defenders on the PlayStation Network. One night, I watched him play this game for literally hours, watching him go back and forth from each of his characters trying to level them up equally while quickly prepping his turrets and weapons before the next wave of enemies burst through the doors to invade his humble dungeon. As I watched, I came to a haunting realization:

Tower defence games are a metaphor for how humans mentally protect themselves from the world and other humans that inhabit it.

Note the process: Shawn’s character, Henry, a squire, finds himself in a dungeon. He knows everything about his dungeon — the location of the stairs, the treasure chests, the points of entry, and most importantly, where the “Eternia Crystal” is. This Crystal, in the centre of the room, is of great importance to Henry. Shawn had no interest in watching the informative cutscenes since he wanted to get right to the killin’, so it’s unclear whether this Crystal possesses evil, holds a deep, dark secret, or is just worth a whole lot of Dungeon Dollars.

Henry collects Mana and purchases several types of towers, turrets, and large spinning death traps in preparation for the forthcoming swarm of goblins and nasty creatures with pointy swords/bad attitudes. Henry has no idea how many enemies will be bursting through the doors or how strong they will be. Henry simply must prepare as efficiently as possible with the small amount of Mana at his disposal.

When time runs out or Shawn hits “go” or something, I wasn’t really paying attention, the first wave of enemies attack his dungeon. Batten down the hatches, Henry! Towers fight back, while Henry runs around frantically booping monsters on the head with his sword until they disappear into sweet points. Finally, WAVE CLEARED appears on the screen, and relief is exhaled by all. A fine battle. Now to prepare for the next one.

It’s funny to me that no matter how strong Henry becomes, regardless of his weapon upgrades or reaching the Level cap, he is always a squire or, “knight-in-training.” It appears that he never develops into a real knight or a king or something. He simply keeps fighting the good fight without any promise that a job promotion is in his future.

I think I have a lot in common with Henry. Not only do I similarly seem to keep plugging along in life, lionhearted and persistent in my professional endeavours until something fabulous alters my path, but moreso I relate to his incessant tower building. I, too, put up defences all the time, but not in the form of flaming arrow turrets outside my bedroom door. Though, rooming with two boys makes me think that wouldn’t be an entirely unhilarious idea.

My brain is my dungeon. I’m strongly familiar with just about every corner of my mind, except for the uncharted territories as a result from cheating my way through calculus. I know how I feel about people, I know my secrets, and I know I’m not as cool as people think I am. Or, maybe I’m exactly as cool as people think I am, because I’ve finally learned the difference between cool and what people perceive to be cool. Cool in my 1990’s middle school isn’t considered cool now, so it’s each individual’s mental battle to endlessly reevaluate what they personally think is cool to coincide with the ebb and flow of coolness according to society. This is why I hate fashion.

Everyone is playing a real life tower defence game at all times because, to some extent, every single person is full of shit. Very few people present themselves as they really are, but rather present themselves as how they want to be perceived — and that’s when we start building defence towers.

Say you’re a self-taught Photoshop master interviewing with a company that’s looking for an “experienced graphic designer.” You meet four out of the 10 listed job requirements, but you’re not going to let that stop you. Time to build your towers. Questions from the interviewer are going to come from all different directions and you have no clue how strong they’ll be.

Attack: “Are you proficient in Adobe InDesign and Illustrator as well?” he asks.

Defence: “I definitely know my way around the interface of Adobe programs, yes.”

I’ve never touched either of those programs, but how hard can they be?

Attack: “We all work on PCs here, so I hope you’re not a Mac guy.”

Defence: “Great, I’ve worked in Windows since I was five.”

And by that I mean I haven’t touched Windows since I was five.

And the final attack on your big secret, your “Eternia Crystal”:

Attack: “Where did you say you went to college for design?”

Defence: “Actually, it’s funny. I come from a family of self-taught designers and programmers. Even my dad found that university classes teach the basics really well, but it’s more important to just keep working in the program every day to develop your own techniques, that are usually more efficient. It’s worked out really well for me. Like father, like son.”

In other words, I’ve never stepped foot inside a college. Please still hire me.

Your secrets were successfully kept, you defended your image against attacks, and hopefully, you’re now an employed graphic designer.

If you don’t have insecurities, you’re either not human or oblivious/in denial. Being insecure about yourself usually just means you hold others’ opinions very highly — which, in a roundabout way, is how you demonstrate respect for those around you. This respect may or may not be misplaced, but it’s present nonetheless. How we deal with insecurities is the same way Henry deals with intruding goblins. We prepare for encounters with people around us and throw up specific barriers to protect our secrets. This is how we control the way people perceive us, and how cool we are. This is how we “defend our dungeon.”

Hell, even adjusting my Facebook privacy settings is a tower defence game, but that’s really getting into a whole different argument.

I realise this is an over-analysis of tower defence games; I’m sure you’ll next expect me to compare MMOs to alcoholism or Xbox avatars to self-admiration. Nearly every video game I’ve played has told me something about myself, whether it shines a spotlight on my preferred style of killing or how I treat virtual animal companions. I suppose tower defence games are just another example of this, if not a dramatic one. I’m not a great psychologist, I’m not a terrific gamer, I’m really just a girl who is trying to be cool.

Kotaku Presents’ debut season features Lisa Foiles, who is best known as the former star of Nickelodeon’s award-winning comedy show, All That. She currently works as an actress/web host in Hollywood and is continuing to dabble in video game voiceovers. For more info, visit Lisa’s official website She’s also on Twitter.

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