by Stephanie Klimov
The Legend of Zelda has this magical pull that has gamers talking even after the end credits roll. People spend hours dissecting and extending this franchise’s legacy. Moreover, many find deep meaning within the characters and storylines, and nothing excites a fan more than collecting or creating things surrounding their favorite franchises. From cookbooks to music, the Zelda series extends beyond the games—whether Nintendo-owned or fan-made. Today we look at The Psychology of Zelda, a collection of essays written by clinicians, doctors, and psychologists and edited by Dr. Anthony Bean. It explores why fans love Zelda so much and unearths many psychological findings within various themes.
In the modern age, there are a plethora of options to consume media, so what draws people by the millions to video games? They enrapture both kids and adults alike. Dr. Bean opens The Psychology of Zelda exploring the basic psychological principles that can identify the industry’s influence on gamers. Normally, I skip the introduction section of books; however, this one was enlightening. Games are not just mindless flashes of light and sound that are a “waste of time,” as some people criticize. Ten articles follow, each exploring one theme or aspect about The Legend of Zelda and all the psychological meanings. The Psychology of Zelda sucked me right in, and before I knew it, I had inhaled the entire book in a weekend. I never learned so much about psychology at one time and understood it as well.
I will provide brief comments on each article below to provide you with a taste of this book; however, I will withhold from giving too much detail, as I highly recommend picking up a copy yourself.
1. “Embodying the Virtual Hero: A Link to the Self” By: Jonathan Erickson
This essay was the perfect start to this anthology as it discusses the concept most people are familiar with regarding The Legend of Zelda. This piece explores who the protagonist is and why he is named Link. From there, Erickson discusses the concept of projection, where players see themselves in this voiceless hero—which was an intentional move by creator Shigeru Miyamoto. When players feel like they are Link, they can experience a level of psychological growth. A psychoanalyst named Carl Jung has suggested that people are constantly projecting bits of their unconscious onto their surroundings.
When a player becomes more immersed in a game, they develop a flow where they can seamlessly execute a task, albeit a virtual one. In fact, researchers found that there is a direct correlation of flow state to how closely a player identifies with the character. Link became one of the first characters in video game history where players have a relatively blank canvas to paint their consciousness on, and thus they become more immersed in the game--and perhaps establish a flow in executing gameplay like no other.
2. “It’s Dangerous to Go Alone: The Hero’s Journey in The Legend of Zelda” By: Stephen F. Kuniak
This piece highlights the powerful draw of the hero archetype and identifies The Legend of Zelda as one of the most famous and original representations of a hero’s journey in gaming history. The author continues to break down the history of the hero’s journey, which was first created in the 1940s by Joseph Campbell. He recognized this template framed many legends and stories in mythology. Campbell then drew up the formula of the hero’s journey, which is divided into three acts: The Departure, The Initiation, and The Return. The best part of this essay is that Kuniak broke down every Legend of Zelda game and identified the steps on the hero’s journey.
I also appreciated this chapter because it explains why The Legend of Zelda is powerful psychologically. As a video game, this franchise allows for parasocial interactions. Gamers develop strong bonds with the character they play by identifying as that avatar. By this strong bond, players are in an incredible position to live out and “experience” a hero’s journey of their own.
3. “The Nocturne of (Personal) Shadow” By: Louise Grann
“Venturing into one’s innermost heart is like descending into a dungeon.” My heart squeezed when I read that line. This article discusses Jung’s map of the human psyche, which is made of two parts: ego and personal unconsciousness. The ego is essentially who we present ourselves as, and the latter is more like a personal shadow. Everybody has parts of themselves they don’t understand or like, and more often than not, we try to hide that part of ourselves. This aspect can be clearly seen in the Zelda franchise—not only within characters like Link and Ganondorf but also via the representation of the temples. The article then delves into a prominent figure and representation of this concept: Shadow Link. Link must confront his own personal shadows and undergo individuation—where the personal unconsciousness is challenged and then assimilated with the ego. This is where Link becomes his true self.
4. “The Archetypal Attraction” By: Anthony M. Bean
Dr. Anthony Bean discusses the four primary archetypes in The Legend of Zelda games: the orphan, the temple, the hero, and the villain. Link struggles with the isolation as an orphan—a concept that people can relate to even if they aren’t a literal orphan—and ventures into temples, where he learns and undergoes various transformations. Dr. Bean provides examples of how Link grows in each of the adult temples in Ocarina of Time.
5. “Unmasking Grief: Applying the Kubler-Ross Five Stages of Grief Model to The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask” By: Larisa A. Garski, F. Cary Shepard, and Emory S. Daniel
Fans may already be familiar with the five stages of grief when talking about Majora’s Mask. It’s not a new concept, but the three contributing authors to this essay dig a little deeper beyond attributing a stage of grief to each area of the game. I appreciate the acknowledgement that the stages of grief are never fixed, and people can experience them in different orders or cycle through them more than once. They provide additional examples of characters experiencing loss, including Majora itself. In fact, one could interpret Majora as a being who was not able to process loss in a healthy manner, and thus manifests grief in a wild, destructive manner. I appreciated this essay for the level of detail and quotes used from the game.
6. “The Protective Power of Destiny: Post-Traumatic Growth in The Legend of Zelda” By: Larisa A. Garski and Justine Mastin
Posttraumatic growth is discussed in this article, and, let me tell you, it was an intense read. Quite often, kids who experience trauma in their early years struggle to make developmental milestones and sometimes fail to thrive. The Legend of Zelda puts Link in very traumatizing events at such a young age time and time again, but the incredible fact is that he learns and grows from those experiences instead. In a sense, The Legend of Zelda kickstarted a form of healing narrative, focusing on character growth and triumph over the pain and trauma. Soon, many other games followed suit, such as Gone Home, Journey, and Life is Strange. I am forever amazed at the level of influence Zelda has in the gaming industry. The authors also explained the difference between fate and destiny. Fate is often associated with no control, whereas an individual can still make their own decisions when facing their destiny. Some may even say that destiny provides a source of healing…
7. “The Quest for Meaning in The Legend of Zelda” By: Kelsey Klatka and Louise Grann
Everyone grapples with the meaning of life at some point in their living years. Sometimes it leads to an existential crisis—where one struggles to find meaning within themselves in a seemingly meaningless world. Famous psychiatrist Viktor Frankel believed that a meaningful life is generated through shock, suffering, and acceptance of responsibility. One can only have the drive to find meaning after they “awaken” from their safe, easy life. Does this sound familiar? Multiple Legend of Zelda titles begin with Link snoozing peacefully. From Skyward Sword to The Wind Waker, Link sleeps in and is rudely awakened to an adventure he didn’t really ask for. He must leave the cozy life and embrace his destiny. When people fire up a Legend of Zelda game, Link becomes a vessel for them to virtually experience this difficult journey. They must overcome challenges and accept what they need to do.
8. “The Song of the Ritos: The Psychology of the Music within The Legend of Zelda Series” By: Shane Tilton
Music plays a significant role in the Zelda franchise. In fact, I’ve attended two Symphony of the Goddesses concerts that celebrate the music of Zelda. This essay beautifully describes how and why music provides such a strong bond between the player and the game. One of my favorite parts of this section is Tilton’s view on Breath of the Wild. The latest mainline installment of the series, Breath of the Wild, is filled mostly with environmental sounds. With minimal music, it can make the player feel empty… very much like how Link may feel because he awakens with no memory. It is only when he enters Ganon’s castle that familiar music returns, symbolizing the return of his memory as well.
9. “Triforce Heroes and Heroines: Transcending the Opposites Through the Golden Power” By: Angie Branham Mullins
The article revisits a notion that had been previously discussed—the concept of individuation. In order to be your complete self, you must be able to integrate the separate parts of your psyche. Mullins warns what could happen when a person tries too hard to force one part of themselves away. The person experiences inflation, becomes egocentric, and becomes an exaggerated archetypal motif. This is psychologically unhealthy and can be compared to the main villain in the series, Ganon (Ganondorf). The particular essay blew my mind when Mullins reviewed each Triforce piece and its associated character: Zelda with wisdom, Ganon with power, and Link with courage. As the embodiment of courage, Link resolves the conflict between Zelda (representing the human ego, or wisdom) and Ganon (representing the personal shadow, or power). It really enlightened me about my own behavior, the behavior of others, and how important it is to be balanced with one’s self. If not, we become a hideous reflection of the inner demons we try too hard to hide.
10. “The Legend Herself: From Damsel in Distress to Princess of Power” By: Melissa Huntley and Wind Goodfriend
The final essay was a wonderful way to end the anthology. Although the player navigates Link throughout his journeys, it is Zelda whom the franchise is named after. Huntley and Goodfriend do a wonderful job analyzing Zelda’s transformation throughout the years as a damsel in distress to a very capable and realistic human being. They also explore a concept called benevolent sexism where women are perceived as the more moral and purer of the two sexes, and because of those “good” traits, women are then subjected to unnecessary “protection” and unrealistic expectations. Essentially, it is sexism disguised as a compliment. What I appreciated the most about this essay is that it analyzes Zelda’s history and uses it as a teaching tool for the reader. They also address the concept of masculine and feminine traits, which is, in fact, different from the definition of a biological male and female. Over the years, Zelda has become more psychologically androgynous. It is the healthy blend of characteristics, leaving her more well-rounded as a human being.
Overall, this collection of essays was a worthy purchase and part of my Zelda collection. Each chapter is brimming with quotes from the series and incredible insight. The Psychology of Zelda is proof that video games are capable of depth and can teach us valuable lessons about ourselves. The Zelda series itself is very profound—diving deep into our subconscious and exploring the complexities of the human psyche. I have always enjoyed psychology but found it complicated at times. I also have limited time to read a dry textbook about the findings of Carl Jung and Victor Frankl, so The Psychology of Zelda provided a fun and interesting way to learn. In fact, I hope the analysis of various pop culture references is utilized more in teaching. I highly recommend you pick up a copy of The Psychology of Zelda!
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