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From 'The Odyssey' to 'Elden Ring', why are fantasy worlds irresistible?


A study dissects the psychological mechanisms by which humans are drawn to invented narratives, from campfire stories to immersive video games

What evolutionary point does it make that you know the rules of quidditch, the planets of Star Wars, or the entire family tree of Tolkien's characters?

People use their free time to consume fictional stories that other people tell them.

Generalized entertainment: false stories for a mass public aware that they are false.

Books, comics, movies, series, and video games support million-dollar industries that revolve around invented stories, from the island of the Cyclops in

The Odyssey

(28 centuries ago), to the recent winner of video game of the year, Elden Ring.

Interest in imaginary worlds is as old as the history of the


species , an animal that needs stories to live, stories to feed its brain.

Two researchers in cognitive sciences from the École Normale Supérieure in Paris have wanted to trace the innate mechanisms behind an apparent evolutionary nonsense, why spend so much leisure time and resources on something unreal?

Scientists Edgar Dubourg and Nicolas Baumard from the Jean Institute have just published a study that analyzes the root of our fascination with fantastic worlds: the same curiosity that drives exploration in animals.

For Dubourg, a cognitive psychologist and co-author of the study, "organisms are motivated to search for new information that allows them to function better in the future, not just humans."

"So our hypothesis is that fictional worlds fill that need and our brains respond to imaginary stimuli in stories in the same way as to real ones," he explains.

“The mystery is very important, it motivates you to move forward”

Edgar Dubourg, Ecole Normale Supérieure of Paris

By presenting fantasy worlds to discover, the authors write, a brain accustomed for millions of years to looking for patterns and resources in its immediate environment will also be curious to investigate fiction.

“The key elements that make a work of fiction successful are getting your attention, we call that a superstimulus.

The same drive to explore occurs at the cognitive level: the search for new information,” says Dubourg.

The British writer JRR Tolkien, creator of

The Lord of the Rings

and all its rich fantasy universe at the beginning of the 20th century, wrote that he wanted to convey "the feeling of reward for discovering an island or a keep in a distant city not visited”.

A feeling similar to what the creator of video games, the Japanese Shigeru Miyamoto, sought when developing his first

The Legend of Zelda

(1989, Nintendo), as he told the

New Yorker

: replicate the same feeling he had as a child when exploring for the first time the forests and caves around his hometown of Sonobe, Kyoto.

Researchers attribute it to the


that discovering that "we don't know something, a gap in our knowledge" causes our brains, summarizes the scientist Dubourg: "The mystery is very important, it motivates you to move forward."

Immersive video games

At this point, Dubourg suggests that the difference between classic oral stories and video games is that "total immersion is very recent."

For the author, this represents a new narrative revolution: digital entertainment has another layer of complexity, since it also offers "agency": being able to control a character, being the one who makes the decisions.

"The fact that your actions are reflected in your environment, as in open world games (


), explains the boom in recent decades due to the attractiveness of open narratives," says the researcher.

The philosopher of science and director of Arsgames, Eurídice Cabañes, believes that "being able to try without consequences in digital environments is a way of learning", since there are second chances.

For this video game expert, the richness of the fictional worlds, in addition to fulfilling an immersive factor in the storytelling, goes much further in digital interactive entertainment.

“When making decisions, there is a sensation that occurs within the video game that does not occur in other fictional worlds, such as pride in winning.

Or the guilt for having chosen badly ”, Cabañes emphasizes.

“The only way to be able to transform the world in which we live is to be able to imagine the new ones”

Eurydice Cabañes, ArsGames

Communities that derive from works of fiction, known as


, are a marker of identity.

Dubourg and Baumard defend that fictional worlds are one more technology for entertainment, derived from being able to speak or being able to simulate hypothetical scenarios in the mind, but which has been maintained for its usefulness.

A social activity that is also linked to personality, since the narrative choices correlate with taste and the psychology of people.

In the study, they ask themselves why spend so many leisure hours memorizing apparently useless knowledge: “Why spend time learning the rules of


—the imaginary sport about flying broomsticks from the magical world of

Harry Potter—


the name of the planets or the alien species from

Star Wars

or the geography and genealogy from

Game of thrones


Cabañes affirms that "they are symbolic mechanisms that say a lot about the person."

For the philosopher, all narration, like the stories that were told around the bonfire, serve as "education", since "fiction is the only way we have to imagine new worlds and the only way to transform the world we live in is to be able to imagine new ones”.

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Source: elparis

All news articles on 2022-12-28

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