Sometimes called “coping skills”, defence mechanisms are the psychological tactics we use to cope with situations that cause anxiety or distress. Each of us employs a mixture of different strategies in different amounts, and this can change over time.
First described by Anna Freud, many different psychologists have had a crack at describing them. Depending on which textbook you read you could be faced with dozens of descriptors all categorised in different ways. We’ve gathered the most common ones here, and put them in a spectrum – from maladaptive to adaptive. “Maladaptive” defences are those which are more basic, instinctual, and not very useful in the long term. Use too much of any of them and it may result in difficulties coping, or could lead to relationship breakdowns and problems with work, socialising, and functioning on a daily basis.
Conversely, the adaptive defence mechanisms are more mature, conscious and productive. You know that person who seems to be impervious to the stresses of the world? That breezes through life as though it was easy? They probably use a selection of adaptive coping skills.
If you struggle to cope, find yourself experiencing high levels of distress frequently, or compartmentalise emotions and actually feeling numb to things which should be upsetting, you may benefit from exploring your toolbox of coping mechanisms. Everyone uses a few different ones, and everyone has the capacity to learn more adaptive techniques. The first step is to understand what defence mechanisms are, and to help with that, we’ve applied them to examples in our favourite video games.
This is not by any means a definitive list and all of the examples are used as entertainment and educational purposes only! Yonder thar be spoilers…
Maladaptive Defence Mechanisms
EXAMPLE: Tim, Braid
Most frequently associated with the five stages of grief, denial is a super deep and instinctive defence mechanism, one of the most basic of all. During denial, a person will simply not be able to accept the fact leading to their distressing emotional response, to protect themselves from feeling it. This is not conscious and cannot be chosen, and it can persist even when frank evidence of the event is given to them.
A couple of classic (albeit non video-game related) examples are seen in Harry Potter and Game of Thrones. Throughout the entirety of Order of the Phoenix, Cornelius Fudge outright denies that Voldemort has returned, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. It is not until seeing The Dark Lord with his own eyes that he finally accepts.
In the HBO Game of Thrones (I’m not sure if it also happens in the books), there is a battle at Castle Black between the Night’s Watch and the Wildlings. Jon Snow tells Janos Slynt the gate won’t withstand a giant, to which Janos replies, “Giants don’t exist,” even whilst looking directly at several of them.
In both these examples it is fear for their lives that prevents these characters from acknowledging the threat. The case of Tim in Jonathan Blow’s indie game Braid is slightly different. The clever twist in this time-bending puzzle is that the princess you’ve been pursuing the whole game has actually been escaping from you. In persisting, Tim shows he is unable to accept that their relationship is over. Instead, he has constructed a fantastical tale to explain her absence, thereby alleviating himself of any responsibility or guilt, and refusing to initiate the incredibly painful process of grieving his loss.
EXAMPLE: Kefka, Final Fantasy VI (Japanese Version)
When people are overwhelmed by emotions that are difficult experiences as an adult, they may “turn back the clock” to a psychological age that is much younger. They don’t necessarily have to behave like a child in all aspects of their life, but may start exhibiting some sort of childlike trait, like becoming increasingly clingy, dependent or having tantrums.
It was hard to find a good example in games of a character regressing in an accurate way. Of course, I haven’t played all the games, but I had a good look. Leslie from The Evil Within was suggested, but looking at the full story it seems like his behavioural pattern is consistent with early trauma and intellectual disability, in addition to something resembling the “artistic licence” version of a catatonic state. I have fallen to Kefka because of his childlike lack of empathy, playful nature and the fact that he refers to himself as “Boku-chin” in the JP version of the game – a term reserved for young boys.
During childhood we all experience big emotions. From anger to fear, anxiety to excitement, one look at a toddler can show how powerful these early feelings can be. Part of growing up is learning to regulate them, but this can be tough for those who aren’t shown a consistent model of how to do that, or if significant trauma has interrupted the process. What is left for the adult are huge, overwhelming emotions and limited means of what we call self-soothing. Feelings bubble over to the point of being unbearable. Commonly at this point the only way of achieving relief is releasing those emotions in a more physical way. For Chloe there are several indicators of this, including angry outbursts and self-destructive behaviour.
EXAMPLE: Cloud Strife, Final Fantasy VII
Dissociative states are bought on in vulnerable individuals who cannot cope with their current reality, and so do not experience it. It exists on a spectrum, which can vary from healthy to pathological. A mild form of dissociation could be feeling numb and detached. Many people feel a chronic sense of depersonalisation, like their world isn’t quite real. And finally there are the more significant “fugue states”, which is ironically the one focused on most in portrayals. It is very rare and grossly exaggerated for the purposes of plot device and character twists in media (think Norman Bates in Psycho).
I have previously written an article about Cloud and how he subconsciously adopts Zach’s identity as a self-defence mechanism when his world is shattered. This goes beyond what we generally see in reality, but it is a more sympathetic and understandable representation of this overused trope so I’ll let it slide for the purposes of education. 😉