Humans are curious things. If we look at Maslow's hierarchy of needs, most of us in the Western world would be at the Esteem needs level, since our physiological and security needs are usually taken care of. Obviously there are exceptions, but I'm a fan of generalisations in my blog posts, in case you hadn't noticed.
That means we spend a lot of our time looking at other people, judging what they've got and comparing it to what we have. How come her car is shinier than mine? Why doesn't my house look that pretty? My skirt is such a nicer red. You'll notice those are all superficial examples - that's because these are the most common esteem judgements we're able to make. It's difficult to say, "Well, my job is more fulfilling than his." because you a) don't know what he finds fulfilling and b) your measure of fulfilment changes with your current feelings, attitudes and position in life.
All this is very philosophical, Dream-Thief, I hear you say, but what does it have to do with games? Everything, my dear, dear reader. Everything and more.
You see, the player reacts in a way the game expects them to. As was said in an article I read on Gamasutra yesterday, when your only interactions with the world involve violence, it necessarily limits your outlook. That's why Heavy Rain is so versatile. I didn't find anything boring in putting Shaun to bed. I was still interacting, but I wasn't holding a gun, knife or magic staff. The game didn't expect me to be violent, and I wasn't. As as alternate example, when I was getting my friends to playtest a module I'd written for Neverwinter Nights last year, the first thing many of them did was run in and kill the main quest character just because they could. I ended up having to make her level 20 billion so they'd take my module seriously, and then they'd only run in, try to kill her, die, and ragequit. The game was based around violence, so that was how they reacted, despite my protestations to the contrary.
In games, it's important to remember : we are what the game designer makes us. We can only make choices that he or she thought up. Our success is measured by who we think we are, and who we think we should be, and how far apart those two things are. Telling us who we should be is the job of the designer and writer. What does that mean for your self-perception?
I'm heroic in games because they tell me I am. In real life I'm under no illusions that driving the wrong way down the freeway, at night and in the rain, will only end with me flipping my car and having to crawl to safety. I'm not that brave. But because I'm Ethan Mars, and I have to do it so save Shaun, I do. I defend the town of Redcliffe because I'm a hero, and people expect me to be a hero. They don't treat me like the scum of the earth. They treat me like someone who's going to help them. So I do.
Now, imagine this in real-world terms. If you think you're successful, and if you act like you're successful, what is the outcome likely to be? What is the gap between what you think you are and what you think you should be but a measurement no wider than a thought? What is success but personal emotion? Choose to be successful, and you'll not only be happier, you're more likely to succeed.
But let's take it one step further. If everyone treated you as if you were the nicest person in the world, how would you choose to act? There are numerous movies about that - the mean guy who learns to be not so mean. If everyone you met assumed you were wonderful, how would you feel about yourself? Would you be rude, just to dispel their illusions? Or would you succumb, unknowingly or willingly, and strive to be the person they already think you are?
The world is a much nicer place if you expect people to be kind. Whether it's a game or the real world has little bearing on your emotions. And, strangely enough, I think game designers know that better than we do, or at least aren't in denial about it. You feel what you feel at any given time - choose to make it a positive feeling, and reap the quest rewards. Fulfilled self-actualisation needs are the epic loot that awaits you.