Aristotle defines the "tragic hero" as one who:
- evokes a sense of pity or fear leading to catharsis
- receives undeserved misfortune
- makes audience feel fear that such misfortune could happen to anyone (downfall not entirely deserved)
- is virtuous, morally blameless
- possesses noble stature or greatness
- has a flaw that will bring him/her success but death by the end...but not a total loss (some increase in awareness)
Examples: Oedipus, Thyestes, Hamlet, Othello, Batman/Bruce Wayne, Willy Loman, Boromir (Lord of the Rings), Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader
An interesting thing to note about Aristotle's definition is what it does not include: family, emotional ties, children, having a home base. The hero's family is typically either non-existant or a direct source of the hero's anguish, and the hero often must leave home to begin his/her journey. Boromir loses control and his life because of his desire to save his family's stewardship - which actually mirrors his father's downfall. Hamlet loses his sanity (possibly) and his life, his lady friend, and his mother in pursuit of enacting his father's ghost's revenge.
And so an element of the classical tragic hero persists in video game protagonists - the hero generally experiences some hardship, possibly the loss of his/her family, at the onset, and must leave home to find a new home, revenge, peace, or some other MacGuffin. Even more common is simply starting with a character with no ties whatsoever, as the game never acknowledges them. This omission is understandable if the character's background is not integral to the game, but one must wonder - why isn't the character's background important enough to merit a backstory?
One can argue that a certain deep connection can be fostered between the player and the character as whom they play by way of a meaningful backstory. The backstory can even be simple and implicit - the pixies in the DigiPen game PIXI may be mere crystalline entities, but their sacrifice for the player reveals a certain emotional bond and sense of protection that the pixies feel for the player. Why would they make such a costly sacrifice? The player is left to fill in the holes, to experience the pity and fear highlighted by Aristotle for the noble but perhaps overly-giving pixies...and hopefully experience catharsis.
Another question that begs to be asked is: where are all of the children and families of the video game protagonists? Depending on the character class, certain characters in Diablo III will briefly allude to a family that they lost to demons or some catastrophic event a long time ago, but that is it. In Fallout 2, Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and Dragon Age: Origins, the player actually has the option of killing a child. Leon Kennedy in Resident Evil 4 is on a quest to save the president's daughter (a common trope), but he has no family, thanks to the zombie outbreak, and can't seem to land a girlfriend, despite his fierce loyalty and bravery.
Some notable exceptions - the Little Sisters in Bioshock, possibly Corvo and Lady Emily in Dishonored, The Sims, the result of Morrigan's Ritual in Dragon Age: Origins, family management option in Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and Fable II.
Despite these examples and exceptions, the biggest question is why protagonists don't typically have children/families - they are beings that aren't easily supported/cared for by a (tragic) hero who is supposed to travel, complete quests in distant lands, and sacrifice him/herself for others and the greater good. If a family exists, the protagonist must/should really think of them before any other being in distress. One cannot be a hero if one has a family to which one must answer.
What also of the potential for danger and exploitation? Family and loved ones are easy targets for scheming antagonists. This possibility actually seems like a perfect one to use to create drama in video games, but it is often neglected...perhaps game designers, publishers, and the industry itself are simply avoiding the complication.
Or, in a more sinister light, perhaps the message is that the excitement in life ends once a person has children. Also, maybe many gamers DO have families, spouses, and children from whom they wish to escape via the video game. What does this type of video game marketing say about our society? Perhaps in an age where child mortality rates are extremely low (in the US) and human reproduction is generally guaranteed, having a family and/or children has depreciated in value.
And so there is an interesting dynamic between current video game trends and the current reproductive state of our species...and as a designer, one wonders, "Is it necessary or even responsible for video games to emphasize the importance of family/children? Or responsible not to emphasize that importance?"
Marriage is but one tool that the powerful members of American society wiled to manipulate and subdue the masses. The social norm is to get married to someone of the opposite sex so that one may produce children and thus assure the survival of the species. While this manipulation serves a certain purpose, it only serves to create fear, anger, and disappointment in both the people who don't get married and the married people. Perhaps the video game industry should set its own example of how to strike a balance between the two groups - having a family is fine, but it's not shameful to not have one or to not want to have one.
The current composition of the "tragic hero" in video games seems to eliminate the importance of families, whether it is by way of zombie outbreak, blight, demon infestation, or other pseudo-apocalyptic event...or by simply assigning a maintenance mechanic to the player's family, transforming it from a powerful, engaging plot device into a nuisance. Games should instead make use of the hero's family as a dramatic element and plot motivation that can provide ample rewards. The message should be not that having a family is required and a bother (such as in a linear plot structure that prevents player progression until the hurdle of forming a family is passed), but that having/saving a family is a potential side quest that has the possibility of resulting in great rewards.
UPDATE - March 12, 2014
A newer, interesting example of a "family" in a video game is that of Ellie and Joel in The Last of Us, released in June 2013. While they are not related by blood, they stick together in order to survive and, by doing so, genuinely begin to care about each other in a way that is reflective of a father-daughter relationship. Their familial relationship develops partly due to Joel's loss of his own daughter but possibly also because of a need to find love and emotional depth amidst the post-apocalyptic chaos. It is also worth noting that this love is selfish and hinders human survival because Joel will not let Ellie die to find a cure for the human race.