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Can games create empathy?

Inspired by a recent discussion on the IGDA: Women in Games list, I started thinking about the empathy that develops between a player and a character, even when there is hot-zombie-stompin' action in the mix...

If we truly create games that allow people to feel empathy for the characters, then why do people seem to spend so much time mucking about with and abusing those characters? 

I mean, outside the constraints of the actual gameplay.  Think about the "Warthog Jump" video (which you *all* know you watched, like a hundred times).  Or the millionth time you jumped Tak off the edge of the cliff so you could watch that cool little spinny animation when he got reborn...  Or trying to figure out the height of the object you had to drop Lara Croft off of to get that cool scream just before she hit the ground.  Or even turning your Sims into prostitutes.  If we have truly formed some sort of empathic bond with the game characters that have been presented to us, why do we treat them this way?  Are we sick?  Are we all broken?  Is this some sort of deep psychological underpinning revealing the inner depths of potential madness?

Allow me to posit this idea.  I'm not a psychologist, by any means, but even as a parent I occasionally indulge in a little in-game sadism, so I find myself considering questions like this not only on my own behalf, but on behalf of my kids as they grow up steeped in a media-centric culture.

This type of behaviour seems to me to fall under the category of "exploratory play".  We have all heard about the benefits of play on children's physical and intellectual growth, and an important part of that is in playacting, in exploring social and physical situations while still in the safety of their preschool or parent-obverved environment.  Play fighting, play conflicts, chase games, even the use of "power words" like "I will kill you" or "Gun" (words and phrases that derive a particularly strong reaction from their parents) are considered absolutely normal explorations up to a point*. 

The point is, these are explorations of "not acceptable" things within a "safe" environment, and this is an established learning method.  As a learning method, this does not stop at 5 years old.  This continues our entire lives.  And just like a 3 year old may paint the kitchen floor with jam with the full faith and confidence that their mother will *still* love them after, we, as gamers can experiment within the "safe" boundaries of the in-game worlds we love with the full faith and confidence that, yes, the MasterChief will still let us rescue Cortana, the Sims will still do *whatever* we instruct them to do, Lara Croft will not hate us for dropping her off a cliff for the 50th time in a row. 

 And that's a sort of empathy you *cannot* get from film or any other media.

 

(*There are things teachers and caregivers look for, like genuine anger or depression, or constant unvarying repetition that raise an alert in these situations.  I'm not including those types of situations here.)

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