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Games Can Create Empathy... So Why Don't They?

Yes, it's inspired by Roger Ebert's latest rant. But he had one good point, which I'd like to elaborate on: can games be used to create empathy?

Roger Ebert has added another entry to his (strange and mostly one-sided) conversation about video games and their potential (or lack thereof) to be "great art."

I'm not going to try to write some kind of response to all of his points - as he himself (finally) admits, the entire "argument" was rather silly, since he had never really played a video game. But I did want to use the end of his article - when he (finally) tried to create a meaningful definition of "great art" - as a starting point in asking why we don't make more of a certain type of game. To quote the article:


I thought about those works of Art that had moved me most deeply. I found most of them had one thing in common: Through them I was able to learn more about the experiences, thoughts and feelings of other people. My empathy was engaged. I could use such lessons to apply to myself and my relationships with others. They could instruct me about life, love, disease and death, principles and morality, humor and tragedy. They might make my life more deep, full and rewarding.

(Emphasis added.)

Pretty sure he knows all about games.

It would be easy to dismiss Ebert's arguments wholesale - again, he hasn't really played a video game and has admitted that he never should have engaged in this debate. But no matter how generally flawed a person's arguments may be, I always try to look at them in detail and ask: "is there anything I can learn from this?" I think that there is such a takeaway on this specific point of Ebert's... about works of art being more powerful when they can truly communicate a personal nugget of knowledge or experience.

Some people (presumably Ebert) might look at this definition and see this as something that games can't do (or, at least, are ill-equipped to do). Films are an incredibly strong medium for sharing a personal experience - you follow the story of a character onscreen, you become emotionally invested in that character and their fate... you come to understand the position they're in, their challenges, their struggles, as the story unfolds. For some reason one of my favorite films, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, comes to mind - early on you become very invested in Phillip Seymour Hoffman's character and his search for happiness, and you maintain this investment despite his many character flaws that are later revealed.

A game could tell such a story, but I feel like the (typical AAA big-developer mindset) approach would be clumsy: it would probably be to try to just tell the same story as the film. Frankly I don't think the story of Before the Devil would be helped by being told in cutscenes, using CG characters with mannequine faces, and interrupted by long sequences of the player killing thousands of demons, zombies, aliens, robots, and/or nazis (or perhaps 60-year-old women, if the game tries to stay true to the events of the film). It's this sort of approach that has led Ebert and others to believe that games can never provide a worthwhile experience.

But if we approach the problem differently, it will be clear that putting the player in another person's shoes - and thereby communicating another person's perspective - is something that games are incredibly well-suited for. They actually have a great deal of potential here... potential which is under-explored.

 

If they could see things from each others' perspectives, perhaps Jill Valentine and Zombies can live together in literal harmony.

The fact that games can "put a player in another person's shoes" is self-evident to any gamer, of course. I talked above about becoming invested in a character in a film; as anyone who has both played a survival horror game and watched a horror movie knows, the former can be bone-chillingly more frightening than the latter. No matter how invested you are in a character in a film, it will never compare to the investment you have in an avatar of yourself in a game world that you've been playing for hours. When that avatar is literally yourself within that world, when it has become virtually an extension of your body, when you've been carefully trying to protect it from harm for hours - a "jump moment" of an attack on that character becomes infinitely more heart-stopping than a similar moment in a film depicting a beloved character being attacked. Games are about doing and being - there's no doubt that they can firmly plant you in another character's shoes.

But what does this mean? If I play Resident Evil, do I learn about Jill Valentine's perspective on life? In a way, yes - I learn what it's like to be her in a mansion full of zombies and to be constantly scared and threatened... those feelings and emotions are communicated very well. But do I learn everything about her? Do I learn what it's like to be a female law enforcement officer, being discriminated against in a male-centric career?

No... even if those things are hinted at in the story or cutscenes, I don't feel them. Because they're not really part of the game world. Within the rules and mechanics of the game world, it really doesn't even matter that my avatar is female - it has no meaning within the mechanics of the game, and the rules and challenges and situations I'm facing would be the same if I were playing a male character.

So am I saying that Resident Evil sucks because it doesn't put me in touch with my feminine side, and that it should be changed until it could be used as a Workplace Sensitivity Training simulator? No... although now that you mention it, the game might already make a good Human Sensitivity Training simulator for zombies to see what it's like to be a human living in constant fear of the zombie threat! Perhaps if I sat a zombie down, gave it a controller, and had it play Resident Evil, it would have an epiphany for what it's doing to us humans, it would be touched... and its life and behavior would be changed by this experience. (Or maybe it would just drop the controller and shamble towards the nearest brains... which would probably be mine. Never mind, I'll stick to just shooting the zombies.)

 

Chris Crawford's Balance of Power had some striking things to say about geopolitics.

Attempts to create such empathy in non-undead recipients, however, have been more successful. In a (very old) "Designer's Notebook" column here on Gamasutra, Ernest Adams noted an epiphany he had while playing Chris Crawford's Balance of Power, and taking the role of the USSR in the game's detailed simulation of Cold War politics:


I normally played Balance of Power from the American perspective. But one day, I tried playing it from the Russian side. I discovered then that the game was not symmetric. The Russians had a lot more manpower, but a lot less money. ...

For the first time in my life, I got a direct and immediate insight about why the Russians seemed so paranoid, so confrontational (this was during the Reagan administration, remember). The hugely powerful United States and its allies had declared that the entire Soviet way of life was wrong, and were using their unimaginable wealth to turn the world against them, hedging them in, denying them their rightful role as a great power in the community of nations.

It sounds simple, even silly, in retrospect. But getting a personal understanding of what the Soviets were up against left me with an odd feeling that lasted several hours. You can learn a lot by playing the other side.

Making a game is about making a world - definining the rules, and the possible objects and actions (nouns and verbs) within that world. It's also primarily about letting the player do and be (whereas a medium like film focuses on letting the viewer see) - the rules you create in your game, and the actions you provide to the player, define their role in that world.

In other words, we can make games that put the player in a certain world, in a certain role, in a certain situation, and let them experience that. Can you possibly imagine a medium better-suited to "learning about the experiences, thoughts and feelings" of another person, than actually putting yourself in an environment where those experiences can really happen within the game world; and where, filling that role, you can't help but have the same thoughts and feelings about what's happening than that person would?

Rod Humble's

A recent "art game" that attempts this is Rod Humble's The Marriage. It's a very simple world, and very simple mechanics - which gives it a terrific purity. Aside from coloring the male "character" blue and the female "character" pink, it makes no attempt to evoke its associations through art, animation, or any other shorthand - it depends fully upon its game mechanics to make its point. In other words, it's pure game, and doesn't attempt to lean on any other art form to create its experience.

And what experience is that? A very personal one - Humble is attempting to communicate what it feels like to be in his marriage. Playing it, one gets a sense (again purely from the mechanics) of a balance of egos and "moral superiority" in a personal relationship; and of the balance between focusing on that relationship versus pursuing outside interests. It's hard to communicate in text - again because it's a purely interactive game experience that can't fully be described in words or any other form; it can only be played.

I would call The Marriage a limited success at what it tries to do - I personally found it interesting, and it definitely evoked some associations and emotions regarding what being in a marriage is like. But it feels like, to borrow a metaphor from Kellee Santiago, a painting on a cave wall. Beautiful for what it is, pleasant in its simplicity, but far from the fullest exploration of what the medium is capable of.

But the point is that it tried to do one specific thing: put you in Rod's marriage; and it did this by creating a world, and a role for the player within that world which meant the player was, for all intents and purposes, being Rod within his marriage. Its success at doing this might be limited, but the fact that it succeeds at all has breathtaking implications of what games are capable of evoking, and the experiences that can be communicated with them.

But for all that's worth lauding about it, playing The Marriage doesn't end up being a terribly compelling experience. Will games that attempt to communicate empathy in this way be good, or "fun" games? I think they can be. Balance of Power seems to have succeeded - it's interesting to play the Russians because of the gameplay challenges, and it's a meaningful experience to play a role you'd never thought about before. Far Cry 2 made interesting strides in this direction as well - one feels that the game was built primarily to be a simulation of being a mercenary in Africa, in every way - the decisions you make aren't just "who do I shoot and when?", but "should I go get malaria pills now?" and "do I kill my mercenary friend who's begging to be put out of his misery?"

 

Previous attempts to adapt Phillip Seymour Hoffman movies have not been a success.

Perhaps a film version of Before the Devil Knows You're Dead could be made in which you actually play the role of Phillip Seymour Hoffman, living in his world, subject to his pressures... and the game decisions you have to make are the same that his character had to make in the film. (Sid Meier said that a good game is a series of interesting decisions; why can't those decisions be ones that are both interesting mechanically and meaningful in putting you into another character's shoes?)

Will the story that emerges from this be as powerful and meaningful as the story that appeared in the movie? Probably not - the ending may not feel as inevitable, and rather than seeing the very meaningful choices that Hoffman's character made, we'll be making our own choices that may have very different meanings and say very different thing about the character. Dramatically, no, it may not be as satisfying.

But it would be a success in terms of communicating the perspective and experiences of another person, and the choices they have to make. In this area, games are a stronger medium than any ever created. Let's use this potential. I don't know whether it will lead to mainstream culture accepting games as a form of art... but if we can create experiences that are meaningful, that are eye-opening and life-changing, and that change peoples' lives, who really cares?

 

[Shay Pierce is a game designer and a professional game programmer, whose game design blog can be found at http://DeepPlaid.com/blog.]

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