Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Empathy In Video Games-More Then Visual

Goomba's have families too!

As video game technology develops and we see more realistic images being projected through our television screens, what happens to our emotional state of mind? Ned Lesesne, community writer at VentureBeat, explores the science behind empathy with video games and violence. Bottom line: with games looking more realistic, it’s difficult to avoid an emotional connection to the characters/games.

While I do feel that the development of game technology has had an indirect correlation on our emotional ties, it takes more than a photo-realistic digital character to make us feel empathy.

Context, story, personality, influences, goals, everything surrounding the character are the factors that develop our emotional attachments to that digital creation, not the image itself. Seeing a digital creature cry, the sweat dropping from their forehead, their brows twitching, and the wrinkles along their face when they smile: these may help push us to garner an emotional response but alone they are not enough. That visual medium needs to be combined with another element in the game that allows us to understand the character.

Example: You see a man sitting at a bar. He’s hovering over a drink, swaying just a bit to indicate that he’s probably had too much. You take a seat a few spots down. He turns to you and asks you to shoot him. As the gamer, we can say how real he looks, how he might have been crying or seemingly depressed, or a drunk man being drunk, but there’s no context. We feel nothing is this man lives or dies. So, let’s give him context.

You see a man sitting at a dusty old bar. He’s hovering over a drink, swaying just a bit. He starts slurring his words, talking about his life. He has to put his dog down today. As you move to take your seat at the bar, you overhear him tell the bartender that his daughter was killed walking across the street by a hit and run, and they still haven’t caught the driver. You take a seat a few spots down. He turns to you and asks you to shoot him.

He's nothing but pixels, and we cared!
Now as a gamer, we have empathy. Context. Understanding. We feel for this digital character. He has lost so much in rapid succession. His tears, his sorrow, his demeanor makes sense. Are we going to shoot him? Well that depends. He might want to end his life but doesn’t have the stomach to do it himself. But we might also find compassion in helping him through other means. This is where the emotional side of story-telling kicks in. If we don’t have context, all of the realistic graphics won’t make up for it. How else would video games have survived as long as they have without the story to back it up? Graphics were never realistic. We had 8 to 32 bit characters in blocky forms. And we were expected to care about what happens. It seems short-sighted, to me at least, to say that empathy has grown with graphics. Empathy and emotions have always been around in gaming. Take my piece on Final Fantasy IV where I wanted to cry because Tellah died. And this is not Nintendo DS with CGI effects re-mastered FFIV. I was a kid. He was a block of pixels. Millions of people responded to these characters and many more because of their stories, not the images.

What Lesesne seems to steer towards but fails to grasp is that context is needed in order for us to have an emotional, or empathetic, reaction. We can shoot a soldier in Call of Duty, but if he’s the opposing army that has pillaged a town, we have reason for our actions. We can run over a pedestrian in Grand Theft Auto, but when we see that he is a victim of a mugging, we’ll think twice. As gamers we don’t randomly throw around violence on digital characters. We consider the context. That’s where our emotions comes from. Why else do you think only 8% of us chose to not cure the Genophage in Mass Effect 3? Emotional investment. There isn't a need for us to re-assess our empathy as graphics become more realistic. We've had these emotions all along, it's just more apparent. 

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