For Our Consideration

The Walking Dead

Empathy Games

Finding the virtues amid the violence of Telltale’s The Walking Dead.

By Ryan Smith • May 13, 2013

The most harrowing section of The Walking Dead is a different kind of horror than you’d expect from a game in which you’re frequently fending off zombies who want to bite your face off. The haggard group of survivors you’ve joined in post-apocalyptic rural Georgia have been holed up for months in a barricaded motor inn, and the food supply has run dry. As Lee Everett, you’re given the impossible task of distributing the remaining four snacks amongst 10 people—all of them slowly starving to death. Some of the characters are children, and one is an elderly man with a heart problem, but you’ve formed individual relationships with each of them over the course of the adventure. You risk upsetting those you don’t feed. When I played the game, I found myself immensely worried about those I’d disappoint. I worried about what they’d think of my character, Lee—and by proxy, me.

It struck me that characters in the Walking Dead TV show and graphic novel are often forced into equally challenging life-and-death decisions, but their actions are consumed by a viewer or reader. To inhabit a role as the arbiter who decides which person would eat or go hungry and then feel resulting pangs of agony over it—even in the context of a video game—felt to me like a transformative moment of empathy.

Walking in someone else’s shoes in video games has traditionally begged for a literal interpretation—nudging a control stick to move the feet of Mario or Kratos through digital obstacle courses. There are plenty of games that evoke emotions—we’re thrilled during a car chase in Need for Speed or creeped out by the Silent Hill series—but compassion and empathy aren’t mainstream games’ strong suits, especially since guns, swords, and fists are still their most common tools of interaction. Even in Tomb Raider and BioShock Infinite, two recent games that desperately want us to care for their main characters, the extreme violence against other human beings tempers our warm and fuzzy feelings. Play all of the sad violins in the background you want, but shooting people in the heart certainly gets in the way of us opening ours.

The Walking Dead

The Walking Dead

It’s telling that Vice President Joe Biden has called for a study of the negative effects of video games while simultaneously praising television for improving society by portraying homosexuals in a positive light. “When things really began to change is when the social culture changes,” Biden told NBC’s Meet The Press last year. “I think Will & Grace probably did more to educate the American public than almost anybody’s ever done so far. People fear that which is different. Now they’re beginning to understand.”

That might be a line of blustery exaggeration from our ever-hyperbolic VP, but notable novels, television shows, and movies have long been given credit for making the personal universal and instilling a sense of empathy for those in our society who we don’t often have face-to-face contact with. Progressive literature like Uncle Tom’s Cabin and To Kill A Mockingbird helped whites understand the plight of African Americans, and polls say TV shows like Glee and Modern Family have earned an assist in changing conservative America’s mind on gay marriage.

Part of what makes The Walking Dead so brave is that Lee is an African-American man convicted of murder, a marginalized minority in our society. There is no one-armed man to manipulate our sympathies, and the writers don’t let Lee off the hook for his crimes. He is unequivocally guilty of killing his wife’s lover, and he’s headed to prison. In our society, Lee would typically be seen as a “bad guy,” the type of character we’d likely be shooting down without mercy in another video game. The Joker in The Dark Knight and the title character in Showtime’s serial-killer-who-kills-other-serial-killers drama, Dexter, are attempts to humanize murderers and make them appear more psychologically complex than the usual cold-blooded sociopath. But their complicated or overwrought back stories only serve to set them apart from the rest of us again. Lee is presented as neither sinner nor saint but a complex vessel we pour ourselves into.

Grand Theft Auto IV

Grand Theft Auto IV

You also play as a felon in the Grand Theft Auto games, but the game is constructed as a satire/power fantasy that encourages you to act out anti-social behaviors. It’s acceptable within the context of GTA to steal, kill, and destroy. In The Walking Dead, there’s evidence that players will choose the opposite, even in spite of self-interest. For instance, in Episode 2, you have the option of either killing one of the brothers that earlier tried to off you or show mercy and let him go. Eighty-two percent of players, according to the game’s official site, opted to spare the man’s life. Likewise, 87 percent of people opted not to shoot a woman who points a crossbow at you before she has a chance to speak and explain herself.

One study from the University of Innsbruck concludes that video games can promote “prosocial” behaviors if they reward kindness. Participants played either Lemmings (a game in which you save tiny green-haired creatures from suicide) or Tetris (categorized as neutral). They then read stories designed to evoke a range of responses. One story detailed rich socialite Paris Hilton’s arrest after a parole violation; another featured a man who was robbed of $60,000 in his own home. Those who played Lemmings were less likely to feel schadenfreude after reading the Hilton story, and the Lemmings players scored higher on an empathy scale after hearing about the citizens who suffered misfortune.

So if you’re a person who tends to think of convicted murders as monsters or harbor racist views against African-Americans, what does it mean to control a character like The Walking Dead’s protagonist and vicariously experience his life through choices made in the game? Potentially a lot.

The Walking Dead

The Walking Dead

Conventional wisdom tells us that violent video games like these work to erode our compassion for others. In the months since the mass shooting at a grade school in Newtown in December, politicians and commentators in the mainstream media keep beating on the anti-games war drum to discredit them. A recent blog post on Katie Couric’s website is entitled “Why Video Games Are Bad For America.” And we’re bombarded with questionable scientific studies claiming that they cause violence.

For those of us who play, write, or think about games, it can be tempting to deny their power, thereby avoiding the sticky question of whether Call Of Duty or Assassin’s Creed are bad for our souls. But in doing so, we’re also not properly appreciating games like The Walking Dead—games that could actually be creating empathy in us instead of destroying it.

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121 Responses to “Empathy Games”

  1. Enkidum says:

    Are we actually bombarded with questionable scientific studies saying games cause violence? Most of the research I’ve seen is generally neutral or positive, at least in the past decade or so.

    Required reading for people interested in this sort of stuff:

    At any rate, I think both the negative and positive effects of games tend to be overstated. Really, the most important negative effects are back pain, lack of sleep, and so forth, and the truly important positive effect is that people have fun. 

    I suppose the potential of games to expand one’s perspective by playing a black guy or what have you is real, albeit small

    • Girard says:

      Maybe it’s more the fact that we’re bombarded by supposed “experts” who either twist study results or conjure up their own hypotheses that they present as conclusive. There was a pretty noxious account from Kotaku’s takedown of Couric’s anti-game TV special:

      ‘Then, of course, there are the ‘experts’. There are always experts. In this case, it was Forensic Psychologist Michael Welner and Coleen Moore, a councilor from the Illinois Institute for Addiction. At one particular moment, Katie speculates that maybe video games cause a release of dopamine and suggests that, maybe, more research is needed. Welner smugly smiles and says, “Well, sometimes research isn’t needed,” going on to say that Quinn’s case speaks for itself and that game makers must be held responsible and regulated like the tobacco industry.’

      • Hermetic_Zeal says:

        Thanks for the links, guys.

        Articles like the one on Couric’s site serve one function: to sensationalize a topic, which gathers viewers, which gathers advertisers.  It’s never about the legitimacy of the content, argument, or experts.  It’s about money.  If people are well informed because of it – and I don’t think they are – then it’s a nice by-product, but nothing more than that.

        You’re absolutely right, Girard.  We’re supposed to believe that the “expert” has the answer, otherwise they wouldn’t be the expert.  Saying that a causal relationship between video games and violence “speaks for itself”?  That’s not how it works Forensic Psychologist Welner.  On the way to the bank to cash his check, he should be embarrassed.

        • Aurora Boreanaz says:

          “Your honor, it seems quite clear to me that Mr. Smith here murdered the victim in cold blood.”

          “What evidence do you have to support this?”

          “Well, sometimes evidence isn’t needed.  This case speaks for itself.”

          Screw you, Mister “Expert”!

      • Jackbert says:

        I watched the show when it was aired. Instead of playing a violent video game! My impressions are based solely on the show.

        It was terrible. It was unscientific and sensationalized, relying solely on melodramatic pathos and questionable ethos.

        Welner wasn’t even the worst guy on the show. That title goes to a man whose name I forget, who believes video games are not free speech and who made repeated and unprofessional jabs at Justice Scalia. “He was wrong a lot as my Con Law professor and he was wrong there!” 

        Second place goes to the dad of a kid who shot his parents, killing his mom and injuring said dad. The guy matter-of-factly states that his son had suffered a severe injury that prevented him from physical activity and that his son once played seventy-two straight hours of video games. He then goes on to blame the tragedy on the makers of violent video games. Don’t get me wrong, this is a terrible tragedy and I feel very sorry for the dad. However, letting your child play video games seventy-two hours straight shouldn’t happen.

        The ignorance of other factors happened with the next interviewee, a football player who quit because of his addiction to violent video games. His depression and addiction to two other things were only mentioned in passing.

        I felt embarrassed watching the show. Embarassment for the audience. Embarassed for those who were interviewed. Embarassment for Katie Couric. Embarassment for all who were involved, who were so grossly misinformed.

        SIDENOTE: The show did have the absolute best stock video game footage I’ve ever seen. The guy was playing with one hand, pumping his fist with the other, and standing six inches from the television! He must have been so 1337.

        • The_Misanthrope says:

           I feel the unaddressed concern in most of these “reports” is video game addiction, which is something that needs addressing

    • JosephHilgard says:

      I think Smith overstates how “questionable” these studies are:  the methods are the best we’ve got, and Anderson, Bushman, and other researchers tend to find pretty reliable (albeit subtle) effects, at least for short-term experimental studies.  Researchers like Ferguson who do longer-term correlational studies tend not to find effects, but that’s a different question with its own set of methodological difficulties.

      • Enkidum says:

        Sounds like you know more about this sort of stuff than I do – I’m getting everything second hand from people who study games at the phd level. 

        What sort of effects are we talking about? Short term increase in number of aggressive actions among at-risk people, with no noticeable effects among the relatively well-adjusted? So far as I know (again, I’m very far from an expert here) that’s the main conclusion of the “violent tv causes violent behaviour” field, and one wishes the pearl-clutchers had stuck around to see that it turned out there was no effect that applied to the population as a whole.

        • JosephHilgard says:

          Well, the aggressive outcome is usually something like how eager you are to blast a stranger with painful amounts of noise, or how long they should have to hold their fist in a bucket of ice-cold water.  These are laboratory-sized slices of aggression, and clearly different from capital-V Violence, but it seems fairly reliable that people act a little more like jerks, either because they’re excited, they’re primed with aggression, or they feel like aggression is more normal.

          It’s possible that certain groups are more influenced than others, but Anderson, Bushman, Engelhardt, and others find main effects — on average, everyone’s a little bit affected.  I think it’s intellectually dishonest that our first reaction is usually “but surely it doesn’t affect _me!_”

          Long-term correlational researchers like Ferguson believe that gamers are too busy gaming to actually commit aggression or violence.  I think that’s also possible, but he might be looking at the wrong forms of aggression.  Just look at how gamers behave online, especially on XBOX Live — they can be pretty nasty people sometimes!

        • Jackbert says:

           Have there been any studies comparing aggression caused by video games to aggression caused by other competitive activities? For example, there was a study that compared video games in terms of aggression increases on scales of both competitiveness and violence. The non-violent competitive games came out on top, followed by violent competitive, violent non-competitive, and non-violent non-competitive. In an anecdotal sense, I only get noticeably aggressive when playing racing games. I’d like to see another study adding other competitive activities, such as sports or board games.

        • Girard says:

          It seems like the only coherent generalization one can take away from the various studies  is that, just as, say, a football/soccer game leads to people getting flushed with chemicals and more likely to be aggressive hoolgians in the short term, playing a violent video for a brief period of time (note one study mentions that when the game was played longer, aggression decreased) tends to lead to short-term aggressive behavior.

          Obviously, the ESA has a bias, but they have a pretty substantial list of studies that demonstrate low/no/negative correlation between game-playing and meaningful real-world violence.

        • Aurora Boreanaz says:

          @Girard – I HAVE noticed in the past that if I drive shortly after playing a GTA game for several hours, I have to fight the urge to swerve onto the shoulder and pass everyone.  But I’ve still never felt like driving through an outdoor mall and running people over until SWAT shows up.

        • Enkidum says:

          @AuroraBoreanaz:disqus I’ve noticed after playing a lot of GTA that I want to swerve into the oncoming lane whenever there’s a motorcyclist approaching. I don’t think it’s aggression per se, they just make such a satisfying noise as they fly over the hood.

        • Girard says:

          @AuroraBoreanaz:disqus : I think that’s just good ol’ motor conditioning. I used to get a g-rated version of that when riding my bike on the curvey paths on campus after playing too much Mario Kart Double Dash (oh how I’d lean into my turns hoping for those blue sparks!). 

      • Enkidum says:

        Hmmm… those results you mention above sound pretty reasonable to me. And nothing to really worry about.

  2. HobbesMkii says:

    Admittedly, I haven’t played as much of it as other because it’s just slightly too “adventure game-y” for me, but I think one reason The Walking Dead‘s moral choice system is more effective than, say, a Skryim or Fable is because there’s a more serious consequence in it among the other characters. If you make a cold heartless decision in Fallout: New Vegas (which happens to the the Weekly Game Review Club’s game of the week on the GS Steam group), the character it pisses off will go and attack you, or be uncooperative for the rest of the quest or whatever. In The Walking Dead, they don’t necessarily have that option because the setting requires that they stick around. So instead the mood just turns ugly. People don’t like you as much. And people do like you if you make good decisions. It’s your choice not only how (un)popular you want to be, but with whom you want to be popular with.

    By the by, the worst moral choice system has to be GTA IV‘s, where it matters not a whiff if you spare your old Balkan enemy or not (I opted to spare him, because it felt like the game was pushing me to kill him). The final moral choice basically asks you to choose between who you dislike more, the cousin who only has one contact number in his cellphone (yours) or the woman who will have no emotional impact on the game at all if you choose not to date her (and even if you do, there’s not much there). I guess it’s a difficult choice in that you have to decide whose life is worth more: GTA’s equivalent of Navi, or the sister of the guy you work with sometimes.

    • caspiancomic says:

       The Walking Dead’s choices succeed over a lot of other games’ partially because “morality” doesn’t really enter into it. Most of the major decisions you’re offered amount to choosing between two equally unpleasant but arguably necessary options, making it less a matter of choosing between “good and evil”, and more about making decisions that will add character depth to your own version of Lee. In the above mentioned example where you have to divide four food items among ten people, choosing any one person over another isn’t really a ‘moral’ decision, but who you choose and why will be very informative about what sort of a man Lee is, and in a much more probing way than just “is Lee a sweetheart or an asshole.”

      Another thing that sets it apart is that you’re almost always choosing your interpretation of the lesser of two evils. Particularly when characters are fighting among themselves (Kenny and Lilly’s power struggles especially), Lee is forced to either pick a side and risk pissing off the other character, or remaining neutral and pissing everybody off. Again- neither decision is morally superior to the other, it’s all rooted in the character you’re developing for Lee. And trying to make everyone happy just makes nobody happy.

      • The_Helmaroc_King says:

        I appreciate that the developers tried to remove The Walking Dead‘s choice system from some of the staid design decisions that a lot of other games make. Other than avoiding a black and white approach, they also avoided giving achievements for making specific choices: the achievement list only shows progress for completing each chapter. I’m also under the impression that there’s no specific benefit to having any given survivor with you; I’d rather not be picking and choosing who lives and who dies based on whether I want a bonus to melee vs. firearms.

        • Flying_Turtle says:

          Since I haven’t played this particular game, I was wondering about this. A lot of choices in games aren’t really about role-playing, but are about seeing content (like the achievement list you mentioned, or just wanting to see what happens if you take a particular option), or optimizing your party, or getting a particular reward. Even in this game, the decision not to shoot the woman with the crossbow before hearing her out might be, at least partially, about wanting to see what that character has to offer.

          Even without all that, it seems to me that it would be tough to really understand a character you control. If I try to make the decisions I think Lee would make, maybe I get him, maybe not. On the other hand, if I substitute my judgment for his, there’s nothing to understand anymore. He’s basically out of the story as a character at that point.

          For those of you that have played the game, how did you handle that? Try to be Lee? Substitute your own judgment? Some other option?

        • The_Misanthrope says:

           @Flying_Turtle:disqus :  Since I can’t reply directly to your post, this’ll have to do…

          My feeling–others may see it differently–is that Lee is defined as a person just enough to allow for a little player leeway.  There’s also the whole notion of the zombie apocalypse, which has the habit of making past selves less relevant.  Sure, his past still matters; He still harbors guilt over his estrangement from his family and shame/regret over his criminal.  However, he is soon thrust into new roles–Caretaker, De Facto Leader, etc.–and the past starts to seem like a luxury.

        • Girard says:

          @Flying_Turtle:disqus To build on what Misanthrope said, Lee’s backstory is also such that I think any of your choices will be “in character” without him being a totally blank cipher. He was a loving husband and father, but he was also at some point angry enough to kill a man.
          There’s a convincing case that a guy with that background could respond to the stress of a zombie apocalypse by becoming aggressive, self-serving and unpersonable, or by becoming nurturing and diplomatic. It also helps that, as mentioned above, a lot of the decisions are difficult pragmatic decisions rather than ‘moral’ ones, so while the choices aren’t fraught so much with “What Would Lee Do?” concerns of which selection is in character, their meaningful consequences do create character to the extent that they shape your character’s social relationships and impact how you end up behaving towards the others in your party.

        • ToddG says:

          @Flying_Turtle:disqus   Personally, I found that the ingenious inclusion of a fairly unforgiving timer for most major conversational decisions stripped away the layer of my brain that wanted to analyze the situation as a video game and instead forced me to just substitute my own judgment.  This is the most immersed I have ever been in a video game, for sure.

        • Enkidum says:

          @BreakingRad:disqus Yeah, the timer was a big component of the game – you can’t avoid choosing. I kind of wish they’d used more of it, actually.

        • Jackbert says:

           @BreakingRad:disqus : I played through the first episode this weekend and the timer has definitely been the most interesting part.


          In the very beginning, when the man driving you to prison is about to crash, you’re able to alert him, but you have very little time. I’m not sure what the options were, because I was so startled by the timer moving so fast that I pushed the first button my finger landed on. This resulted in me hollering “FUCKING DRIVE!!” Without the timer, I probably would’ve deliberated over a nice way to tell him there was a dude in the road, disconnecting me from the urgency of LOOK OUT, THERE’S A DUDE IN THE ROAD.

          Later, when you start meeting people, there were a couple times times where I was asked personal questions. All the options I could choose seemed too revealing, so I would pause for a bit. Then the timer would run out and I would look impolite and evasive. I only wanted to look evasive! Again, the timer forced me from being disconnected

          spoilers and comment done

      • EmperorNortonI says:

         Something I think we’ve discussed before is that most good/evil morality systems are aligned with the fantasy-world version of how good and evil work.  People are rewarded with praise and attention for good, while evil nets selfish monetary rewards that are not really any greater than what the good might achieve.  That’s just bullshit.  People who try to be good and helpful are taken advantage of or exploited often as not, and often enough resented by others for their goodness.  Much of modern society is set up explicitly to reward selfish greed and a complete lack of concern for our fellow man.  I dare anyone to create a morality system in which you’re constantly, yet realistically, punished for being “good.”

        • Aurora Boreanaz says:

          Yeah, what makes that system especially silly is the typical inclusion of changes to your appearance based on your good or evil choices.  Because, as everyone knows, evil people always look evil, usually with pale skin, black veins and a red aura.

        • Girard says:

          Yeah, one of the things I actually enjoy (not necessarily ‘like,’ but ‘enjoy’) about silly morality systems is that they let me play-act at being “good” in a consequence-free way, the same way some folks enjoy the catharthis of play-acting at being “bad” by robbing banks and running over prostitutes in GTA games.

          If I play ‘Paragon,’ or whatever, I get to do the kind-hearted thing and let the criminal run away without my killing him, without having to live with the potential disastrous real-world consequences of such a choice. And the game world gives me a gold star and increases my charisma so I get discounts at the stores on top of that!

        • The_Misanthrope says:

           Elevator pitch for a new RPG:  You play the CEO of a big game publisher.  Here’s the twist, though:  “good” actions will be those actions that protect the bottom line and court shareholder approval at the expense of everything else (making unreasonable benchmarks for  game studios, mandating DRM and microtransactions, denying any fresh new IP a chance, etc.) while the “bad” actions will be those that take consumer rights and interest in mind or show an interest in making “quality” games.  Spoiler Alert:  Both endings are fundamentally the same.  In both the good and bad endings, you leave the company with a “golden parachute” and thumb through your contacts to land your next high-paying job; the only difference is whether you leave voluntarily or are ousted by the board of directors.

      • Aurora Boreanaz says:

        One of these days I have to get around to playing The Witcher, because it has sort of the same system – all of the big choices in the game are basically between two crappy options, and you have to pick which one you hate less.  (Do I kill the witch that the townspeople are afraid of, or spare her and have to kill the townspeople instead when they attack us both?)

        I remember discussing The Walking Dead here a few months ago when I finished it, and the big thing was that most of the actual physical events in the game don’t change much, just how the other people react to you based on your emotional and intellectual choices.  At first I was disappointed to hear this, as I thought making a second playthrough with Lee as a jerk would be wildly different, but it really is the character interactions that make the game anyway, not the few action sequences.  (Those are pretty damn awesome, though…the first time I fought the babysitter in the kitchen, my heart was racing and I had to stop for a minute to recover!)

    • The_Misanthrope says:

       I might draw some fire for this, but I think the Mass Effect morality system is the worst.  Mind you, it works pretty well if you stay away from either extreme, but once you got either all-Renegade or all-Paragon (which is the only way to optimize the powers), Shepard starts to become an unlikable person. 

      I get that the Renegade side is meant to a no-nonsense Captain Kirk path, but it ventures far too often into the “being an asshole for no good reason” territory.  “Awww, one of your crewmates died horribly and you’ve come to me, your Captain, for a sympathetic ear?  Well, tough luck, princess, this is war and everyone is just waiting their turn in the meat grinder!  Feeling are a liability!” 

      Meanwhile, the Paragon side is all good and righteous, but it also has that Lawful Stupid problem that every afflicts every other paladin character.  The law is the law and no deviation should be allowed, no matter the circumstance(mind you, he still hijacks the Normandy, but that’s dictated by the plot).

      • Girard says:

        Bioware binary morality systems are stupid as shit, yeah 
        (I haven’t played Dragon Age, though – I’ve heard it eschews the black/white morality for a measure of your social standing with different people in your party, which, if true, seems a lot more interesting and truer to life).

        You can palpably see how false and contructed the moral binary is when there are so many choices where I honestly had no idea which was the “Paragon” or “Renegade” choice, because, hey, choices typically don’t fall into easy categories. There were plenty of times when the “righteous” choice wasn’t the “lawful” choice, and because used these vague, arbitrary, binary terms, I had no idea whether the lawful, dickish choice was Paragon, or the righteous, rebellious choice was Paragon.

        Actually, I did know, because Bioware’s little dialogue wheel always placed the choices in the same area. Mass Effect’s moral system doesn’t impart empathy, but it doe teach you the important moral lesson that “goodness = upper-right”…

        • HobbesMkii says:

           Down-left = Sucker Punch that Reporter

        • DrFlimFlam says:

          Dragon Age II specifically had a set of images that indicated your response as “tough”, “joking”, etc. It was interesting that you weren’t either good, neutral, or jerk.

          My latest ME run has been fascinating in that I’ve not hewed to any given side. My character is more Renegade than Paragon, but that’s only because Paragon is too often too nice, and I say this as a classic ultra-Paragon kind of player.

          Ultimately, you can choose what you want, and the real disservice, I’ve found, is putting your character on rails, a slave to the upper or lower option. That’s not a person. That’s an ideal.

        • Aurora Boreanaz says:

          If you focus solely on Paragon or Renegade it is pretty stupid.  I had quite a bit of fun playing mostly Paragon but not being afraid to go Renegade when it made sense.

          Stopping a friend from killing a traitor in cold blood?  Yes, Paragon.  That same traitor pulls a gun and aims it at said friend?  HELL no, Renegade headshot.

        • Girard says:

          I didn’t care too much about my stats (I just tried to role-play a benevolent character, and ended up mostly Paragon), but it would definitely be jarring when I would be consistently be making what I felt were benevolent in-character choices, but occasionally one would just net me, like 10 Renegade points because the game arbitrarily decided that for a given decision Paragon meant “strictly adhere to the letter of the law” or something.

          If only roleplaying games had developed a more nuanced, but still systematic and calculable morality system. Perhaps something that had separate measures for goodness and lawfulness, and in which ‘neutral’ was a valid identified category. Perhaps if the most influential and paradigmatic role-playing system ever devised had incorporated such a moral scale, it would have made its way into video games. However, I don’t think we’ll ever see that day…

      • JohnnyLongtorso says:

        I’ve been playing through ME1 again, and it’s kind of amusing how Shepard is willing to allow the Rachni Queen and the Thorium thing to live just because they say “no, really, I’m reformed now”. That seems like a big liability.

  3. lokimotive says:

    I feel like there’s a lot of complaints about Telltales’s Walking Dead series that center on its linearity. These criticisms basically call the series an interactive movie, taking for granted that the term is weighted negatively, which, of course is understandable given what was usually marketed as an ‘interactive movie’ in the nascent CD-ROM days.

    But The Walking Dead succeeds where those games failed because it strives for the empathy that this article discusses. Very early in the game [Somewhat spoilerish] you have to bash a zombies head in with a hammer given to you by a small girl. The challenge, superficially, in this sequence is that you must move a cross hair over the zombie’s head and hit a button to successfully strike. But that’s not really what’s going on. Moments before in the game you discovered the back story of this zombie, she was the babysitter of the girl who gave you the hammer: her protector now transformed. And you as the game’s protagonist are tasked with dealing with the current abomination not just to protect yourself but to protect this girl who you just met. And the sequence plays out in gruesome detail as you repeatedly slam your hammer into the zombie’s head hoping that it stops crawling towards you. It’s a visceral moment in the game, and it illustrates the power of interactivity. You, in the role of Lee are the agent in this melee… and it is designed to alienate you from the violence.

    Which isn’t to say that The Walking Dead is a perfect game, or even a perfect ‘game’, but it is an excellent example of storytelling precisely because of the qualities elucidated in this article. It’s also a great example of the potential for the medium in terms of alternative means of storytelling.

  4. rvb1023 says:

    I always felt that games do have a tendency to be more impressionable if only because I believe video games can have a greater emotional response than other mediums such as film, books, etc., despite not reaching a wider audience (feel free to disagree). But really I see them as dangerous as those things as well, so not at all.

    As such I agree with most of the things you said, particularly about being able to experience the plight of others you would otherwise be unable to. And yes, while a video game will never be a substitution for the real thing, it can and would allow others to empathize.

    This is also another article that reminds me I have yet to play The Walking Dead because I have never enjoyed a Telltale game up until that one. Should probably get around to that.

    • I think what’s great about video games is how much it makes you think about ideas in a personal level.

      Bioshock and Bioshock Infinite are great examples of this. Upon finishing Infinite and replaying the first Bioshock, i’d never thought that i would be thinking about multiverses and human greed on a personal and emotional level until the endings of both games.

      I mean, movies about time travel (like The Terminator and Looper) makes you think about the theory, but Bioshock Infinite takes it to a personal level. I love it.

    • Girard says:

      Give it a shot. It’s definitely trying something different than prior Telltale games (which were basically trying, and falling, to recapture 90s LucasArts magic), and largely succeeds at it.

    • Zack Handlen says:

      Well, if you think about it, one of the goals of modern gaming is creating as immersive an experience as possible–better graphics, more intuitive controls, more fluid storytelling. Things get tricky when designers don’t reckon on the power that immersion can have. I don’t think games cause violence, but there is a kind of feedback loop between a player’s innate aggression, and a game’s willingness to exploit that aggression for pleasure; it teaches a specific response to problem solving, and even combat games that promote stealth over fighting operate on the tension between the claustrophobic nervousness of sneaking, and the thrilling release of being kill-happy. I think stuff like this definitely has a place in the medium (I’m not a huge fan of military-influenced FPS, but I love shooting monsters and using my magical murder bag to make my way through Dickensian steampunk knock-offs), but we need to acknowledge that these are systems that have power behind them. “GAMES ARE EVIL AND ARE DESTROYING ARE CHILDREN!!!” is ridiculous, mainly because it assumes a moral perspective with a binary response (in that either you’re defending innocence, or you’re fighting Big Brother), but there is a discussion worth having underneath all the rhetoric. These are powerful tools we’re working with; what do we want to do with them?

      • Aurora Boreanaz says:

        That’s the big thing all of these anti-games activists refuse to acknowledge – the people who commit violence and blame video games (or entertainment media in general) had problems before the game brought them out into the open.

        Back in 2007, Penny Arcade commented on a story about three teens who beat a homeless man to death.  One of the teens equated the act to playing a video game.  Gabe at first blamed the parents for not raising him to be a decent human being.  Within a day or two, he received a response email from the boy’s step-mother, explaining the horror they experienced trying to get this kid to act like a human.  He clearly had problems to begin with, and did not become a killer because he played GTA 3. – First post, under heading “Here We Go Again”. – The follow-up is under the heading “A rare opportunity”.

    • Naked Man Holding A Fudgesicle says:

      Yeah! Pynchon’s early works have been getting away with this bullshit for far too long, damn it!

      And don’t get me started on /Gravity’s Rainbow/‘s ridiculous opinions on the merits of moral choices in Bioshock 2.    

      Juvenile Renandstimpypoofs, the lot of them.

    • The Guilty Party says:

      Teenaged boys aren’t known for being big on empathy. I presume that is who hangs out in /v/ because it looks kinda like something throwing the horns, and that’s something kids do now, right? Throwing the horns, and creaming the feels.

  5. The_Helmaroc_King says:

    I think that one of the things that makes it difficult for players to empathize with games is the utility of their actions. This may put me in the minority on this site, but I have a difficult time separating games as narratives from games as systems, since games are (at a basic level) systems with defined inputs and outputs. Even when games present an interesting narrative, my actions don’t necessarily reflect my intentions as an actor within the narrative but my intentions as an actor within the system. Oftentimes, I’ll act in ways that would be odd for a character in the narrative simply to test the bounds of the system.

    “Yes, those characters are fighting for their lives over there, but the cutscene where they die won’t trigger until I cross this invisible line, so I can rummage through these boxes as much as I want.”

    I don’t want people to mistake this as a knock against immersion-breaking moments in games; when games do enforce immersion (e.g. a time limit to reach a certain point) that simply changes the boundaries of the system. After all, failing a time limit usually sends me back to a checkpoint anyway, and that’s not going to keep me immersed any more than the alternative.

    I haven’t played the game yet, so I wonder how well The Walking Dead handles these kinds of issues. I think it might fare better because the narrative and the gameplay share one singular, relatable goal: survival. Moreover, I’m under the impression that whether other characters live or die doesn’t force the game to end or cost you some benefit, but the game goes on regardless. I look forward to seeing how well it works for myself.

    • tinwhistle1 says:

      This is a thoughtful note and you make some great points in it. Like you, I have not played this game (although this article makes me think I should), but I see where you are coming from in terms of “game as system” as opposed to “game as narrative”. I think this goes to the very idea of why we play games. I love a good RPG, but even then I will look behind every door and do every side quest despite the inevitible looming doom I am supposed to be preventing. Does that mean I don’t appreciate the story or want well-developed characters? No. But I think there are genuine limits on how much immersion can be enforced. Much like when I read a great book, I may imagine myself in Huck Finn’s or Don Quixote’s shoes, but I don’t say or do the same things they do, they are as unique as real live individuals with different motives.

      Video games do strive for a level of immersion that cannot be reached in literature or film by virtue of the fact that I CAN control the actions of the protagonist. But I no more feel I am that person than I feel I am a puppet that I happen to be manipulating. Sure it is doing things I am commanding it to do, but that doesn’t mean I am lost in its narrative. 

      I would say then that games like the Walking Dead and others that strive for immersion are far more akin to acting out a scene. Sure you may improvise, but you are still limited by the confines of the stage or scenario as to how you can react. While some actors do get more involved in their characters than others, there are limits as to how much we can become others. In this sense I think true immersion may be a pipe dream, no matter how good the story or technology. 

      • duwease says:

        I have the same feelings in general, but I think Walking Dead handled it well (at least in my case).  I very rarely felt like I was limited to dialogue choices which didn’t represent what I really wanted to say at the time.. I think they did a good job anticipating what a person would realistically say in the scenarios while still providing options.  This is opposed to most games, where the options are something ridiculously and naively selfless and good, and something absurdly over-the-top evil.

    • GhaleonQ says:

      It’s funny that you call “wasteland survival” “relatable,” because that’s my main issue with Ryan’s sort of praise. (His essay was much better than the usual, but I think he’s dead wrong.)

      Basically, your suspicions are correct.  Because the i.p.’s theme is “what people do to survive apocalypse” and because Telltale limited the plot points and sorts of things you can do unrelated to that theme, ultimately anything you do is system-related.  It’s late, but let me try to explain why I think it’s problematic.  (I should say this is not unrealistic hipster criticism that blockbuster games should take crazy, difficult, genre-busting, art game risks that would be SO DARN COOL. It’s pushback on praise that characterizes it as such and criticism of a writing-based game that has sucky writing and sucky gameplay. I hate this game.)

      1.  The game tries to explain everything.  It’s more like The Twilight Zone than anything actually unsettling.  “You made this decision?  WELL, STARE AT THE CONSEQUENCES OF AN IMPERFECT WORLD.”  In better video games, the consequences of your actions can be made unknown to you, like real life.  That’s frightening.  Even better, some allow you to choose whether or not you discover what came after your choices.  Choosing moral culpability is a greater step toward empathy than fretting over unavoidably difficult situations.

      So, you can’t break the death-based narrative, but that led the writers to plot every outcome rather than use place, tone, or theme to steer you back to the narrative track.

      2.  I should say that comics like The Spectre solved this by making the protagonist God’s avatar who sees all.  By being intrinsically all-powerful, there’s a special level of responsibility: theodicy.  The Walking Dead characters can be extrinsically all-powerful by holding the keys to life and death, but we know that their power is temporary.  This could be interesting if Telltale had the guts to take away your power permanently.  Imagine a game where not shooting a threat didn’t prevent you from “winning,” but made you spend hours of a game breaking out of a cage or playing a primarily dialogue-driven path with your captors rather than derring-do.  The Walking Dead, because there’s no failstate or breakstate, is always obligated to make you the center of the most important action.  Ryan is wrong, despite the nice essay.  You will always return to power, so the highest moral state you can aspire to is sympathy, NOT empathy or sacrifice. 

      3.  Ultimately, that’s my issue.  What system of ethics does The Walking Dead actually teach?  Nothing, say I.  “Generic human rights-based sympathy.”  I don’t expect a non-art game to build up a “pre-crisis” description of the world’s ethics.  It can coast on 2013 generic American mores.  However, it never leads to anything.  Because they made the game unbreakable in a certain way, they just want you to get “a lot” of people out of the situation alive.

      Fricking dating games have more ethical complexity, because you have the same array of choices but a more complex endstate (Do you want a mate, for what sort of person are you looking, and what sort of person do you want her to change to be by the end of your story?).  When “living” is presented as the only ultimate good and “niceness” is the only counterintuitive ethical system to counter that good, The Walking Dead doesn’t explain why any lower stakes should matter.  Oh, your feelings are hurt?  Well, you’re alive, right?  Oh, I killed the bad man even though he wasn’t bad right then?  Well, what if he turned bad again?

      Because of that, the game has no meaning.  It’s the game version of the hypothetical question, “Could you ever kill a person?”  (“Well, I mean, if they were threatening my family or if I was in a war, I mean, maybe.”  No real stakes there.)

      I think the real goal for video games ought not to be to prevent the world’s worst people from doing the worst things, but to make the world’s average person do great things.  You know, like real art.  SOMETHING SOMETHING LOVDELIC.

      • The_Helmaroc_King says:

        “Relatable” may not be the best word for it, but survival is definitely pretty basic on the hierarchy of needs so I think it’s something that most people could potentially relate to, even if the setting is so far removed from our own lives.

        That’s definitely a detailed reason to dislike the game; I suspect that I may disagree, have I played it, but I’ll defer for now. I’m not sure I can distill your criticisms, but it sounds like you found the game too simplistic and predictable, ethically speaking?

        Have you heard of the game Papers, Please? It’s not out yet, but it’s been approved on Steam Greenlight; the link goes to a playthrough of the beta, which you can download from the developer’s site. You play as a border agent responsible for controlling who enters a recently-opened communist country. It sounds like it answers some of your more stringent criticisms, as it introduces a number of potential conflicting goals; the most immediate are your own, as the more people you process the more you can afford food and shelter for your family, and mistakes can be punished financially, but the game gradually introduces a number of factors both within and beyond your control that complicate the situation while making your position more difficult. You’re also removed from the consequences of most of your decisions; as far as I’m aware, you never see the majority of the immigrants again after handling their documents, excepting the occasional newspaper clipping.

        • GhaleonQ says:

          *couple fighting outside of my apartment woke me up*  I’ll get back to you, but to summarize, 1: horror games and “real world” games shouldn’t explain everything, 2: if they do, they should explain everything in a novel way that includes actual vulnerability or 3: at least explain everything to make some larger point.  Otherwise, it’s just like the bad comic on which it’s based.

        • Girard says:

          @GhaleonQ:disqus : You hear a couple fighting outside of your apartment. Do you…

          -kick open the door, and shoot both members of the couple in the stomach?
          -grab the tin of fresh-baked cookies your mom had sent you for your birthday, and bring them out into the hall to share and broker peace?

        • GhaleonQ says:

          Girard, I was going to make that same joke, but the content of the fight made me genuinely too sad to make.  Everyone, don’t be jerks to your s.o.s, okay?

          King, yeah, basically, it never equips you, morally, for what you encounter.  In the same way that the world is easy for a person who’s a jerk to others and ignorant of the world outside of himself, it never connects the little moral choices to the life-or-death ones.  It never leads to situations where both matter.

          Papers, Please sounds great (I say that as someone indie-phobic), so thanks, sincerely.

      • ProfFarnsworth says:

        Your reply is very good.  I feel that games have the power to really explain and discuss morality and ethics in a way that no other medium could do.

      • Girard says:

        I like your idea of “fail states” that aren’t “game over” screens, that more closely resemble the “fail states” in real life, which typically don’t end in your death, but do end in disappointment or setbacks.

        I feel like Walking Dead tried to do this, by having more subtle failings that weren’t objectively failures – you were more likely to fail in the eyes of another character than you were to do something objectively wrong. I, personally, found this interesting, and an acknowledgment of the intersubjective nature of ethics, but, yeah, it was also a fairly slight treatment of it.

        It would be interesting if, in the inevitable second game, they take the current system they have as granted, and extend the gameplay possibilities so that some choices have more meaningful consequences (and, per your other criticism, doesn’t try so hard to tell us why those choices were meaningful).

        • Canadian gamer says:

          You know what kind of fail state would have the greatest impact? In my view, that’d be choosing an option and then be stopped and having others know you would have done it, even though you didn’t succeed. Think of any game where they leave you the choice to shoot or to spare someone and add that twist: if you decide to shoot, the game will stop you for whatever reason, but things will go on and the person you would have shot will never look at you the same way again. The gaming equivalent of being caught with the hand almost grabbing the provierbial biscuit in the jar, in short.

    • duwease says:

      Great points.  Most of the time the “game” portions of a game  seem to be happening in a context-free universe somewhat parallel to the storyline.  They’re a consequence-free playground where metagame things like cool loot, achievements, and abstract challenges such as “get to point A to point B without being hit more than 10 times” are the focus.  It takes a consciously maintained suspension of disbelief to reconcile it with the story aspects.

      That said, I think you’ll really enjoy The Walking Dead, which handles this superbly.  The popular knock on it is its linearity, but I think that’s a strength, for all the reasons you mentioned.  You aren’t item hunting, there are no achievements for gaming the system, and there is nothing to distract you from the immersion of the natural progression of the storyline.  Things march forward, without you being distracted by a desire to do unrelated busywork on the side.

    • Girard says:

      I don’t think you’re in the minority – ludonarrative dissonance has definitely become a critical buzzword of late, and part of the reason for that is because it’s become a more glaring problem. Games, like all art, need to consider the relationship between formal elements and content to be successful, and it seems like a lot of AAA games, maybe because the formal elements (mechanics) are designed by different committees than the content (narrative, themes), have a hard time reconciling those.

      So you get young Lara Croft having a nervous breakdown the first time she kills a deer, then again the first time she kills a man, then immediately have a level where she’s plowing through baddies popping their skulls with a pistol. Or you get Commander Shepard, ignoring a concern that the narrative insists is pressing to dick around (“The Collectors have landed on another human colony!” “Yeah, yeah, but first let me mine all the titanium in the galaxy….”)

      Walking Dead deals with this largely by leaning more or the narrative than the gameplay, and by and parge paring down the gameplay to be really lean and serve the story (which isn’t a universally good design choice, but works really well here). Often choices come in the form of “snap decisions” where all you can do is make that choice, and you have to do it fast, and there’s simply no option to walk off and dig through garbage cans. Likewise, each scene/setting is fairly self-contained, so there’s little opportunity for dicking around when the game wants you to do something (there are no sidequests or whatever). The main points of agency are the social/moral choices, and because they’re all explicitly scripted (rather than procedural or tied to a stat like in some CRPGs), all of your choices are “remembered” and handled by the narrative.

      • GhaleonQ says:

        Yep, yep.  Now, let’s see if complex game systems can survive dissonance.  If good role-players can do it, video games can do it.

    • belgand says:

      One of the worst instances of this occured in Heavy Rain where on my first playthrough I did the “right” thing to get the “good” ending. Because it’s the good one, not because it legitimately reflected how I felt. Frankly, if the game reflected how I actually felt I would have turned it off because I didn’t care one whit for these whiny people.

      Regardless going for the other endings I went back and decided that I was going to let my son die. I got to the end bit and then, rather than saving him, I just stood there watching as I waited for him to expire. It was actually quite satisfying and as I waited I worked through the motivation for it. The idea that I’d been through so much, but in the end when finally confronted with it I decided that I really would like not having any kids and this was a pretty good way to accomplish that. The problem is that the game just wouldn’t let me. Not that it wouldn’t let me have the generically emotionally manipulative ending where I just fail to save him in time, but it literally just wouldn’t happen. The music swelled with dramatic import and a sense of urgency, the camera angels swooped around and then… it just started all over again. Ten or so minutes passed as if to say to me “I’m getting rather cold over here so could we please wrap this up and go get lunch?” and still nothing. It removed agency from me as a player and made it impossible to fail. I could, of course, have failed earlier in a couple of ways, but only ones that were nicely sanitized and sufficiently weepy in the right way. When it came down to it my actions didn’t matter unless I was making the very specific ones that would trigger the proper cutscene with QTEs that the game is made of.

      Rather than caring about actually hurrying the game beaks. I could go off and grab a sandwich and then come back as long as I had completed the proper steps in advance. It meant that my actions were ultimately meaningless in the same way as turning the page in a book. Even a film is more interactive in that I might have missed something if I left it alone.

      Sadly, I never got to see that little boy drown as he watched his father consciously choose not to exert a small amount of effort to save his life. That’s a compelling and interesting narrative and something we don’t often see because it isn’t the default “good” option. I feel like my life is worsened for having missed out on it.

  6. Citric says:

    I think with any entertainment you engender empathy if it’s well written, you discourage it if it’s not. Something like Persona 4, I care a great deal about the characters, what their struggles are, even what they think of me, because it’s a really well written game with a great cast. On the other hand, something like the first Assassin’s Creed, none of the characters are well drawn enough to really get me to care. Desmond’s bland, Altair is a jerk, and everyone else is just there to get stabbed and give long speeches.
    But then, any other media has the same problem. You feel empathy for well written characters and don’t care about the bad ones. I mean, I watched the Grey last night, and I was rooting for the wolves. I didn’t want the characters to live, I wanted the wolves to eat them, because the wolves were smarter and significantly less annoying, and once everyone was eaten the movie would be over. Does that mean that film as a whole doesn’t engender empathy? No, and you’d have to fail to understand our capacity for kindness to think that. 

    • The Guilty Party says:

      Assassin’s Creed could have been a lot better if they let you reorder the speeches and the stabbing.

    • Girard says:

      Sounds like Grey WAS getting you to empathize – with the non-human characters! What a triumph of empathy!

  7. Ted Kindig says:

    I have a neat little theory that the difference between being a good person or not is generally a matter of bothering to ask what “the right thing to do” is in any given situation: people rarely choose to be “bad” when confronted with a direct choice, but they allow it to happen when they don’t engage with the world around them in moral terms–it allows me to be thoroughly optimistic and pessimistic about human nature at the same time.

    The right games can definitely strengthen those moral muscles. I’ve noticed that I personally was much more morally conscious while playing the Mass Effect trilogy, as I typically tried to eke as many paragon points as I could out of the game and saw that awareness bleeding into real life. Walking Dead doesn’t have the same reward system, but it definitely gets you thinking about “the right thing” on a near constant basis–the data suggesting that players typically did good in spite of self-interest even strengthens my theory about how people behave when given clear moral choices, and it would be interesting to study if/how that affects players’  real lives.

    It disappoints me all the more then when player agency is reduced to how many different unique murder animations you can trigger, because fostering personal moral consciousness is one of the most positive and unique artistic merits of the art form.

    • Citric says:

      It also gives unique insights into your personality. For instance, in Mass Effect I was generally a nice guy, but Ashley got on my nerves and I thought that the council was being a bit of a dick most of the time. So I could not sacrifice Ashley fast enough, even though I was only doing that because I didn’t like her, and while the sacrifice of the council was presented as a choice which had greater implications for casualties, I really let them die just because they were jerks.

      It leads to an interesting question, would I let someone die just because I don’t like them? I can really think of only two people in reality who I dislike as much as Ashley Williams, but I wonder how I’d actually react in that situation, and in the one case, I’m pretty sure I’d happily let him die, which does concern me. In my defense, he’s a massive prick.

      • The Guilty Party says:

        I think it’s easier to think ‘I would let this asshole die’ than to actually do it, when it comes down to it. You can wish him dead all you like, but if your finger was on a button that would kill him, I highly doubt that you’d be able to convince yourself to press it. Barring outside influence, and assuming he hasn’t been committing felonies against you and your loved ones, naturally.

        • Citric says:

          I don’t really wish him dead, per se, I wouldn’t actively try to kill him or even think that he deserves to die, I just think that if given the choice, I probably wouldn’t go through any extra effort to save his life. The whole “I wouldn’t piss on him if he was on fire” scenario. Which is something that reflects how I act in games. It’s just that in games you more often get thinly drawn characters who are easy to just let get killed, while in real life most people are much more complex so it’s a lot less easy to feel comfortable letting people die. Ashley Williams is never going to reveal hidden depths of kindness, because she’s just code, while I’ve known many people who I initially didn’t like who became good friends as I began to understand them.

          Except this one guy, who somehow became an increasingly awful person until I didn’t have to deal with him anymore (hooray!). 

      • Aurora Boreanaz says:

        I also didn’t hesitate in picking Ashley for the suicide mission.  I pretty much stopped talking to her after her first racist rant.

        The Council was more difficult.  I took a few moments to consider letting them die…and in the end, decided my personal feelings weren’t important compared to the well-being of representatives of entire races, and grudgingly saved their sorry asses.

        • DrFlimFlam says:

          I hate both Kaiden and Ashley and would have been fine with both biting it. This time I’m going to finally let Ashley go away, but it doesn’t mean I like or will tolerate Kaiden.

          I did applaud the way he handled his teacher.

        • neodocT says:

           I let Ashley die because I didn’t gel with her believing in God. I mean, there were plenty of reasons, but that was the one that did it for me. I just didn’t feel like having to endure the religious conversations that may or may not have popped up again throughout the series.

          I still feel so guilty for that one!

        • DrFlimFlam says:

           @neodocT:disqus , I don’t remember talking about God much, but I do remember shaking my head that a person who has discovered all of these alien races still believes in one group’s view of reality.

        • Girard says:

          @drflimflam:disqus I actually probably would have believed it more if she actually believed in something more specific, if she belonged to a well-fleshed-out future human belief system that somehow fit in this future multicultural milieu. But that was too hard for Bioware to write, so she just has the “religious” box ticked on her character description, and talks vaguely about “God” and is kind of racist.

    • ProfFarnsworth says:

      I really love the Mass Effect series due to the depth of the moral choices.  While it was terribly flawed, I enjoyed the fact that I had to ask myself, “why am I choosing this? Is this do to the fact that I want the consequence or do I think it is the right thing to do?”  For me, I found that I enjoyed the game far more when I felt that I chose what I thought was right, vs. what gave the best outcome.  This made the final installment feel really consequence driven and drew me in even farther.

      • Jonathan Dewar says:

        The Witcher games are another great example of providing great choices in a game.  So many things you can decide in either game is really just a matter of picking what you think is the lesser of two evils.  There are no clear right or wrong choices because in the end, pretty much everything that ends up happening as a result of Geralt’s choices is pretty shitty in general.

        • Girard says:

          I have a free copy of Witcher just sitting there on my GOG account – I should give it a spin sometime.

        • Aurora Boreanaz says:

          Drat, I knew I should have searched before posting to see if someone had already mentioned this.

      • DrFlimFlam says:

        In my current, more nuanced playthrough, the Rachni Queen presented a huge quandary for me. My uber-paragon set her free, but my RENEGADE killed her dead. What does my current character do? What is she thinking?

        She let it go, and then two hours later made an ExoGeni scientist pay for Thorian experimentation the hard way. It’s a strange universe out there.

    • Girard says:

      I found Mass Effect’s silly binary moral system actually highlighted the pitfalls of framing every situation as “Is this a good or bad choice?” because any time the situation in question had any nuance, it ended up feeling like the Paragon and Renegade points were arbitrarily assigned.

      Oh, so it was a Paragon move to kill that guy that the game decided was a bad person, because it obeyed the letter of the law, but it’s a Renegade move to kill the alien space bug responsible for an almost-complete galactic genocide, rather than free it from the lab in which is was captured? There were definitely times when I, trying to be as righteous a Paragon as possible, would make a choice that the game would decide was Renegade, and it generated a weird dissonance (it especially seemed to have a hard time deciding whether breaking the law to serve a greater good counted as one or the other).

      It was like Bioware realized how utterly stupid the ‘moral’ dialogue choices had been in the KotoR games (“No need to pay me, kindness is it’s own reward! In fact, have my money!” vs. “I’m going to kill you and your grandmother and just take all of your money!”), and tried to make the situations more morally complex, but still felt compelled to shoehorn them into a bullshit binary moral system. And in so doing, showed how arbitrary and useless black/white moral systems are (which, in itself, is a pretty important moral education, I guess…).

      • Aurora Boreanaz says:

        I couldn’t help but laugh the first time that exchange actually happened in KoTOR.  Really?  I’m such a “good guy” that it’s not enough to save someone from muggers, but I then have to give them money as well?

      • Citric says:

        I hate the whole binary moral choice system, because either you get ridiculous splits – inFamous was really bad about this, the evil choice was almost always “murder everyone for seemingly no reason” – or the values are kind of arbitrary and make sense only to the developers. I thought most of the choices in Mass Effect were interesting from a story perspective, but I thought the impact was kind of lessened when you found out which part of the scale they boosted.

      • Ted Kindig says:

        I don’t know that that’s a problem though. When you part ways with the game’s conception of good or bad, you’re making the exact sort of productive moral choice I’m talking about–the value isn’t necessarily in practicing a narrow conception of good all the time, but in giving proper weight and decisive action to these sometimes tricky moral situations. Mass Effect would probably be more interesting without the binary system–perhaps something more akin to the Big Five of personality psychology for reputation points–but the fact that it encourages moral reasoning is good in and of itself.

        • Citric says:

          I think Mass Effect would have been more interesting with a silent consequences setup. Your actions would affect the story, and they’d affect how party members and others who know about your actions view you, but you don’t get a ding that announces you’re a bit more of a paragon or renegade because of the thing you just did.

        • Girard says:

          @Citric:disqus : I played Walking Dead with the “dings” turned off, and that was the experience I had with that game. It was pretty effective. I would make choices, have conversations, and then later, characters would acknowledge those choices, or their trust in me would be higher or lower, and only then would I realize the repercussions my decisions had had. Not only were the consequences “silent,” also, my choices were judged not by some arbitrary rigid good/bad construct but by the actual other people I was developing relationships with. It felt more veridical, and was definitely more interesting.

          It was much more effective than choices largely being used to fill up blue or red meters to unlock special “charm” or “intimidate” dialogue choices.

      • ProfFarnsworth says:

        I also laughed at the moral choices of Knights of the Old Republic.  Then I realized that yes the choices are extremely pathetic, but there was a spark of greatness in all that dialogue.  I could see a lot of moral ambiguity between sith and jedi, that my 16 year old self would never had caught.  I really enjoyed making my own thoughts and saying “screw the choices” I will have my own ideas going into this first.  I like and appreciate your reply. 

  8. Cloks says:

    My favorite comment from the Couric piece:

    “Typical liberal democratic garbage…it’s always the games fault, the games make people kill. Biggest load of crap I’eve ever heard. How about the meds those kids were on? I notice Katie didn’t mention that…typical liberal.”

  9. DrFlimFlam says:

    I am certain that games can have a desensitizing effect, but so can most forms of entertainment. I just saw Iron Man 3, and holy smokes, how many people die, how many things explode, just cuz?

    One game I’m terribly fond of is Animal Crossing (I’ve played them all and, as previously mentioned, have a pre-order down for the 3DS XL that comes with it), where you cultivate shallow but long-term relationships with townsfolk. People move into town, you greet them, ask them how it’s going, and play games with them. And sometimes they move out, and you cry, because Tangy was your favorite, she was always in such a good mood, and you play “Ain’t No Sunshine” over and over again until it’s just a dull ache in your chest. You can go around and hit neighbors with a butterfly net until they get upset, or you can go talk to the bear with the dark clouds over his head and see what’s going on. You send gifts in the mail and create new catchphrases that don’t HAVE to be swear words. It’s an entire game franchise built around the idea of community, even moreso as connected consoles allow us to visit the towns of others. In a world where even the most benign action games involve stomping on foes and hurling fireballs at others, a game that’s about the simple non-violent pleasures in life is unique and worth celebrating.

    • neodocT says:

      I thought it was strange that I noticed how many people died in Iron Man 3. I have no idea why, I’m certainly no stranger to action movies, but these deaths bugged me. There’s one guy that Tony Stark knocks out, and he falls face first in a fountain. That guy is going to drown! What the hell, Tony?!

      Recent episodes of Doctor Who have similarly surprised me for their violence. There’s an episode set in a submarine in which a guy is dismembered! It’s all done off-screen, but I still thought it was prett shocking.

      If the recent backlash against Bioshock Infinite and Tomb Raider mean anything, is that I think we’re due for fiction that attemps to seriously consider the cost of taking lives. I accept that Lara Croft may have to kill some guys, but make it meaningful. I feel that having less enemies, who are more difficult to kill, may get across the idea that it is hard to kill people. It’s certainly better than just mowing down enemies.

      As to Animal Crossing, I love those games. I remember when the Gamecube version came out, me, my brother and a friend created three characters, and took turns playing around in the city. When we did everything we could, we would advance the internal clock to start again the next “day”.

      I also played the DS version for months, but eventually dropped it when it became too much busywork. I enjoy the game, but at some point, logging in just to pull weeds feels wrong.

      • DrFlimFlam says:

        I was bothered by the fountain guy, too. He gets knocked out and he’s never waking up. I get that they would have killed him, but Tony Stark basically goes killer on regular slimy bodyguards. I get the Extremis guys, but Joe Ponytail?

        • neodocT says:

           At the very least he could have pulled him out of the water. The guy was already knocked down, he didn’t have to leave him to his death as well.

          I think having one of the security guys just give up because he didn’t care enough to fight back may have humanized the them a bit more than was intended.

      • Girard says:

        It would be interesting to see a game acknowledge that is it “hard to kill people,” not just physically, but psychologically. It would cause a media shitstorm*, but imagine a scene as wrenching and agonizing as the interactive self-harm scenes in Walking Dead or Heavy rain, but where you’re harming someone else. Make the act of killing someone genuinely agonizing and disturbing for the person doing the act, as well as the victim.

        I’ve mentioned it here before, but the book ‘On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society,’ by Dave Grossman (a military guy, and not a zealous pacifist) is a great exploration of just how difficult it is for people, even soldiers, to kill other people. Ironically, contemporary training regimens to make soldiers better killers than they have ever been in history bank on the development of trained, pre-cognitive “snap” reactions, which are…the kinds of reactions encouraged by most shooting games, which is why the military releases video games and opens arcades as recruiting measures, and uses digital simulations increasingly in training. So while games could definitely articulate the psychological cost of killing, they also, at least in their current form, are extremely effective at the type of desensitization required to make someone kill with very little psychological cost.

        *It would come horribly close to gratuitous and glorifying sadistic violence – but, you know what, Philosopher Max Scheler pointed out that the human capacity for “fellow-feeling,” or empathy, is what makes us uniquely capable of cruelty, too. Being able to feel the vicarious pain of another person is what make torturers so adept at coming up with painful tortures. We shouldn’t confuse ‘eliciting empathy’ with ‘encouraging prosocial action’ – you need to be empathetic and sensitive to other to be a prosocial person, but I don’t know if encouraging that sensitivity automatically makes people better people (also, jealousy has been argued to be related to empathy, except instead of internalizing another’s suffering, you’re internalizing their desires, which then become your desires and put you in a position of rivalry with the person you’re aping). I guess it’s important to decide – do you want your game to elicit empathy, or do you want it to make people pro-social? Because those might not be the same thing.

        • DrFlimFlam says:

          If killing enemies was as hard as sawing a limb of your own off was in a game, you sure bet we’d kill less.

          I have no qualms about fodder, like robots, zombies, monsters, etc. But when you create enemies that are more and more like people, at a certain point it makes me uneasy.

        • Girard says:

          @drflimflam:disqus : I just remembered – those early episodes of Breaking Bad, when Walt was still a highschool teacher and not a kingpin! It was so hard, psychologically, and mechanically for him to kill people, and then to deal with the aftermath (the body, etc.). A game that took that approach, (at least to start, before ramping up to psychopathic levels of murder common to most games) would be super interesting!

        • neodocT says:

           I definitely agree that it would be interesting for games to delve into the psychology of killing someone. And, to be fair, I do think the narrative of Tomb Raider attempted to do that, even if briefly. However, a few minutes later the gameplay dispels any notion of guilt you might have felt, as you start pumping everyone full of arrows.

          Video games can make the psychological impact of killing feel much greater if the gameplay suits this theme. I feel mowing down wave after wave of generic bad guy dulls any guilt. But when an enemy is given personality, if the gameplay makes killing them a difficult affair and the narrative suits the hardship of taking the life, then you approach that uneasy psychological impact.

          I feel Shadow of the Colossus and Portal are two good examples here. In SotC, the act of killing each Colossus is difficult. You have to literally climb them and then slowly chip away at them. They bleed and yell and try to shake you off while you murder them. They aren’t given much in the way of personalities (aside from gentle giant, angry giant and angry bull), but each of their deaths feels tragic, as if you had destroyed a great holy thing for a selfish purpose.

          In Portal, on the other hand, you are first given the responsibility of killing the Companion Cube. It’s just a box with a heart on it, but the game makes you feel guilty by having Glados state it has a personality while simultaneously requiring you to kill it to proceed. Later, in the battle against Glados herself, you must defeat her by quickly applying your portalling skills, while she taunts you, curses you, shames you for what you rare doing. These examples are mostly played for laughs, but there is a genuine emotional connection between the narrative and gameplay. As you kill them, the game makes you understand you are killing them.

        • Jackbert says:

          @paraclete_pizza:disqus : It was the hair loss.

        • The_Helmaroc_King says:

          @neodocT:disqus I think I took the opposite reaction from the whole Companion Cube sequence in Portal; I thought it was a parody of that kind of difficult decision-making rather than a straight example.

          To explain, GLaDOS is clearly trying to mess with the player in any way she can, but for one reason or another she’s simply incapable of making an actual companion for Chell to empathize with. Instead, she makes a generic cube with hearts on the sides, functionally identical to any other cube in the same facility. I think that scenario was a deliberate example of bathos for comic effect.

        • neodocT says:

           @The_Helmaroc_King:disqus I may have been reaching when I mentioned the Companion Cube example, which was absolutely mined for comedy.

          Having said that, I did feel the game successfully made me establish an emotional connection with a box anyway, which is quite a feat. I can’t speak for everyone, but I did stall before killing the Companion Cube. Not only to hear Glados dialogue (though that was a big part), but also because I was sure there would be some way of proceeding while also saving the box. I’m quite sure that, if possible, I would have carried the Cube to the end of the game. Partly to spite Glados, and partly because I grew an emotional attachment to a inanimate box in a virtual gameworld.

          Like I said, this may be just me (I mean, I do feel awful everytime I think about the little unicycle in that Pixar short), but I absolutely cared more about killing the Companion Cube than, say, choosing who to kill in GTAIV or who Lara killed in Tomb Raider, because the narrative and the gameplay merged to make me care about it.

  10. Girard says:

    So many great discussions! Folks interested in games engendering empathy might enjoy this Polygon feature emphasizing the recent push for “personal” indie games, and their relation to the medium’s capacity for inducing empathy.

    • Ryan Smith says:

      Good link, Girard. I am aware of, but haven’t played a couple of the games they mention in the Polygon story, which is part of why I just focused on The Walking Dead in my piece. It seems like more of these small indie projects are seeing the light, and it’s great.

      I’ve been thinking about empathy a lot this week because of the Cleveland kidnapping case and the media reports that say there were things happening in that neighborhood to suggest something was amiss, but too many people took a “it’s not my business” approach and didn’t want to involve themselves.

  11. mizerock says:

    As I remember it, it was many hours before I was tasked with a purely “beat the hell out of these punks” mission in “Bully”. I mean, they started it, but walking away wasn’t an option, I had to hit these dudes with chains to move on. I failed at the first attempt, and never played again.

    Until then, I was spending my time showing up to class on time, paying attention and getting good grades, and flirting with / kissing a few pretty girls between classes.

    • Girard says:

      I had a similar experience early in GTAIV (obviously I should have adjusted my expectations to suit the nature of the game) where I was kind of taken aback when I was asked to get somewhere, but there was no car for me to use, and the game was pretty explicitly, if tacitly, telling me “This is a Grand Theft Auto game. If you need a car, you know what to do.” Which meant I had to break my immersion of being this new immigrant lying low in the city and making a clean break and new life for himself, and start indiscriminately yanking people out of cars.

      Then later in the game, after shooting up an entire construction site full of folks, you get the laughable “moral choice” of killing or setting free the mark/boss you were hunting down.

      Combining that kind of frustrating ludonarrative dissonance with the fact that the gameplay consisted almost entirely of interminable boring driving to samey locales to engage in brief boring shooting, and, yeah, I haven’t felt compelled to play that game in a long while.

      • Citric says:

        GTAIV also wrote everyone as a jerk, which I’m certain they’d argue is part of the satire or something but I just read as, well, everyone’s kind of a jerk. Which gives a weird distancing effect, probably necessary since you’re basically required to do terrible things for the entire time.

      • mizerock says:

        There were a number of reasons why GTAIV was no fun for me, and you have identified several of the key ones. It’s very strange, because I enjoyed all of the earlier iterations that I played, obsessively even. And that’s why I remain cautiously optimistic about V.

  12. JokersNuts says:

     “The Joker in The Dark Knight… are attempts to humanize murderers and make them appear more psychologically complex than the usual cold-blooded sociopath.”

    Uh wha??  The Joker in The Dark Knight is not an attempt to humanize murderers.  Seriously, is this a typo???

    • DrFlimFlam says:

       Definitely was a weird line. Maybe Harvey Dent, but The Joker?

    • Jackbert says:

       I could maybe see it, in how he tells the stories of how he got his mouth-scars. They show that he has had a bad past. It feels a bit cursory to me though.

      Now Batman: The Killing Joke, what with all the “one bad day” business really explores that, connecting the story of Joker trying to drive Gordon to insanity with flashbacks of Joker’s one bad day. I think that comic succeeds more in humanizing Joker (possibly in dehumanizing everyone else). Moore has slagged Killing Joke a lot, but I love that comic.

      • Girard says:

        But he deliberately tells a different fake story each time, to undermine the myth that every psychopath has some facile childhood back-story that explains their current pathology. He is intentionally and deliberately a cipher who works to undermine any attempt to humanize or contextualize him.

        • Jackbert says:

          Are you talking about in The Dark Knight or in The Killing Joke? Because, yeah, in Dark Knight, he tells two different stories, one with his wife and one with his father.

          In Killing Joke, his story stays the same throughout, but he is an unreliable narrator. The “multiple-choice past” quote is often brought up, but I think it’s important to look at what surrounds the quote.

          “Something like that happened to me, you know. I…I’m not exactly sure
          what it was. Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another…If
          I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice! Ha ha ha!
          But my point is…My point is, I went crazy. When I saw what a black,
          awful joke the world was, I went crazy as a coot! I admit it!”

          Despite the fact that he is an unreliable narrator on how he went insane, it is obvious that he is insane. (Some people say that he is only faking being insane, but I don’t agree with that; I take the Gaylin view.) Just like Batman isn’t purely good, he isn’t purely evil. This lack of purity humanizes the both of them.

        • Girard says:

          @Jackbert:disqus : I was talking about The Dark Knight, because that’s the Joker that was mentioned in the article.

        • JokersNuts says:

          @Jackbert:disqus He’s not just insane, he’s Super-Sane.  Read “Arkham Aslyum: Serious House on Serious Earth”.  Joker’s brain opperates differently than sane or insane people.  He’s totally unique. 

        • Jackbert says:

          @paraclete_pizza:disqus : Okay. Yeah, I don’t think he’s meant to be humanized in The Dark Knight, but I was making an attempt to justify the author’s quote. Like I said, the author’s quote did come off as cursory though.

          @JokersNuts:disqus : Read it, love it. However, first of all, it’s a rare interpretation that conflicts with almost all other interpretations of Joker. Second of all, I disagree with it. Having no control over the sensory information you receive is sensory processing disorder. Having no real personality is schizophrenia. Characters in the theater of the absurd aren’t sane. Sure, it might be suited for urban life at the end of the 20th century, but that doesn’t make it brilliant. As for your other comment, again, I was just trying to justify the author’s quote, but I think his view is incorrect as well. Yeah, The Killing Joke is amazing. Depending on my mood, it’s that or The Long Halloween for my favorite comic ever.

      • JokersNuts says:

        If you think that the contradictory mouth-cutting stories from The Dark Knight are in anyway tales ment to get you to empathize with The Joker, you would be flat out wrong.  Not a matter of opinion, just totally wrong.  —
        Aside from that, yeah The Killing Joke is amazing and probably my favorite comic ever

    • His_Space_Holiness says:

      Quit using all the question marks! Who are you, the Riddler?

  13. Jackbert says:

    Have there been any studies comparing aggression caused by violent video games to aggression caused competition? For example, there was a study that compared video games in terms of aggression caused by both violence and competitiveness,  The non-violent competitive games came out on top, followed by violent competitive, violent non-competitive, and non-violent non-competitive. Anecdotally, I only ever get noticably aggressive when playing racing games. I’d like to see a similar study adding different (say, team and individual) sports into the mix.

  14. Jordo says:

    “The Joker in The Dark Knight…, are attempts to humanize murderers ”

    Huh? You empathized with the Joker? And what complicated and overwrought backstory? Joker literally has no backstory.

  15. Effigy_Power says:

    For any so-called expert to talk about the destruction of human empathy by means of video games requires to discard thousands of years of human history of game-unassisted cruelty.
    When considering the Romans, the Crusaders, the Assassins, the Samurai, the Inquisition, Colonialism, Child-workers, Child-soldiers, the Holocaust, Terrorism and so much more, than it appears that overcoming empathy when it suits us is by no means something we require much assistance with, certainly not by media.
    The thing that sparks this debate is generational divide, as it has always been. The late Medieval establishment shuddered at the idea of movable printer type and thought it would bring down society. Elvis’ hip-shaking was considered morally outrageous, leading to moral decay and fornication in the streets. So now, once again, generational divide has shown itself to pick up a fairly unestablished, but emerging form of activity, art or creativity and blamed it for the single pervading fact that humans are naturally violent, aggressive and quite able to act in most evil ways without any outside stimulus.
    As a species we’ve shown plenty of such potential, but we’ve never been able to face it openly. Satan, bad influence, toxins, bad humors, Gypsy-curses, mental illness… every time we see evil, we look for a reason, because we are uncomfortable with the thought that at least the potential for evil is always within us, sometimes more, sometimes less contained by our personality, our empathy and our social structure.
    Those swayed by a medium like games to act out those deeply rooted emotions already have a very tentative hold on their inner evil. A game providing the last excuse for another crack in the facade is no more to blame for the eventual outburst than being cut off in traffic, stepping on a thumbtack or finding a hair in the soup. So far soup remains legal and generally uncensored.
    The issue is and always has been human mental stability and as long as people look for quick solutions by shutting off stimulus rather than work on the root of the problem in order to provide a lasting relief, we will keep seeing tragedies, their attribution to X and the subsequent speedy condemnation of X, rather than a better insight into the neolithic beast that we haven’t exactly had a lot of time to bury below civilization yet.