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.
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.
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.
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.