Empathy and Videogames

Most of us, at least in Europe and the UK, remember debates around violence in videogames. School shootings, muggings, general deviance. Like the satirical meme Angry German Kid tries to make fun of, some circles see gamers as crazed keyboard-pounding, gun-hoarding loners.

While studies have complicated this question, videogames have grown regardless of an answer. They surpassed DVD, music, and cinema sales in the UK in 2008 and boast massive opening sales, as with Grand Theft Auto V.

In an academic context, media and literacy scholars like Ian Bogost and James Paul Gee discuss videogames as learning tools and media interfaces. And the folks at PBS have an informative and engaging YouTube channel for game studies.

With videogames growing as a medium, questions like violence, literacy, or ideology become more important.

Lately, I’ve had empathy on the brain as I research for final papers that center on the topic. I’ve also been playing videogames. In particular, I recently got a game called This War of Mine, where you play a noncombatant in a war zone, trying to survive amid the strife.

Concept art from This War of Mine [Image courtesy of craveonline]
Concept art from This War of Mine [Image courtesy of craveonline]

With a catchphrase, “In war, not everyone is a soldier,” the game offers a potent dose of empathy. In fact, for me, it turns the violence debate on its head: how can videogames build empathy?

Empathy and sympathy, the two words being interchanged often, help you imagine the feelings and circumstance of another. They let you “walk in someone else’s shoes.” This isn’t necessarily good, as an empathetic person could use this insight to manipulate someone, but we we normally have positive connotations.

Still a viable research topic, one of empathy’s earliest advocates was Adam Smith, in his Theory of Moral Sentiments. While we tend to know Smith for The Wealth of Nations, his theories of sympathy were just as important–if not more important–at the time. For Smith, sympathy is just as essential to human as competition. In fact, many at the time, especially in Scotland and the Early American Republic, saw sympathy as the defining human element.

In the realm of literature, sympathy is also important, argues Martha Nussbaum. In Cultivating Humanity, Nussbaum argues that literature can increase our compassion and sympathy for others, valuable skills for any citizen. As she says, “The arts cultivate capacities of judgement and sensitivity that can and should be expressed in the choices a citizen makes.” By seeing Creon or Oedipus suffer through their tragic “agons,” the audience gets a sense that people make mistakes or that bad things happen for no reason. This makes us all a bit more sensitive and responsive to the world, increasing our empathy, even if we never have similar tragedies.

Videogames can have a similar role. In Papers Please, for example, you play a check point agent in Eastern Europe, balancing your bribes and duties with moral responsibilities in order to keep your family alive. If you’re too moral, your family may starve. Putting the player in this position, the game forces him or her to consider what it’s like for people in similar circumstances.

Screen shot from Papers Please [image courtesy of dualshockers.com]
Screen shot from Papers Please [image courtesy of dualshockers.com]

And part of videogames’ unique strength is an immersive quality. In the words of philosopher Kenneth Burke, the player must “identify” with the character. The player recognizes that her or she is not the character in the game, but still, a certain “consubstantial” connection occurs, Burke might say. My agency as a player controls the actions of the character, for example. In This War of Mine, I’m not actually killing the old man in the garage to steal food for my starving family, but my actions initiate this decision. In this way, I “identify” with the character by recognizing my connection to him or her, while realizing I am not physically in the game.

This dynamic forces questions surrounding empathy. Whether in Grand Theft Auto or Papers Please, the game offers a “possibility space,” to use a term by Ian Bogost, where the player gets to explore the range and consequences of actions done by the character. This allows me, a middle class American, a window into, say, a Kosovo-like war zone or a 1700s battlefield.

However, I think the key is the ability for the player to step back and recognize what is going on. I may play a game to “win it” without reflecting on the deeper implications. But as Bogost and James Paul Gee argue, one can gain a more critical literacy. This may be a role for educators. With video games only growing in popularity, such education only becomes more important.

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