Written By: Stephen Marro
Media has always been a catalyst for conversation, with artists oftentimes tackling subject matter they deem important for social change. With the rise of decision-based storytelling in video games, players are increasingly trusted with a sense of personal responsibility for their in-game actions. Couple this growing game design trend with rising socio-political tensions, and we could have a powerful mix. Could the experiences we have with video games play an integral role in inspiring empathy in our everyday lives?
Storytelling in video games has evolved over the years. What would originally exist merely as one-paragraph backstories hidden away in a game manual have become living, breathing stories with contextualized scenarios and branching pathways. Virtual worlds can now take on new forms based on player interactions, and characters have the capacity to remember how they’ve been spoken to and interacted with. As a player, this gives a sense of personalized ownership over decisions made, much like our decisions in the real world.
In 2010, Quantic Dream's Heavy Rain introduced a fascinating game mechanic: Any playable character can live or die based on player decisions. With the removal of a “game over” screen, and an adaptive story that moved on whether or not a player failed to keep a character alive, players were inclined to value the lives of the characters. This kind of game mechanic hadn’t been implemented in quite this way before, and players were granted an enhanced sense of urgency when a character's life was endangered. Player actions could have irreversible consequences.
When Telltale Game’s The Walking Dead released in 2012, adaptive storytelling and character consequences hit mainstream audiences. One small change brought this idea to the forefront.
"Clementine will remember that.", an otherwise simple phrase, signaled to the player that a character in the game would act differently based on their input. This idea had been explored before, but now, players had to be conscious of it. Their interactions with Clementine, from this point on, wouldn’t merely be based on what the player wanted, but how Clementine may react. In other words, if you wanted the story to move in a particular direction, you had to empathize with the characters.
The talented individuals at Hangar 13 understood that players needed to understand the context of the world Lincoln Clay, the protagonist of the game Mafia III, lived in when designing the game world. This meant that attention had to be given to the kinds of things that have shaped that character within the world of a 1968 New Orleans-inspired city New Bordeaux. Lincoln Clay is a mixed African American who has to face prejudism regularly within the game world. Players assume his role, and are met with unsavory expressions on the faces of in-game characters as they pass by, with some white women holding their purses tightly to their side as they hurry past. This kind of contextual reaction to the player is subtle, but important, when communicating what it’s like to be Lincoln.
Personally, I wonder if game design of this nature can help players understand how other people in the real world may feel under different circumstances. It may be a stretch, but maybe those who play games in which empathy plays a key role in the story could be more capable of empathizing with others in the real world.
Empathy has always been an important component to storytelling, but now empathy is being explored and implemented as a functional game mechanic. Players are rewarded or punished based on their interactions with in-game worlds and characters in an emotionally intuitive way. This kind of interaction mirrors the real world in such a way that it could cause one to wonder whether this could, in effect, teach empathy.
In the United States of America there is a growing social and political divide. We’re witnessing an increasing societal segregation of citizens into smaller and smaller groups, and those who don’t belong to the group of another find it increasingly difficult to relate. Things are said with little to no consideration for how it could make people of another group feel, and the general attitude is that of apathy.
It’s only a matter of time before these issues begin materializing themselves into the stories of our games; I may even argue that this is already happening. As a cisgender Caucasian male, I have a hefty serving of privilege under my belt (even when factoring in my homosexuality). As important social issues are explored in games more, I can see myself exploring difficult conversations and scenarios that I otherwise may not be comfortable exploring outside of the context of a video game. I’m actually excited for how my admittedly limited perspective can be challenged and broadened by the games I play.
Video games are a very special medium because they offer a unique addition to storytelling: interactivity. Now that our interactive stories have player-driven consequences, and characters form their own opinions of us based on our in-game interactions, games have become a playground for exploring scenarios we otherwise wouldn’t be exposed to. As we navigate these game worlds, we’re being taught that our choices DO matter, and our ability to empathize with characters can be the deciding factor between whether a story has a happy or an undesirable outcome.
Unfortunately, there’s no clear way to determine whether or not empathy as a game mechanic can encourage empathy in real life. The topic hasn’t been researched thoroughly, and I can’t think of any method for measuring such a thing. I can, however, attest to my own personal account. I can say, without a doubt, that videogames have allowed me to understand the value in seeing things from another person’s perspective. Additionally, video games have allowed me to have a better understanding of the unique struggles of others when it comes to experiences I can’t necessarily personally relate to. For example, the game Papo & Yo helped me to better understand and empathize with victims of domestic abuse. I consider these kinds of experiences to be invaluable lessons, albeit challenging, in helping me understand and express love to those around me.
In the future, I can see storytelling become more complex as game writers continue exploring important social and political subject matter. I wouldn’t be surprised if these stories have an increasing impact on our lives and the way we perceive these issues. Who knows, maybe the lessons in empathy that interactive storytelling provides in the future will contribute to a more empathetic and caring world.
Whether or not these lessons actually affect us in the real world, I still want to encourage others to be mindful of how empathy plays a role in their games. The characters in the stories we interact with are all inspired by real-world people in some way, and if we can learn to value empathy within the context of the games we play, I would hope that we can learn to value empathy in the real world too.
How do you see empathy being used in game design in the future? Have you noticed a change in how you treat others after playing certain games? Do you think the games we play can make us more empathetic? Share your thoughts below.