The Importance of Empathy

You know what’s really exciting about video games is you don’t just interact with the game physically — you’re not just moving your hand on a joystick, but you’re asked to interact with the game psychologically and emotionally as well. You’re not just watching the characters on screen; you’re becoming those characters.” This quote by Nina Huntemann summarises one of the biggest reasons as to why I play games and why I think so many other people do, this is the reason why video games are the sector within interactive media that I will be exploring.

They are one of the most foregrounding platforms of interactivity in the multimedia industry, primarily due to their already massive, but still growing presence in the entertainment business, not to mention the everyday lives of so many people the world over, including myself. I play games; not only as a physical amusement but also as a form of escapism through my ability to empathise with characters, mostly fictional, but this is a trait many consider the backbone to our humanity.

Many would consider our ability to emphasise with fictional characters an advanced level of intelligence, in fact many would consider empathy on it’s own a higher thought process. We do not see empathy in wild animals, and so it is an important emotion to consider, and this empathy is so much enhanced in video games that you can almost become the character you’re playing as, which allows developers to take people into other worlds and narratives, ones that break the conventional boundaries of standard storytelling. This is most eloquently expressed through role-playing games, a favourite category of mine, as you shape the course of the game play through the way you develop your characters and their subsequent strengths and lifestyle. When you have such close control to your characters development it allows you to connect freely to their emotional portrait, but it is important to make the story engaging and the characters authentic enough that you can actually relate with them as well. What has become quite popular in games like this is the ability to customise not just the skill range of your characters, but the look of them as well. Of course, when you look at so called ‘MMORPGs’, massively multiplayer online role playing games, this is an obvious step needed to distinguish characters apart, but when you are given advanced levels of customisation in a single player game it may seem like a somewhat pointless exercise and yet now we’re starting to see this customisation bleed into other genres of video game. Sports games, action games, even games that defy conventional stereotypes like the Wii’s Mii Channel, which seems entirely based off of making customised avatars for you and your friends. What do developers hope to achieve?


They know that gamers want to model their characters so that they can feel most attached to them, whether that is customising your hero to look like yourself or just making him look cool, we definitely can put an emotional investment in a character that, if only visually, we associate with, this is something impossible for motion pictures and one of the many strengths of the gaming genre. Interestingly, the obvious opposite of customisable characters does not automatically detract from this ability to emulate with the protagonists we see in games.

It is not often that you see reoccurring characters in generic role-playing games, and even in sequels there tends to be more of a focus on a reoccurring theme as opposed to making a direct character sequel, though there are of course exceptions to this.The reason behind making new characters is part of the interesting parcel these games offer. Kingdom Hearts has an interesting mix of new and old characters. A great example where this is the case is the game ‘Kingdom Hearts’, which was fairly unique because it involved some of the best-established characters you might imagine. Its story relies heavily on the relationships between the main character Sora, and his newfound companions Donald and Goofy. These are the same Donald and Goofy that have become staples in the Disney line up of characters, and even Mickey Mouse plays a big part in the game. Specific focus falls on Sora’s search for his old friends, who have gone missing, and he is often confronted with having to choose between his new friends and his old ones. Ironically, for the audience we’re actually more familiar with the characters that Sora is only just meeting and the ones we are searching for are slowly introduced to us. Of course, here is the games emotional backbone in the new characters we are meeting, but our pre-set attachment to the older characters does not subvert our ability to assume the role of the main character in an emphatic manner, in fact, for many who like Disney movies I would say it is an encouragement to be able to connect between the custom characters and the already familiar ones.

Disney is such a massive image to work with, and it must have been daunting using such defined characters, and yet Kingdom Hearts was a blockbuster hit and an amazing game. I have a lot of respect for the developers and I’m sure it is not as easy to use pre-defined characters as the game makes it out to be. Some styles of games do not lend themselves to the same level of attachment we can develop in games like Kingdom Hearts, for example, nobody feels too emotionally attached to the character of Pac Man as he is very abstract, and a lot of games rely on similar styles. This is where role-playing games are a stronger style; because where their roots are attached to character driven game play and more focus being placed on creating an enjoyable story, everything is more believable, aside from the occasional dragon, and players can suspend their beliefs to really engage with the story. Where other games could still be considered good as long as they play well, even with a superficial story, role-playing games can be dull without their often-epic plots. Looking at abstract characters like Pac-Man, we may be able to conclude that games are more popular now then when they were first developing because of similar reasons. Games are much more engaging when the character you are trying to connect with is not made up of a limited number of blocky pixels.

Perhaps, even, this may be why Mario was so successful? After all, his was the emotional tale of a poor plumber (or carpenter, originally) who was merely trying to rescue his girlfriend from an angry, barrel-throwing monkey, and who can’t sympathise with that? It’s interesting how the freedom developing in games has opened our views of story telling for a mass audience, when you have alternative methods of playing through a story it, much like the attachment formed to a character, can really bring the world that the story is based in to life. Looking at other story telling methods, books and movies, each has flaws and bonuses but I have had growing confidence that when done right video games have more potential to entertain and reach their audience. Books have always been able to capture the reader’s imagination because they rely on the reader’s imagination, and that is something that games are able to do as well due to the fluidity of the narrative. Movies are so set in their narrative, it commonly becomes a problem when they are based off of books to begin with and fans are not happy with the translation. People develop their own ideas of what characters should act and look like, and though gaming has developed this problem somewhat more now that games are becoming more cinematic, there is still a much larger element of freedom for characterization and theme. Even so, a book cannot veer off in any direction the reader chooses, nor a movie, and this has been the case of games in the previous decade, but advances in technology mean more and more immersive worlds can be created with more freedom and more customisation. Of course, this will not always be the case for everything, and some games are not well crafted, the stories and characters aren’t likeable and the illusion is spoiled, but this is only to be expected in such a large market, not every movie is a blockbuster. When thinking about connecting a character on screen to the person controlling them, the ultimate aim would arguably be Virtual Reality. Of course, at our current level of technology we are starting to border on augmented reality, but we have not developed immersive programs that even touch upon any level of believability. While we are waiting, I suppose the best we can look for is the innovation within the video game market to supplement us.

Virtual reality requires some level of physical interactivity and some level of emotional interactivity as well, which are both quite difficult to achieve effectively. Nintendo have been bridging the gap between our technology now and the technology we predict for the future with their latest console, the Wii. It allows a lot more physical context sensitivity within games, and what I mean by this is a physical mimicry of what we are seeing on screen. For example, when a character goes to swing his sword we can command this by using the same action. This is an obviously effective way to create more fully immersive environment. Nintendo, and the release of this latest console, have brought us into an interesting age of gaming by expanding the market almost exponentially with a broader range of advertising and target audience by revolutionizing the way the general public views gaming. This may be a great thing for the industry itself, especially with the ideals that are driving the company at the moment with such experimental ideas such as motion controls and the Nintendo DS’s touch screen sensors, we may be looking at another generation of innovation and originality. There are troubles brought on by the increase of the gaming market, however, and looking at the Wii at the moment I am not sure if the innovation they have managed is to be praised or feared. As a very active gamer, I often go out of my way to find the best and most interesting games available on the market, so obviously I bought a Wii when it came out and eagerly awaited all the games that have been released on the system. In my observations of the current video game market, I’ve developed the opinion that innovation developed on the hardware, the consoles and peripherals themselves, can actually lead on to hinder originality and game play in the video games that use them. It seems most developers are able to make games that utilise the basic, and obvious ways to use the hardware but they are no longer challenged to look beyond that because they are no longer forced to distinguish their game from the current market. Especially when the current market has just been expanded, doubled in size, there is less worry about taking a loss on any projects done, and this can either let developers take their time to make interesting and well developed games or, in what seems to be the majority of cases, release games that are below average quality. Looking at Wii games that have been released so far, they are no more innovative now then they were 2 years ago, before the console was released. In fact, initially the Wii seems to have had the reverse effect for most developers. Instead of being forced to distinguish their game with truly original game play, the audience that the Wii has opened up allows them to rehash old systems and ideas without worry, and the new control system has given developers an easy way to make a game seem innovative without really being so. Games that may have worked well on older consoles may seem awkward when ported over onto a new system, because it is so different games need to be designed for it and not in the same manner as before. Shaking a Wii controller madly may be different to mashing a button, but it is no more interpretive to the game play and merely replacing older controls is not progress. As an example, I would ask ‘what is the most innovative game on the Wii so far?’ to which I think many will answer with Mario Galaxy, certainly a very fresh take on the platforming genre. Having played it, however, I began to wonder if the game play would not actually be better on a GameCube controller. This is a personal opinion, of course, but even, the Wii has actually diminished the game play of it’s own flagship game and that just seems absurd. Perhaps it is merely a matter of time; the Wii was only released a year ago and is still at a very young stage in its development. It may only be that developers are not used to making games for the system and as they get used to the console and it’s new controls we’ll see the benefit of having such a unique system. To support this, we can look back at the first year of the Nintendo DS. From viewing the successful games, critically and commercially, the majority of the top ones weren’t particularly innovative in their use of the Nintendo DS’s touch screen. Listing off games from the first year of release, like Mario Kart DS, Mario and Luigi: Superstar Saga, Super Mario 64, Pokemon Dash, these games that are considered good, but not because of the hardware that they are on. It wasn’t until later, after we started seeing new projects that had been developed after people got a sense of what the DS could do and where they could take it, the market was suddenly flooded by innovation, originality and genius. Phoenix Wright: A fictional lawyer and big hit star for the DS. In my opinion, the greatest thing that the Nintendo DS has brought gaming is a re-enlightenment of genre. A lot of developers have come out with breakthrough types of unique and often abstract games. For example the game Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, this is a game in which you play as a lawyer and you have to win court causes. Another good example is the game Trauma Centre, which is a game where you use the stylus to perform surgery to save lives. These are the types of games that may not have come out because nobody considered any potential for the western market; by opening that idea up we’re seeing a lot more of these and hopefully, in time we’ll see a similar turn of events with the Wii. In conclusion, the interactive media industry is growing at such a fast pace that all of these theories related to areas like gaming are still new, but I still feel that the most important thing to remember is that innovation is the most important factor when creating new games, there may be no intrinsic problem with releasing similar games if they are popular but if you don’t try something different, how are you going to know what it could be like? High reality games are being developed to come closer and closer to emulating real life, but it is arguably a development of highly realistic visuals that can start causing an even worse moral panic when there is nothing to distinguish games from life. In my view, even the most uninventive games need to start turning more cinematic as opposed to ultra-realistic, with the importance put on excellent core narrative and character development. After all, there is only so far you can keep upgrading graphics and power before it becomes redundant in making the game stand out, whereas a gripping concept and unique game play will keep players hooked for generations.


About James

Uberbeard, otherwise known as James Crawford has just graduated from the Arts University Bournemouth, taking a course in Interactive Media. He's known to enjoy washing, eating and sleeping.

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March 2009
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