games, metaphor, empathy…

Reading some of Greenfield’s musings on the effect of games and digital media (“screen culture”, as she calls it) on young minds, I felt compelled to pick out three arguments she makes and find examples of where games in particular contradict her assumptions.

I am picking out only three of her claims because the others are well trodden areas of debate.

She argues in The Times Fight Club piece from earlier this year that in games and other digital media activities,

[...] there is “living for the moment”, where the emphasis is on sensory-laden thrill — the buzz of, say, rescuing the princess in a game. This is a literal world where everything is not related to previous experiences or any wider context. No care is given for the princess herself, for the significance of her situation. Because there is none.

She argues this kind of screen culture means:

[...] a decline in the capacity for empathy. Interacting in person with others, listening to stories and reading novels are all good ways of learning about how others feel and think. The prolonged exposure to screen activities will, for the first time, stymie this familiar developmental process.

and that screen culture leads to…

[...] the diminished use of metaphor and abstract concepts. It would be difficult to expect current software to help the user to gain a sense of concepts such as honour, or of measuring one’s life in coffee spoons (as mentioned by T. S. Eliot’s Prufrock). Small children have problems interpreting metaphor. Might constant exposure to a literal world mean that the brain remains infant-like?

So I asked these two questions of Twitter:

  1. what are the best eg of games which encourage players to have empathy or think about the social context of a game character?
  2. which games do you think make the best use of metaphor in the narrative or gameplay?

You can have a look for yourself at just some of the many responses I have had. Some of the examples which stand out for me are Heavy Rain, Everyday the Same Dream (thanks Jo!), and Limbo.

There is no doubt that games can and do employ abstract concepts and metaphors to let players think about social contexts, actions and decisions. There is no doubt that players care about what happens to the protagonists and those they love. The consequences in games may not (most of the time) be meat space based ones, but in a sense they are. I felt thoroughly sad after playing through Everyday the Same Dream.

A noir game like Limbo:

… poses questions about life death versus life and reality versus dream, but it doesn’t answer them. It’s the questions that are important here, and you’re left to contemplate the meaning of this world for yourself. (Tom McShea Limbo Review)

The trick is how we equip ourselves as players, and open up spaces to have the conversations around these questions with which players are left contemplating. If we want to. And the more game developers, as artists and as storytellers, are able to write themselves and their experiences into their work, the more we will get to experience a kind of screen culture, as part of our everyday lives, that helps us question more and decipher our lives.

What say you?

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2 responses to “games, metaphor, empathy…

  1. Pingback: oh and btw… one more thing. | kitten fluff

  2. Pingback: 2010 in review | kitten fluff

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