Tag Archives: empathy

oh and btw… one more thing.

Just reading the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Scientific Research in Learning and Education (phew) transcript which Dr Vaughan Bell pointed me to.

It was a debate which took place between Dr Bell and Baroness Greenfield on the “potential impact of technology, such as computer gaming, on the brain”. It really expands on the shorter Fight Club piece I referenced earlier (see previous post).

Baroness Greenfield asks again refers to the example of rescuing the princess:

So when you play a computer game to rescue the princess as say here, you may be becoming very agile at your mental processes, but do you really care about princess Yukihime? Do you care about what she is thinking or feeling? Do you care about what is going to happen to her after she has been rescued? Do you care what career she is going to take up? Is she going to marry a prince? Do you care about the princess compared to when you have been told a story for example, and you have princess Marya?

Maybe the game doesn’t always let you carry on that narrative, but gosh fans do! Just take a look at the volume of fan fiction around games. Yes, people seem to care.

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?