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The Last of Us

There are some really horrible implications to stomping on a Goomba.

Yes, he’s working for the villain, and yes he will kill you if given the opportunity, but his arsenal is limited to walking back and forth and praying to Goomba Jesus that Mario accidentally bumps into him. Goombas never really stand a chance. For the sake of making your next Mario experience a slightly more unpleasant one, take a moment to ponder the default method with which Mario dispatches this most common of fodder: He crushes them to death. The relatively helpless, brainwashed foot soldiers of an evil empire (an evil empire whose principal interest is the kidnapping of underage girls) is unceremoniously crushed to death by an overweight Italian in tacky overalls.

But that’s only a problem if you have an imagination — one that is getting less of a workout by the day as modern games march toward total realism. What if, in a gritty reboot of Super Mario Bros. (which will be titled Super Mario Bros. but will have a far more hardcore font), each Goomba you stomped had an expression on his face. A personality. Sweat beading on his forehead as Mario approaches with his black eyes alight with murderous intent. In a flash of recognition just before he’s stomped to death, you can almost see the Goomba well up with thoughts of his wife and kids — of the life he was forced to leave behind when King Koopa initiated the draft. Then, all at once, his innards are spilled in a geyser of blood and sinew, a wild-eyed Mario laughing hysterically as he grinds his steel-toed boots in a lifeless pile of offal.

Goomba

Above: I swear to you, I wrote the preceding paragraph before I found this image.

Well, that escalated quickly, but I think I’ve made my point. The more realistic video games become, the more difficult it will be for gamers who aren’t sociopaths to evacuate the life force from wave after wave of enemy combatants. What was easy in 8-bits will be impossible in … how many bits are we on now?

Empathy in a gameplay environment

Empathy is not a subject that is often raised in relation to the psychology of video games. Positivity doesn’t sell as well as outlandish, poorly researched accounts of violent video games turning an entire generation of your children into mindless killing machines. Upbeat is far too boring. Though in the academic community, such discussion is gaining ground, and research is now unearthing the positive aspects of video-game play.

(While there are many research studies, such as this one, that espouse the positive effects of video games on cognitive functions such as the ability to track multiple moving objects or multitasking, they aren’t relevant to today’s discussion.)

Take this study from Stanford University. Participants played through a scenario in which they are to deliver insulin to a sick child before a timer runs out. Half of the group played as a superhero who could fly, and he other half of the group simply rode in a helicopter. (This is not unlike any number of missions in commercially available games.) Just after they finished playing, the researchers knocked over a cup of pens, and those in the superhero group (that had played the game and experienced being a hero) all helped the researchers pick up those pens. Six of those in the helicopter group did not.

And we have another from the University of Innsbruck in which participants played either Lemmings (which researchers categorized as a prosocial game) or Tetris (categorized as neutral). They were then told stories ranging from Paris Hilton being arrested to tales more easily empathized with, such as a man being robbed of $60,000. Those who had played the prosocial Lemmings were less likely to feel schadenfreude in relation to the Hilton story and more likely to have empathetic feelings toward the man who had been robbed.  In the course of this study, researchers managed to prove, once and for all, that academics have better things to do than watch TMZ. Paris Hilton is so 2006.

You’ll note that both of those studies concentrate on “prosocial” gaming experiences and not the “antisocial” experiences to be had in Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty. Though I honestly don’t see what’s so antisocial about beating a hooker to death in an alley to get your money back. Excuse me, I need to make an appointment for something. It totally doesn’t rhyme with shmyshmoligist.

Grand Theft Auto III

Above: She, uh … slipped. On her … own blood. I mean … I’m under arrest, aren’t I?

Image Credit: Rockstar Games

Which nearly brings us to the point. Hang on, this might get “academic.” I know, I know; here’s a gif a kid getting hit in the face with a soccer ball. Feel free to check it out and then come back for the less-than-exciting conclusion. Let me know how much schadenfreude you experience. We’ll write a study.

Empathy in real life

True empathy, when studied in the absence of video games, has little to do with green men falling to their death and everything to do with mirror neurons in the human brain. At least that’s the closest thing to an explanation that the scientific community can come up with in regard to empathy’s neurological roots. So I can’t stress enough that much of the following is theoretical; though, I’d hope the concept of empathy would at least be relatable.

Mirror neurons begin doing their job at a very young age and are the impetus for self-awareness and empathy. Two things that go hand-in-hand. They are indirectly responsible for the phenomenon of the infectious mood. You know that guy at your local watering hole that you avoid like the plague because he’s fucking depressing? You felt great until he started rattling on about his shitty job, and now you feel so depressed that you’re going to spend an extra 20 dollars on whiskey to compensate. Thanks mirror neurons — now I’m an alcoholic.

Mirror neurons are also the reason that seeing someone puke makes you want to puke or seeing a skateboarder being hit in the nuts makes you wince. They also catalyze the psychological development that lets you truly understand the suffering of a friend in need. This unavoidable aspect of the human condition will play heavily into the way we feel about game characters — provided that they look and act like we do. The more human they appear, the more human our response will become.

(For more on this topic, check out this sweet video from RSAnimate.)

Implications for game development

The more realistic game characters become, the more empathetic we’ll feel toward the victims of our superpowers/chainsaw bayonets/shotguns. While killing a person with a poorly textured, two-polygon face was easy, killing a man who begs for his life with tears in his eyes is far more difficult thing to do even if he’s digital. The closer we get to total realism in graphics, the more difficult the task of unceremonious murder will become.

Face

Above: This is two years old.

Image Credit: Janimation

The idea that strictly prosocial gaming experiences incite empathy in the player will be put to the test against the psychological weight of our decision to be violent when given the opportunity. Empathetic reactions from an “antisocial” gaming environment.

Empathy will find a way.

If the person on the screen looks as real as the person next to us on the couch, could we still kill him? If we could see in the subtlety of his expression that he was a person with hopes and dreams and aspirations and a life, would we giggle after shooting him in the balls? If killing him was the purpose of the game, and we were forced to do it in spite of our reservations, how would we feel afterward? Human empathy says we’d feel horrible. Personally, I’d have a fucking existential crisis. I nearly had one after playing Spec-Ops: The Line, a game that’s far from being as photorealistic as those of the future.

Graphical improvements will create an environment in which empathy will not only be a part of the prosocial gaming experience but the antisocial experiences as well. Game creators will have to work very hard to modulate the empathy felt toward each character in the game they’re creating, as has been the case with film for years. The technology that has been driving gameplay forward will now drive storytelling forward. Creating relatable characters who feel and act real won’t just be an exercise in technological showboating but a storytelling necessity based on the ever-increasing empathetic reactions of the player.

You want me to murder that enemy? The one with the cold who keeps mumbling about how much he hates his job? You want me to slip a hunting knife through his ribcage and watch the life escape his eyes while he wimpers up at me? You better give me a damn good reason.

That got heavy again … and now, the most adorable kitten in human history!