Can video games ever illicit an emotional response from an audience? I believe they already do but they still have a distant way to travel if games are to impact the audience in a similar level achieved by literature or films.


I was set on this precarious path by Lance Darnell’s question about a games and “affecting empathy”. To explore the word empathy, we must go beyond what the emotion “is” and look at what we, as human beings, “do” when we feel empathy.

Can games change the way we “do” things? Not in a moral or holistic sense but video games do emphasis another emotion: attachment.

We all know what a fanboy is. A curious category that seems to resonate an over zealous devotion yet this behaviour is actually universal. We commonly see this devotion brought out when we watch sports. We’re engaged in the sport by showing our support to a team.

Competitive language is formed, loyalties tested and our pride at stake. Fanboys in the gaming industry are no different to sports fans or any other “fans” in that matter.

I believe the marketing gurus call it brand loyalty but don’t quote me on this.

Games do have strong and profound effects on how we feel towards a product. “Halo” is a classic example of brand loyalty, synonymous with Microsoft and it’s entry into redefining the FPS experience. Exclusive Games are not just the means for a company to show the technical prowess of their machinery, but is taken upon by the fanboys as evidence of how great their “team” is.

When a game loses it’s exclusive rights, it seems to hurt the fanboys more than it does the company that lets go of the rights. If games can create such strong emotional attachments then surely it can create a level of empathy and understanding as well? Games in this current generation have attempted such feats and it seems future games such as “Heavy Rain” by Quantic Dreams continue to test this possibility.

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But so far, no game in my mind has achieved empathy because the option to exercise empathy by the character does not exist. In Grand Theft Auto 4, Rockstar created an ending where the player had to choose which character he would keep alive, his cousin or his love.

It really didn’t matter to me who survived from my actions because I didn’t empathise with the situation they were in. What I felt for Niko Bellic wasn’t empathy because I can’t empathise with a killer.

The emotion I experienced was reflection. In playing the game, Niko became a satirical impression of what life might be like living in the underworld. Did I take it seriously – no.

The video game’s lack of ability to create characters in an environment free of “action” or “violence” is the reason why empathy cannot be exercised. Through empathy, a human being weighs up the sufferings of another individual. He or She decides to not act against them because they understand “why”.

The best example of empathy is explored in Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice”.

In the penultimate scene, Shylock, the abused Jewish merchant (whom at this stage of the play has lost everything) stands in court to receive what is owed to him – a pound of flesh.

The court asks him to show “mercy” because he – out of everybody who stands to pass judgement – should know what it is like to have nothing and lose everything.

Shylock shows no empathy for Antonio’s situation and continues to pursue the pound of flesh which would lead to Antonio’s death. In the end, Shylock is punished because the contract is later revealed as “impossible” and thus forfeited.

It means more than “not taking action” to show empathy. It must have a human response with a human consequence that is irreversible. In GTA 4, the fact that you can spare the life of Darko allows the player to make a choice that is neither moral nor empathetic because it has no real consequence to the player.

In Final Fantasy VII, the player’s empathy may have been tested in the form of forgiveness of Sephiroth. Cloud, out of all the characters in the FF7 universe, should understand what it is to wake up and realise that your identity was actually false.

But if the game was to implement such a device, it would mean the ultimate ending would be an anti-climax. You would have to forgive Sephiroth in the end and not destroy him with the kick arse “Omni-Slash”. Your empathy should have led you to forgive him for all his crimes.

How many players would find that a suitable ending?

Gaming contains a two dimensional world. It is a world that must be filled with action and adrenaline otherwise the audience is lost. But it must also contain memorable and likeable protagonists. I remember reading an article exploring the character of Nathan Drake.

The journalist implied that Nathan must have been a sociopath because he killed dozens of people but displayed a cheerful and happy demeanour. The publisher described the problem of this parody because the market needs an endearing character that the player wants to be whilst also existing in a world filled with excitement and danger.

Films and literature move us because the experience we can have with films or novels  goes beyond guns, girls and excitement – we can empathise with the protagonist or even the story in many different scenarios and thus strums a greater range of emotional chords.

I know how it feels to have a stereotypical “look”

Gaming draws inspiration from reality but does not necessarily reflect its true image. I cannot empathise with Mario or Luigi nor can I empathise with Felix or Dom. And I certainly cannot empathise with Alex Mercer. What I can do is grow attached to these characters because they represent an appealing image that goes beyond what is humanly or even realistically possible.

For deeper emotions in gaming, we need to develop a gaming universe that does not rely on action: Explosions, violence, sexy women and achieving inhumanly possible outcomes.

The first step to challenge our “deeper” emotional responses is to ensure what we “do” has a lasting and permanent effect on another being or in the story. Imagine if, in an MMORPG, I had the power to completely kill off an avatar. My actions would carry weight and therefore would not betaken lightly.

Do I kill this character and thus rob the human player of hundreds of hours of investment? If so, why? Would I spare the character because I can empathise with the situation; the loss?

If our choices carried real weight in gaming, then maybe the emotion we feel will also carry weight in our hearts simply by the effect of what we “do”.