The Vanishing of Dullness

Video games are dull? It’s not that simple. Researchers believe that good games can even promote empathy. And many developers are tired of emotionless killing anyway.

Geralt von Riva has long white hair, a deep scar runs through the left half of his face. By profession he is a sorcerer. The main character of the video game “The Witcher 3” fights evil beasts with sword and magic, but because he is a mutant, the medieval villagers hate him. Outside and in the taverns they call him names, no matter what he does for them. In the long run this feels oppressive for most players in front of the screen.

The sorcerer is already an outcast in the literary model by the Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski – the discrimination was adopted in the game. Marcin Blacha, who is responsible for the story of the game, says: “People are afraid of him and hate him for what he is. Unless they need him, they want nothing to do with him.” It’s one of the most important aspects of the character, and the developers wanted the players to feel that. Blacha believes that it’s the responsibility of developers to make games in which violence and cynicism don’t just have shock value. The players should feel what is going on in the game characters, how they suffer, mourn and hope.

Not without good reason video game manufacturers have always had to listen to accusations: The games provoked violence, encouraged racism and sexism or dulled emotions. In series such as “Far Cry”, “Call of Duty” and “Grand Theft Auto”, the hero usually solves problems with muscle power and gun violence, supplemented by macho slogans. Women, provided they play a leading role, often look like variations of Lara Croft: tight clothing, top figure, little emotional depth. More recently, however, other characters are increasingly making it into the game mainstream. And lo and behold, initial research results suggest that video games can even promote empathy – provided that the developers take the right approach. In times when hate and prejudice are more widespread than ever on the net, this has a new relevance. In psychology, empathy means putting yourself in someone’s shoes and taking their point of view. Those who are able to do so usually have a more positive attitude towards other people or groups, while a lack of empathy is associated with negative feelings.

It has long been known that novels and films can promote empathy. With video games, on the other hand, research has so far focused on the harmful effects. Compared to other media, games have a unique selling point that gives them a special influence: their interactivity. “In a game, you are an observer and an actor – so you see the consequences of your actions immediately,” says André Melzer, psychologist and media researcher at the University of Luxembourg. “This creates a closed feedback loop. I am doing something. The screen shows me a change as a result and gives me a new input for action. This experience of causality creates self-efficacy”. This means: The players experience that their actions are successful and make a difference. However, in this way they can also internalize negative approaches to solving problems, for example that conflicts are best solved by force.

The problem with this is that violence often has nothing to do with emotions in the game, the player has nothing to do with the victim. “If the violence were closer to reality and if the opponents were more human, then the use of violence would be difficult in the game for moral reasons,” says Melzer. It is not violence per se that is blunted, but the context in which it is presented. Melzer and his team have tested how, for example, the personality of a character influences the effect of violence. In the video game “Marvel vs. DC Universe”, test persons were supposed to beat up an opponent. Some test persons took on the role of the joker, an unpredictable, antisocial character, others played Superman. After the video game, the test persons were allowed to take exactly one piece of candy from a bowl. While Superman players largely adhered to the rules, joker players continued their anti-social behavior and helped themselves several times – even though they knew that other participants would come away empty-handed. In another experiment, it was shown that it also makes a difference whether the virtual figure slashes another person because it is a psychopath and wants to kill him or a surgeon who saves someone – even if the game scene was presented in both cases in a similarly bloody way.

This does not mean that regular playing of negative roles necessarily leads to aggressive and antisocial behaviour in the long run – this has not been proven so far. There is a growing scientific understanding that video games can have very different effects; they are by no means always and for all either harmless or necessarily harmful. “We know why people generally become aggressive,” says Melzer. “There are hereditary components, educational components; precarious living conditions contribute to this, as does violence experienced by oneself.” Games that increase a player’s aggression in the laboratory in the short term are another possible factor, but just one of many. And it loses its effect when other, protective factors are more pronounced. On the other hand, games can certainly trigger compassion and understanding for others in people, even if they are only one factor among many, too.

Game researcher Katherine Isbister from the University of California at Santa Cruz believes that games still make too little use of this narrative potential. “Commercial games often have a flat story and flat characters because they are more about strategic decisions, snappy skills and timing, and less about emotions and stories,” she says. “Another reason is the belief that stereotypical and broad-based characters appeal to a broader demographic group.” Accordingly, the more cultural nuances a story conveys, the lower the chance that the game will be successfully marketed worldwide.

Independent games have changed this belief in recent years. One example is the game “Papers, Please”, which has been very successful, at least with critics, in which you slip into the role of a border controller and have to decide who is allowed to enter a country. At first you check the documents and try to do your job, but then the immigrants ask for protection; the moral landscape becomes cloudy, especially since you have to feed your family with your job. The player must make decisions that have emotional consequences. “I believe that such approaches contribute greatly to empathizing with both border control officers and immigrants or other people who find themselves in similar situations today,” says Isbister. Another example is “This War of Mine”, where the player has to fight for survival in a destroyed war zone. Weakened by hunger and disease, he may enter the house of an old, anxious couple who flee from him into the attic. The player has to decide whether to rob the couple of their last food and medicine, or starve for another night and possibly die. The one who robs the old people saves his virtual life, but he probably feels miserable doing so.

In “Dear Esther” and “The Vanishing of Ethan Carter” one gains access to the emotional world of a broken protagonist via an inner monologue. In the horror thriller “The Cat Lady” you explore the subconscious of a depressed woman. Narrative games like “Gone Home”, the multiple award-winning “Life is Strange” and “Fragments of Him” deal with the everyday life of young adults, but also with bullying in high school and coming out. The success of such indie games has led to the introduction of complex plots in more and more large-scale productions. The producers place more value on good authors who tell strong stories instead of limiting themselves to platitudinous stereotypes. This is also how insecure male heroes appear, or strong, realistic heroines with whom women can identify. Even Lara Croft was at least vaguely transformed in 2013 into a vulnerable young woman who shivers in the cold and has to cheer on herself to jump over a crevice. André Melzer’s team had test subjects play a sexualized version of Lara Croft and one with a closed outfit; in the latter case, the women felt more confident after the game. Conversely, studies show that stereotypical, over-sexualized representations of women can have a negative effect on the players’ image of women.

Empathic games alone, however, do not make a sexist or racist person a better person; and just because someone feels with Geralt von Riva, he does not yet let the bullying be. But even the often criticized video games can have positive effects: The more games as well as movies and books show a more versatile picture of society and put violence into an emotional context, the more public awareness changes. So it certainly can’t hurt to put yourself in the shoes of a discriminated mutant.

This text was published in Süddeutsche Zeitung.