If A Jane Austen Novel Were A Video Game, Would You Play It?
Video games and novels offer very different experiences when it comes to empathy
Posted Sep 01, 2015
Empathy comes from the ability to understand the minds and emotional states of others, and novels offer a highly effective scenario for developing this essential human talent: do video games offer the same experience?
While a pre-requisite for a good novel is the ability to evoke empathy in the reader, many successful video games, such as Tetris, stand-alone completely from the human condition. At the other end of the spectrum, there are some in which the video gamer is required to be kind or helpful to succeed in game- also known as pro-social video games. The good news is that research has shown that playing such pro-social video games (relative to a neutral video game) increases empathy and decreases pleasure at another’s misfortune (‘schadenfreude’).1 Other examples that link video games and empathy are certain video games that specifically target raising our empathy, such as Project Syria, which is a virtual reality experience designed to educate users on the current civil war situation in Syria.2 This pedagogic genre of game in which the horrors of war are experienced firsthand has the ability to capture people far removed from the situation in a way a news bulletin never will.
Arguably though, these types of pro-social and educational video games are much less popular. While the most popular types of video games do appear to strive for emotional depth, featuring detailed narratives of complex characters making difficult moral choices, the majority of such games, regardless of how emotionally nuanced the characters are, feature heavy violence. The main point here is that research shows that playing violent video games decreases empathy.3 But plenty of good novels also feature violence, so why do novels and video games differ in their ability to teach us empathy?
Emotions are central to the immersive experience of reading fiction: when we read a novel, we do so to enter the life and world of someone else, and to be moved.4 Accordingly, novels can and do portray the entire gamut of human condition. We merge into the minds of our favorite book characters and identify with their innermost thoughts and feelings; their hopes and dreams. But in video games, stories that explore this type of internal conflict are rare. An analysis of popular video games found that one narrative type dominates - that of the single protagonist, typically male, who experiences external conflict – also regarded as the mythological adventure of a hero’s journey.5 The focus of such video games is the interaction the character has with the environment. Unsurprisingly then, video game characters also under-represent the diverse range of human emotions. A detailed analysis of popular modern and older style video games concluded that the emotions relating to extrapersonal conflict, such as fear and anger, are far more prevalent than those concerning inner conflicts, such as joy and sadness.5 The emotion of aggression is most commonly portrayed in video games, in addition to contempt, love, optimism, anxiety, dominance, outrage, and delight. In contrast, relatively few games evoke the complex emotions of alarm, cynicism, remorse, guilt, pessimism, envy, and shame, - and tellingly no games at all depict disappointment. Moreover, the aggressive protagonists that dominate video games are also far more two-dimensional then their counterparts found in the pages of a novel. The characters on the screen are largely good or bad- heroic or anti-heroic4 and tend to be stereotypes, with limited diversity portrayed- as reflected in the male protagonist bingo card.
Another major difference between video games and novels is that the former lack a traditional narrative structure. While there are backstories of video game characters and often highly detailed ‘cut-scenes’ that act as mini-movies to continue the story of the game, such backstories typically do not exceed more than a quarter of total gaming time.5 Instead, for the majority of a video game, we assume the role of the protagonist - his future is ours to shape - albeit within the parameters of the gameplay. This means that our own in-game actions can contradict the pre-established narrative of the character. After all, the very nature of gameplay is in conflict with a traditional linear narrative: at it’s core, video gaming is about decision-making, and gaming scenarios are reversible.6 If a regrettable outcome for the protagonist occurs in a video game, it can be reversed or avoided by replaying the scenario, and indeed often to progress in the game a player must replay the scenario.6 In contrast, the satisfying narratives in novels “depend on a linearity that counts against the ability to replay fictional states of affairs so that they might turn out differently.”6
A final major contrast is that in novels our goal is to interpret the story, whilst with video games our goal is to interact with it.7 Novels, television shows or movies will not induce feelings of guilt because we are unable to control the events playing out before us. On the other hand, video gamers report feeling guilt for their in-game immoral choices towards fictional characters.2,8 And if we are feeling guilt- or pain, or frustration, or any emotion resulting from action occurring to our video character, these are emotional responses to something being done to a proxy of ourselves. This type of self-focused emotional response is very different to the empathy towards others we experience from novels.6
Neuroscience research has investigated novels, video games, and how they relate to the concept of ‘theory of mind’, which is the ability to infer about the mental state of others - to ‘read another’s mind’- a highly related process to empathy for which reading fiction is linked to superior ability.9 A large meta-analysis of fMRI studies found substantial overlap between areas of the brain involving these skills and areas linked to understanding stories, in both adults and children.9 In stark contrast, fMRI studies investigating violent video games show that core areas of the brain involved in these very abilities are suppressed when video gamers enact violence in-game.7 These findings intuitively make sense, as it is the avoidance of empathy that improves the ability to act violently or kill opponents in both real life and in video games.
In sum, the formulaic hero/villain narratives of video games, the stereotypical portrayals of protagonists, the focus on aggressive emotions, and the need to suppress morals to enact violence in video games all suggest that current popular video games are poor teachers of the human condition. As we spend increasingly greater amounts of time video gaming, let’s not forget the limits of the virtual world and reach for a book for insights into others and ourselves.
- Greitemeyer, T., Osswald, S., & Brauer, M. (2010). Playing prosocial video games increases empathy and decreases schadenfreude. Emotion, 10(6), 796
- Anderson, C. A., Shibuya, A., Ihori, N., Swing, E. L., Bushman, B. J., Sakamoto, A., ... & Saleem, M. (2010). Violent video game effects on aggression, empathy, and prosocial behavior in eastern and western countries: a meta-analytic review. Psychological bulletin, 136(2), 151
- Sauer, J. D., Drummond, A., & Nova, N. (2015). Violent video games: The effects of narrative context and reward structure on in-game and postgame aggression. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied. Advance online publication.
- Ip, B. (2011). Narrative structures in computer and video games: part 2: emotions, structures, and archetypes. Games and Culture, 6(3), 203-244
- Tavinor, G. (2005). Videogames and interactive fiction. Philosophy and Literature, 29(1), 24-40
- Mathiak, K., & Weber, R. (2006). Toward brain correlates of natural behavior: fMRI during violent video games. Human brain mapping, 27(12), 948-956
- Mahood, C., & Hanus, M. (2015). Role-playing video games and emotion: How transportation into the narrative mediates the relationship between immoral actions and feelings of guilt. Psychology of Popular Media Culture. Advance online publication.
- Mar, R. A. (2011). The neural bases of social cognition and story comprehension. Annual review of psychology, 62, 103-134