Ways a Video Game Can Instill Compassion During the Lockdown

To fight inherent loneliness, a video game fosters empathy rather than violence.

Posted Jul 07, 2020

Source: Playstationblogeurope/Flickr

One of the pitfalls of mainstream apocalyptic depictions such as Mad Max, The Road, and The Walking Dead is to assume that the worst of humanity will emerge in response to the end of the world, as though compassion and goodness were far removed from our natural instincts.

By default, the media tends to associate apocalyptic scenarios with an uptick in violence. After major crises that cause a breakdown in society, characters become more willing to take up violence as a means of survival and a new form of identity. This suggests a regression to our Paleolithic hunter-gatherer origins once the comforts of modern civilization are washed away.

In 2019, however, Sony Computer Entertainment released a video game entitled Death Stranding, which subverts bloodshed-laden lessons from past post-apocalyptic works. The game places you in the role of Sam, a delivery man in an America destroyed by cataclysm. His job is to deliver crucial supplies to people unable to leave their homes due to an invisible threat (sound familiar?).

The goal is not to kill zombies or ward off punk-rock bandits, but to brave perilous terrain in order to deliver life-saving supplies and ultimately rebuild a functional, well-connected society.

Adam Frank, astrophysics professor at the University of Rochester, described the game as “an extended meditation on death, solitude, and connection,” which turned out to be prescient during the Coronavirus pandemic. Frank emphasizes that while the message of Death Stranding is pronounced during our current social upheaval, its ideas are applicable to all times. It gives us “more intimacy with our own experiences of loneliness or the urge to be of service.”

Loneliness and isolation are major themes that the game addresses. The player Sam can spend hours traversing barren wastelands alone, all for the purposes of providing people with a little bit that can go a long way. This idea is reinforced through the game’s strategy of having other players leave important supplies behind to help you on your journey through hostile landscapes.

You might need to cross a river in order to deliver food and medicine to a pregnant woman and find that a previous player has built a bridge to get you across. The multiplayer framework is a far cry from games like Fortnite or Call of Duty in which players kill one another rather than help out.

Death Stranding reinforces the importance of compassion because you need other players’ help in order to achieve your goal, so you might as well drop some ladders at the foot of a steep hill or build a zipline to help a stranger get past a snowy mountain ridge.

Hideo Kojima, the game’s director, suggests that Death Stranding helps gamers reckon with their inherent loneliness. “So many people who play games feel like they don’t belong in this society,” Kojima says, pointing to social media as one reason why loneliness has become so prevalent in recent times. “You’re all alone playing the game,” he says, “trying to connect this by yourself to this fractured society.”

Through the practice of leaving behind tools for other players on their journey, Kojima hopes players will feel less alone as a result. Connecting through a video game is obviously not the same as developing meaningful relationships in real life. Yet Kojima’s subversion of the traditionally violent and vitriolic engagement in video games is refreshing, as it could allow gamers to practice something they may not be used to in their favorite medium.

Gaming and social media bring out the worst in many people. Typical post-apocalyptic games transform many individuals into vicious marauders bent on stoking chaos and leaving suffering in their wake. Death Stranding aims to be the antithesis of that formula by centering its mechanics on the pursuit of compassion in a world of desperation.

Compassion suits crisis times just as well as any other. Death Stranding is perhaps the first big-budget video game to put compassion at its center and try to nurture empathy in its audience. Its ambitious vision may not be for everyone, but it challenges the genre to be more optimistic about humanity rather than expecting the worst.

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Frank, Adam. “Playing ‘Death Stranding,’ Even in Isolation, You’re Not Alone.” NPR. May 14, 2020

Gault, Matthew. “’We’re Not Thinking About Others’” What Hideo Kojima Wants You To Learn from Death Stranding.” Time. November 8, 2019

Thier, Dave. “’The Last of Us Part II’ Director Shares The Abusive, Anti-Semitic Messages He’s Received.” Forbes. July 5, 2020