Can a game teach you what it’s like to be [blank]?

5 thoughts on “Can a game teach you what it’s like to be [blank]?”

  1. I think you bring up a very interesting issue. Empathy is definitely a concept that is addressed in a lot of cultural products and stories, from mid-century sci-fi to autobiographical narratives. (I can’t cite here but there are studies that showcase how reading fiction makes one more empathetic.) But games and IF seem to be posed as the best form to teach empathy, since its procedural mechanics and participatory aspect allow you to be completely enveloped in the role of the other. I agree that it is a difficult question and will take many more texts to tackle, but I am very curious to see why some stories succeed in teaching empathy, like your experience with howling dogs, while others fail. Perhaps it is that idea of immersion. The descriptive and poetic world of howling dogs allows us to reach into the role of the protagonist, suspending our disbelief. Player 2, though, has such a more rigid and flat structure that you touch upon. I think at the heart of teaching and exploring empathy depends upon the basic fundamentals of imagining yourself in another’s position, which in stories require utter complexity in form, worlds, characters, and procedures.

    1. Yeah, I agree with Wyatt here. To me, the difference between howling dogs and Player 2 was the seamlessness with which one presented its world, and the clunkiness with which the other tried to parse mine (i.e. the Player 1). I’m wondering whether this has to do with technological advancement and expectations to match–to me, Player 2 feels outdated in its design and execution, whereas howling dogs feels more contemporary in its execution and seamlessness, even if relying on a relatively old mechanic of hyperlinking and clicking. This is particularly strange considering howling dogs (2012) came out a year before Player 2 (2013). This calls to mind the notion of “medium specificity” that we’ve been talking about–using the specific characteristics of a computing machine or digital worlds to the benefit of the story you’re trying to tell. And for me, this is where Player 2 fails pretty badly.

  2. These two points are really great, thank you two for commenting!

    @123wyatt: The idea of immersion that you bring up makes a lot of sense to me, and helps condense some of the thinking that I was struggling with. There’s something about the feeling of “reach[ing] into the role of the protagonist” that feels almost more real, or more conducive to identification, than a second-person text that tries to interpellate “You” as a real-life being in a world above the text. It feels as if that interpellation instinctively puts me on the defensive, pushing me to worry over all the semi-occluded aspects of my self (identity being the most urgent among them) and whether or not the text is correctly interpreting them, whereas an “immersive” text lets me access my interior sense of self without all of the anxiety that comes with explicit examination. Or something like that? You mention studies about empathy in fiction, and I’m realizing that all of my confusion has probably already been well-studied. If you (or any eager English majors) have citations I’d love to read them!

    @mmmahaahmed: That’s so interesting! I had sort of assumed “Player 2” was more computationally rigorous, but your comment is making me realize that I only felt that way because its Javascript gimmicks were made explicit to me as a player (e.g. forms where I could input text, strings that I could change by clicking). All of the moving parts were on display. In contrast, “howling dogs” conceals those parts very cleverly, and uses them for the purpose of narrative and surprise. The most obvious example of this cleverness might be the cleanliness of the room and the character, which the computer keeps track of according to the player’s eating and hygiene habits. For a while the player is granted control over this cleanliness, but then when the trash chute breaks and the running water quits, that control is wrenched away. It was a really heartbreaking moment for me and I think it illustrates an interesting aspect of the medium-specificity you’re talking about – both games computationally track state changes, but “howling dogs” does it in a way that makes it feel embedded in the world of the game, and that toys with issues of power and control.

    1. @jeancochrane Your ideas on identity and self through second person narration and immersion is fascinating and definitely though provoking. On an unrelated note, I am attaching a link to a more recent study on empathy and fiction.
      While there is a lot of jargon here, the basic findings are interesting and support the connection with some qualifications. There is also a literature review if you want to find more studies. Hope this helps!

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