Empathy and Identification in Video Games

What do people mean when they say they “identify” with a character? I argue that most of a time, it’s empathy, and identification comes with customisation, but I may be wrong, hey!

I had this very interesting conversation with a friend over the announcements around Cyberpunk 2077 at E3. CD Project Red (the developer and editor) said that the game will be played in first person because it makes the game more immersive, or personal (1), and also because it was necessary due to the augmentations. So I assume that, like in Deux Ex, visual implants have an impact on how you see the world, and therefore makes it necessary to see through the character’s eyes.

cyberpunk-2077

But in my opinion (2), it is also helps a lot to feel like you’re the character. To identify. I think the word “Identification” have been used for about anything that goes beyond its meaning. When you talk about your identity, it’s something that’s in you, in your own personality, so you can’t identify to everything just because the story is well told or the character is well crafted. That’s where empathy comes in. When your best friend tells you about something very sad that happens to them, and as a result, you feel sad too, it’s because of your empathy for that person. You know them and you understand what they’re going through, so you end up feeling the same way as they do. But you don’t suddenly identify to them just because you feel sad when they tell you about their sad story.

And I really think it’s the same thing for any work of fiction. When you watch a film and you feel all that’s happening to a character, you don’t say at the end of a film “Oh my god! I was Tony Stark for 2 hours and a half”. You’ll be more likely to say something along the line of “Wow, Me too I’d feel devastated if I realised I could have stopped Starlord before he did anything stupid” (3). And it’s no different in video games.

Obviously, we’re restricting the topic to games that put you in control of a single character that is identified and has a background. In this kind of games, most of the time you follow a character that has a pre-defined background and you don’t get much freedom to shape the character. Games like Uncharted, The Last of Us or Tomb Raider fall in that category. You can often choose the skills you want to develop, but ultimately, the story goes in one direction, and you have no other choice but to be passive in the light of what happens to the character. It’s a developer’s choice, when they want to tell a story but don’t want you to mess with the storyline while still having fun. And in many of those games, you play in third person. Meaning that the “camera” is positioned behind the character and lets you swing around. It’s usually a good way to see the character and/in the environment, and apparently it’s something that players love, seeing how they disagreed with CD Projekt Red’s decision to have Cyberpunk 2077 played in first person.

rainbow-six-siege-screenshot-6

But it’s not always the case. For example, Deus Ex is played in first person, probably for the reason stated above, but the character is defined by the developer with development limited to skills. And in the other hand, Mass Effect lets you customise your character entirely (which includes the background to some extent), but is played in third person. At the very extreme, every competitive shooter (Overwatch, Rainbow 6: Siege or, my personal favourite, Insurgency) is played in first person and we couldn’t care less about the characters (4).

So, despite what I told my friend this morning, I don’t think the choice of a first or third person depends on the degree of identification. It’s mostly down to what the developer wants to focus on in terms of immersive experience and gameplay or what audience they’re aiming at. I still think that having the camera behind the character puts a barrier, but it’s a very personal feeling. Which is weird, because I never had any problem identifying with the characters I created for Fallout 1 and 2 (pictured below).

fallout 2 chosen one

And that’s were I think the difference lies: in the degree of customisation. A character will be more like you (and therefore identifyable) if you made it like you. Or if you made it like you’d wish to be. With my psychologist in France, we used to talk about how character customisation may help understand how we identified. Specifically, when I talked about video games, I told her that when I was creating a character from scratch, most of the time, the gender I chose didn’t have any consequence in the character arc (5). That’s when she pointed out that if I can craft out my character the way I want, even though there won’t be any consequences (6), then it reinforces the identification with the character, because the character will be even closer to who I am, or who I want to be.  And (in my case at least), it was totally right; I always made a female character because I couldn’t identify with a male character, even before I accepted the fact that I was transgender. If the way you customise your character didn’t matter in the game, why would you do it? In the end, it’s a way to let the player feel more like they’re into the game and identify with the character. But really identify, in the sense that you are the character. How you would react in the same situation, not just experiencing their story?

To conclude, I obviously don’t think people bullshit when they say they identify to a character. I am just saying that what they’re actually experiencing is empathy, but they can truly identify only when they have the opportunity to shape the character the way they want. But of course, when I’m in a conversation, I’ll still talk about identification, because I’m not a pretentious asshole who think she is better than every one else (7).

 

 

(1) “The first-person point of view is there so you can see things happening up close, and so you can really interact with things in a visceral manner. with the game world.” http://ca.ign.com/articles/2018/06/12/e3-2018-cyberpunk-2077-cd-projekt-addresses-first-person-backlash

(2) And I really want to stress that it’s a personal opinion, I am not trying to impose it on anyone, just to have a discussion about it.

(3) It’s not a spoiler, I didn’t say that Spiderman dies.

(4) Overwatch and Rainbow 6: Siege made backgrounds for their characters but even though a player may choose a character considering their background, they only use the character’s skill set in game. The point is to win the game, not chitchat about the character’s narrative.

(5) Except a few cases like the first 2 Fallout, where each gender has some different but symmetrical effect. For example, a woman’s charisma will work better on someone attracted to women.

(6) And even when it does, I usually stick to a character that feels more like me. For example, when the game encourages making a strong fighter, I keep making a clever one and skip the strength attribute, because I prefer getting away with a clever word than a bullet in the face, even though it’s more challenging.

(7) But I am, obviously.

Empathy, empathy, why do you make me cry!

It looks like a movie review at first, but the real subject actually starts at the second paragraph.

If anyone had told me that I would have like The Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, I probably would have thrown a sarcastic comment and laughed. But I did like it. It’s not an awesome movie, and it is boring at times (especially the action scenes), but it is far better than the Vol. 1 in my opinion. Well, not every one thinks the same way of course, and every one looks for something different when watching a film, but while the first film was desperately trying to convince me that those pathetic losers could eventually get along and save the galaxy, the second one had a real topic and a real reason to make them fight together (and save the galaxy again). I liked that they tell us that the real family is the people who raised you and put up with your bullshit all along, not the stupid genetic relationship that doesn’t mean crap when you get abandoned. It’s a good conclusion and that convinced me that it was trying to tell something.

Aaaanyway, that was a small review, but now I wanna go into the real topic of the day: empathy. And you ask me, “what does it have to do with the Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”? Well, because of this character:

mantis

Empathy is the capacity to recognise and feel emotions in other people. And that’s what Mantis does. When she touches someone, she instantly feels what the subject is feeling, whether she wants it or not. It’s important to note, because in my opinion, that’s the detail that made this character so great. She is the empathy that exists between the crew members, but that they don’t want to accept.

I felt it was so well thought and put onto images in such a beautiful way, that I could relate so much to that feeling. Empathy is something that is crippling if you lack it or have too much of it. If you lack empathy, you end up having a behaviour that is not adapted to living in a society, because, either you don’t recognise what people feel, or it doesn’t affect you. If you have too much empathy, you just end up living on a roller coaster of emotion. Usually, people don’t have the same level of empathy with every one. Some will feel strongly for their family or friend, and not care at all for strangers. But some just don’t have any boundary: everything comes in, whether you want it or not, and most often, you’d rather not.

You would think that you can never have too much empathy, but it becomes a problem when you feel bad even when people are wrong. For example, if someone is sad, even if you don’t have anything to do with it, you get sad too. I want to point out this fact because I feel it’s freaking important: you don’t just recognise the sadness, you actually feel sad. It’s depressive, really. Worse, if they’re angry at you, and you didn’t do anything wrong, you feel bad about it. And if someone is happy about something you did, but you didn’t do it (and you know it), you feel guilty. You feel like lying. There is no way to win. I never lie because of that. I can be a very convincing liar if I want to, but it’s just not emotionally worth it.

So what does one do to protect themselves against this phenomenon? Simply, they shield themselves. They try to avoid other people’s emotion by convincing themselves that they don’t feel them. I won’t go into it because I already explained it in this post.

I hate it when someone is angry at me even thought I haven’t done anything wrong. Sometimes, they’ve done me wrong, and I still feel bad about them being angry at me. Sometimes, I just want to apologise for nothing just to let steam go and get back to an almost normal state of living. But it’s not fair. Why would someone who’s being a dick and angry at me get away with me actually apologising for it? I used to respond by being aggressive, but we all know it doesn’t work. It’s just making things worse. To be honest, so far, I haven’t found a better solution to the problem than avoiding the distressing people/stimuli altogether. If someone is pissing me off for no reason, I’ll just ignore them and try to focus on something else, because I don’t see why I should get all the trouble when I didn’t do anything wrong.

Now the movie doesn’t give any answer to that question, because it’s not the point of the film. It’s just trying to tell that they should stick together, and Mantis’ role in all this is to make them recognise that they have feelings for each other and that they’re not just a bunch of low-life criminals randomly put together anymore. But what it does is really well done, and I felt like it was worth mentioning because when I see reviews of this film, I only see people praising the entertainment and the action (seriously, action scenes in this film are pointless and boring, come on), and completely ignore the topic of the film and that kind of details. And that makes me somehow sad.

 

Emotional Wasteland; how to tear down the stronghold defence

I’ve been living in an emotional wasteland for more than 15 years. It doesn’t mean that I don’t feel anything, it only means that I’ve been forbidding myself to let a particular set of negative feelings affect my life. Of course, it didn’t go as planned, I did feel a lot of stuffs, but by denying those feeling, I created a situation where I forgot how to recognise them.

[…]

I’ve been living in an emotional wasteland for more than 15 years. It doesn’t mean that I don’t feel anything, it only means that I’ve been forbidding myself to let a particular set of negative feelings affect my life. Of course, it didn’t go as planned, I did feel a lot of stuffs, but by denying those feeling, I created a situation where I forgot how to recognise them. And as I pointed out in my previous post, it becomes problematic when it builds up and I can’t see the threshold being atomised. I should be able to identify the early signs of distress and take preventive action, or at least prepare my defence. But to know why I have so much problems with this now, I have to come back years and years before.

When I was in middle school, I was quick to cry for any stupid thing. And when you grow up as a boy, your peers are quick to shame you for being so emotional. Heck, in the 90’s, even the girls were shaming you for that by calling you… a girl (not sure that changed actually, but I’m not in middle school anymore). After that, high school was a boring hell hole where every one but me was in a group, I started my college years with my first big “romantic” deception, I’ve been mugged a couple times, and by the time I was 20, I was fed up of being emotional and victimised. So, I basically decided to change all of that, trying to be more the person that people want you to be. But it turns out, when people want you to conform, they don’t mean that you should behave like a cold anti-social butthole.

After a few years of being like this, and refusing to feel anything, or to be vulnerable in front of someone, your body gradually accept the changes, and stop giving you any warning signs. You live like nothing can get to you. It’s boring, and lonely, but even that doesn’t feel as bad as it sounds, because your body stopped giving a rat’s ass about your feelings anyway. But, of course, it’s only illusion. If you have as much empathy as I do, you can understand how this wall is just a prank your mind loves to play on you, and all those feelings build up until the illusion crumbles and you as well.

And that’s where the weirdest thing happens. You would think that after a breakdown, you’d get a wake-up call and decide that all this was a terrible way to deal with your problem, and you should start working on it but no, you just go full 2nd amendment on it and you decide that you need more of your stupid idea to protect yourself. Mix it and shake it for a few years, and here you go, you built yourself a gigantic fortress full of cracks and, ironically, you end up an inmate in a prison you designed. And it’s the kind of prison where you can smuggle anything in, but nothing comes out. So you keep feeling, but to other people, you still look like a cold anti-social butthole.

Jump-cut to 2015: Crap! I’m transgender. I knew it already (1), but hey, now it’s messing with my sanity, so I really need to do something about it. My shrink tries to break into my defence, but she does that by finding workarounds. Bad luck, my wall is designed against that kind of evasive action. However I realise it fails in the face of direct action. Who would have known? I’ve always been honest, and somehow I was always waiting for someone to notice and reach out. So ask me a question bluntly, I will answer the same way, try to go around, I can play for hours, and we’ll both waste time.

So I realise that I need to let my guard down, but I have two problems: first I can’t just withdraw everything because, since I’ve now come out as transgender, I shifted in a particularly unsafe category of people, and I need to be careful. And second, I forgot what feelings feel. As I said, my body stopped warning me, so I have no idea what to let through, because I don’t receive relevant emotional inputs. I only know when it’s too late, and that puts me in annoying or embarrassing situations, to say the least.

So now I am trying to dismantle that wall, but it’s really complicated. It’s a piece-by-piece project. I need to really think about what constitutes a feeling and how it is supposed to trigger me. To give a bold example, when I experience something that is supposed to be sad, I have to tell myself that it is sad, and I know that an appropriate response to that feeling is crying. So I may try to force myself to cry. Think it’s messed up? I actually do it for real. I have some cues that gives me the tears right up. It’s kind of a cheap trick, but after learning some basic neuroscience, I realise that it’s a good way to reinforce a behaviour (2).

However it’s a very long process. It’s not a one-off thing. You don’t get it when you do it once. It’s like any other trained behaviour, it only reinforces when you do it enough times that it becomes natural (like driving, or flipping crèpes without folding them). And most often, you forget to do it because you’re too busy already to notice the stimulus. So I’m in for years and years of remediation. Hopefully, I’ll be prepared when Death comes knocking at my door. So when He says “I DON’T HAVE ALL DAY, ARE YOU READY YET?”, I can say proudly “I saw that coming!”

 

 

(1) Actually I knew since I was about 15, without really putting words onto it. But society puts so much pressure on you to conform that it’s really hard to accept it, or to find help. Especially back in the 90’s when Internet wasn’t yet the go-to place to find useful information. And as my friend Bria says: 

 

(2) There are some stimuli that have never failed to make me cry, and I think it’s because of some things I cared for when I was a kid, like the dog my family used to have. Shit, just writing about him gives me tears. And it actually makes me cry every time something sad happens to a pet (and that’s why I have a hard time with animal deaths in movies). So thinking about this when another supposedly sad stimuli comes up helps associate the response to the stimuli. And then it reinforces by itself, since crying when the stimuli happens makes me realise that the stimuli is something sad.