That novels teach empathy and compassion is practically a meme by now. I have a sense that this breathless justification for novel reading — and, so it follows, novel writing — has been around since the nineteenth century, when the novel was a relatively new form, but I can’t remember where, nor can I find it now.
Studies apparently suggest this may be the case.1 Inhabiting the inner world of a character to such a degree that one identifies with different aspects of the character, the argument goes, makes one more able to empathise with and feel compassion for that character. The breathless literary critics point out that even characters who are utterly distasteful, like Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment, have complex psychologies and may have pure motivations that lead them to brutally commit a double murder and failed burglary. And reading C&P will make us better people for realising this.
It’s interesting that arguments against video games — which are just as breathless — claim the exact opposite effect with almost equivalent content. Instead of making us more empathetic, games turn us into psychopaths and criminals.2 I understand the basic distinction between games and novels in this regard — that controlling a psychopathic character’s actions is different to reading about them being reported. And so, it seems that this intimacy with the character’s choices, choices that appear to be yours, will mold your mind to the character’s.
That these choices are the appearance of choice is important here, and is only infrequently discussed. In a video review of the game, NakeyJakey identifies that the player’s motivations may be disjunct from the character’s.
Basically, okay, what was the point of it all? I didn’t want to do any of this. I didn’t want to kill and torture Nora with a pipe. I didn’t want to drown Abbie, even though I feel like it makes way more sense narratively for Ellie to kill her given all her fucking murders. […] But none of that matters at the end of the day. Because this is Ellie’s hollow and inconsistent story of violent actions and motivations, not mine.
And yet, you are forced — if you wish to continue to play the game — to identify with the character and commit these acts.
Jakey’s review is largely negative. But I found the game astonishing — in most part because one plays as both protagonist and antagonist. Indeed, one plays as Abbie — who is set up early in the game to be the antagonist — before she commits the act that leads to her becoming the antagonist; the torture and murder of another character.
Playing as a character builds empathy in a way that reading about the character’s thoughts could only aspire to, particularly in a game like The Last of Us. The constant threat of the infected and — even worse — of other non-infected humans means that controlling a character is caring for them. Watching Abbie die tens of times before she becomes the villain made me sympathise with her more than had I read about her passing through scathed but ultimately alive.
The Last of Us Part II reveals a basic tension in story-telling in video games, which I hadn’t really noticed until playing through this game. The difference between games and almost any other medium is that games involve at their core interactive problem solving. The problems in a good game are difficult enough to require some degree of planning, agility, or creative thinking.
Most of the problem solving in The Last of Us Part II revolves around making one’s way through an area, around enemies and physical obstacles, either by stealth or by combat. The position of the enemies an obstacles, their number, and the types of enemies one faces contribute to the problem space. The game has many difficulty settings, and I played on the second-hardest difficulty. Some of the problems, then, were diabolically difficult, and some areas took me hours to pass. At the end of these areas, in the worst case, the momentum of the narrative had utterly dissipated as I watched Abbie or Ellie die hundreds of times. In some cases, I had forgotten the reason for my being there.
The narrative in The Last of Us Part II is convoluted, at best. In The Last of Us, there is a singular objective at any given point, while The Last of Us Part II seems to have minor objectives, whose completion is interrupted by some misfortune that turns into an hours-long diversion. Each area is a diversion unto itself, and so the narrative tension is tenuous at best, without introducing an element of insane difficulty that means a single area can take multiple hours.
I don’t think there’s a way to bypass this problem. Narrative games still need problems to solve, and gluttons for punishment will want those problems to be difficult to solve. The player, then, has the paramount choice at the beginning of the game: is it a story I want, or a game?
A small whimsy. The tactile nature of video games — that is, that the way of interacting with the world is to manipulate an object to control what happens on the screen — means that the tactile nature of the world is far more important to the player than in other media. I found myself thinking, often, about the last time an object in an abandoned building had been touched: by whom, why. The devastation of the world was more complete for feeling that precious things — family photographs, a favourite book — had been touched, probably for the last time, in a moment of unknowing absence.
It’s worth noting that in the abstract of the paper that this Guardian article is based on notes that “reading literary fiction temporarily enhances” Theory of Mind (my emphasis), a measure of empathic response. A temporary effect is far less interesting than a more permanent effect. The authors of the paper account for a bunch of demographic and psychological characteristics, which didn’t seem to predict how well the participants did on the empathy tests. However, it is significant in my opinion that familiarity with the authors — which captures prior knowledge of the literature that was read — is far more statistically significant than simply having read the literature. This may strengthen the authors’ claim somewhat that those that read this fiction more regularly tend to be more empathetic. But, of course, the inverse is just as likely true: if one is more empathetic to begin with, one may be more likely to be drawn to reading. So I’m not convinced the effect is as strong as the authors are claiming. But I digress. ↩
Of course, I’m aware that this is somewhat of a strawman. There is room for criticism of violence, sexual content, and — in particular — valorisation of misogyny and objectification fo sex in video games. Some games I believe are genuinely detrimental to one’s health — particularly thoroughly addictive but ultimately vacuous games. And I think that age-based restrictions on some games are important. But surely the idea that reading any literatrary fiction — any at all! — will make one more empathetic is also a ridiculous strawman? ↩