by Will Wright, Creator of "The Sims"
There's an old saying in biology: "Ontogeny Recapitulates Phylogeny." This is really more of a myth, but what it means is that the developing embryo of an organism roughly replays it's own evolutionary history. The human embryo, for instance, goes through successive stages that closely resemble fish, reptiles, small mammals, then man. Interesting, you might say (or maybe not), but what does that have to do with this book?
I've been involved with creating computer games for about 20 years. It seems to me that games are mirroring the emotional development of humanity in a similar way. The earliest games appealed primarily to our more primitive instincts. These instincts originate in the central portion of our brain, our so-called "reptilian" brain stem. Over time, the emotional palette of games has broadened beyond instinctive issues of survival and aggression to include the more subtle mechanisms of empathy, nurturing, and creativity. We still have a long way to go, however, to reach the outer cerebral cortex. Compared to other forms of media (books, films, music), games are still stuck somewhere around the "small rodent" phase.
Comparing games to previous forms of media (which are, for the most part, linear experiences) can be both useful and dangerous. Useful, because by studying other forms, we can get a good sense of what games are missing and how far they have yet to go in this important direction. Dangerous, because interactive entertainment is a fundamentally different proposition than its linear cousins, involving quite different psychological mechanisms.
As pre-humans (and other social animals) began to live in groups, their survival was determined more and more by their ability to understand and predict the other members of their groups (which they became increasingly dependent on). It became as important for Ugg the caveman to predict what his tribe members were thinking and likely to do as it was for him to understand the rest of the world around him. This would seem to be the evolutionary basis for empathy, the almost magical ability we have to put ourselves in someone else's shoes; to feel what they feel; to relive their experiences from their point of view. In essence, we can simulate the thought and experiences of other people in our imagination and insert ourselves into this model.
This is important to us because this empathic ability we seem to exercise so seamlessly is also the psychological engine that drives the thing we call "story." Story (in its many forms) seems to be an "educational technology" of sorts that we have developed over millennia that allows us to share experiences with one another across great distances of time and space. We can learn to avoid failures or achieve successes from people who are long dead across the world or who never existed at all. It's a technology that's entirely dependent on our ability to empathize with other beings.
Games, on the other hand, are most directly dependent on something else entirely: the concept of agency. Agency is our ability to alter the world around us, or our situation in it. We are able to act, and that action has effects. This is probably the first thing we learn as babies. This is the crucial distinction between interactive and linear entertainment.
Interactive works demand that the player has the ability to act; to affect the situation; to make a difference at every possible turn. When a player loses control of the joystick or mouse, it's similar to watching a movie when the screen goes blank. You've just closed down the primary feedback loop.
So what place does empathy have in interactive works, where the player is driving the experience rather than just going along for the ride? The answer is that we really need both, perhaps in equal measures. We need agency to engage the volition and creativity of the player; we need empathy to engage the outer region of our brain that wants to simulate and predict complex, emotional beings around us.
One of the main reasons games have been so emotionally shallow up to this point is that there hasn't really been anything in them worth empathizing with. We find it rather difficult to empathize with one-dimensional game characters that only have the ability to regurgitate canned speech and perform predictable actions. We know that they have no emotional depth, so we basically disengage that circuit in our brain and treat them more like appliances than as people. Our ability to fully simulate human thoughts, behavior, and emotions is still a long way off, but we are making progress toward that goal in bits and pieces. I don't know when we'll get as far as C-3PO, but I think we're rather close to R2D2 right now.
This book contains an important piece of that puzzle. David Freeman is one of the few people I know who has successfully bridged the emotionally rich world of linear media and story with the structurally demanding world of interactive games. He has found ways to utilize empathy as an emotional draw, even within the widely varying structures of games.
But beyond this, he also lays out techniques to make agency an emotion ally rich experience. To mention but a few, these include taking the player on both an external and internal journey…enticing the player into becoming involved in rich game worlds…allowing the player to explore new identities as well as new ways of feeling and acting…and placing the player in emotionally complex situations.
It's a long hill we're climbing, but efforts like this will ensure that games will one day realize their full potential.