I was watching a stream the other day of Assassin's Creed 4, and something happened to me. The person playing the game was going around an island, stealthily stabbing people in the back, killing people as you do in those games, and it angered me. Why are these people so defenseless? Why are they so easy to kill? Why is this so meaningless?
I had to turn the stream off. I thought to myself how I would change the game's design, making the enemies harder to deal with, how they wouldn't just fall down and die, how the player wouldn't just shrug off every attack that hit them. Shouldn't it be at least some form of struggle to kill a person? Shouldn't they cling to life?
Why is this affecting me so much? There's an idea that's been floating around in my head recently after talking with an artist friend of mine - what we lose by making games more realistic. The gains are obvious, more realism means more immersion, but what do we lose? A sense of wonder and magic? A place for our imagination to fill in the gaps? Yes, we lose those things, but this is not what I'm concerned with now. I think we lose our ability to abstract the game away. We lose our ability to not empathize with the characters in the game.
This can be a good thing. It allows us to create powerful experiences that can speak to a wide audience. But it is also a responsiblity, and one that most big games these days seem to be shirking off with ease. When we make games more realistic, we lose our ability to not empathize with the characters. They're no longer chess pieces, they're people. And when we choose to ignore this and create games that allow players to kill people with the ease and mallice and meaninglessness as if they were stepping on ants, we lose something very important. We lose our empathy. We have to, the alternative would be too disturbing.
Video games as a whole are hurt by this. Trends influence expectations, and when players don't expect to be emotionally engaged by a game, it's gets much harder to do so. I hope in the future, there is a better ballance between games which use realism to engage the player on a deeper level, and those that use realism to empower and just have fun.
I think we need more empathy as a society. I can think of no better evidence of this than a recent report by Rachel Maddow that shows the increase over time in mass shootings. I'm not willing to say the video games are directly responsible for any of these incidents, but if video games errode our collective empathy even just a little bit, what would that look like. Consider it like a herd immunity - someone who doesn't demonstrate empathy can't teach a child empathy. If we have less empathy as a whole, more kids don't learn it. More bullies, more maladjusted people getting antagonized. Can we honestly say that violent video games have asbolutely no negative impact at all on our society, despite the fact that there are indeed benefits?
When the debate about gun control legislation was being obfuscated by a whole plethora of scapegoats, video games among them, our industry took up its usual defensive stance - that there are no studies that link violence in video games to violence in people. But can we really justify our position on that? When people wanted studies to examine the effects of violence in video games, some people said it was a waste of money, but why? Shouldn't we want to know? Shouldn't we want to do something about it if it's a problem? I hope next time it gets brought up, we as an industry can be more reasonable. Until then, this is something that really worries me about the industry I'm a part of.