Gamasutra: The Art & Business of Making Gamesspacer
View All     RSS
October 22, 2014
arrowPress Releases
October 22, 2014
PR Newswire
View All

If you enjoy reading this site, you might also want to check out these UBM Tech sites:

The Walking Dead, mirror neurons, and empathy Exclusive
The Walking Dead, mirror neurons, and empathy
February 7, 2013 | By Jamie Madigan

February 7, 2013 | By Jamie Madigan
More: Console/PC, Design, Exclusive

Psychologist Jamie Madigan examines the neuroscience of one reason why The Walking Dead is so effective at eliciting empathy from players.

Oh man, have you all been playing The Walking Dead from Telltale Games? I have, and with every installment of this episodic game I'm newly impressed by how hard it yanks on my emotions.

Like the comic that spawned it, the game is unapologetically bleak and its appeal comes largely from watching characters getting crammed into really bad situations from which some of them just won't emerge -- unless they do so groaning and hungering for brains. Like many horror stories it's appealing the way a roller coaster is appealing. The characters are full of despair, heartbreak, anxiety, regret, and desperation.

And the amazing thing is that the game gets me to feel all those emotions too. I'm glad that it comes in monthly installments, because I need the time between episodes to recover. But why is that? By what psychological, neurological, and biological mechanisms do video games like The Walking Dead get us to not only empathize with characters onscreen, but also share their emotions?

For the answer let us start, as we so often do, with tiny Italian monkeys.

Years ago, neuroscientists in the Italian city of Parma were conducting experiments on macaque monkeys in order to understand the functions of individual brain cells. This involved inserting wires into the brain so that the researchers could detect activity in cells related to functions like grasping and bringing food to little monkey mouths. As researcher Marco Iacoboni notes in his 2008 book Mirroring People: The New Science of How We Connect With Others, stories of a particular breakthrough are varied and apocryphal, but most of them involve a monkey wired up and awaiting his next round of experiments. In walks a researcher, who then reaches out and grasps something of interest to the monkey like a piece of fruit or a big red button marked "ACTIVATE TO FREE ALL MONKEYS."

walking dead 1.jpegSuddenly the researcher noticed that according to the equipment hooked up to the monkey's brain, neurons were firing that were associated with grasping motions, even though the animal had only SEEN something being grasped. This was odd, because normally brain cells are very specialized and nobody knew of any neurons that would activate both when performing an action or when seeing someone else perform the same action. Yet here the monkey was, blithely firing neurons previously only associated with performing motor actions while just sitting still and watching.

Thus was the first observation of a mirror neuron in action, a brain cell set apart from many of its peers and which are also present in delicious human brains. It turns out that many researchers like the aforementioned Dr. Marco Iacoboni, Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at UCLA, believe that mirror neurons are important for our ability to empathize with things we see, like the plight of poor Lee and Clementine in The Walking Dead.

"Mirror neurons are motor cells," Iacoboni tells me via e-mail. "That is, they send signals to our muscles to move our body, make actions, grab a cup of coffee, smile, and so on. However, they differ from other motor cells because they are also activated by the sight of somebody else's action." For example, a mirror neuron for grasp is fired when I grab an Xbox controller, but also when I see my friend grabbing a controller. "By being active even when we do not move at all and simply watch other people moving, they sort of create an inner imitation of the actions of others inside us."

Curious about exactly how this phenomenon works, Iacoboni and his colleagues conducted a study (Carr, Iacoboni, & Dubeau, 2003) where they used very expensive equipment to monitor the brain activity of subjects who watched images of faces expressing different emotions. As expected, mirror neuron areas activated when people saw the expressions, and so did the limbic system, a portion of the brain known to be related to emotions. In short, upon seeing facial expressions, mirror neurons fired as if the subjects were making those expressions themselves, then triggered activity in the brain's emotional centers so that subjects could actually feel the emotion being imitated.

Iacoboni notes that this process "puts us immediately in 'somebody else's shoes,' in an effortless, almost automatic way. This is why we get so immersed in the movies we watch and the novels we read." When we see Lee Everett or any of the other Walking Dead characters grimace in disgust, our mirror neurons for grimacing activate as if we were making that expression ourselves. And because of that inner imitation, we actually do feel the emotion to some degree and thus understand what the other is feeling.

I think this is one of the reasons why The Walking Dead is so good at eliciting emotions: it frequently shows us the faces of the characters and lets us see all the work put into creating easily recognizable and convincing facial expressions. And so it's not the zombies that elicit dread in us. Instead it's things like the face that Kenny makes when Lee tells him to make a hard decision about his family.

walking dead 2.jpg"We spend a ton of time on the facial animations for the characters in the game," The Walking Dead's creative lead Sean Vanaman said when I asked him about this. "After writing the first episode we start to make lists of the type of things characters are going to feel in the story and then start to generate isolated facial animations to convey those moods and emotions. Those are then used throughout the game."

But it's not just seeing an expression and imagining ourselves mirroring it. In the 2004 study cited above, Iacoboni and his colleagues also had some subjects physically imitate the expressions they were seeing and the cascade of mental activity increased. This suggests that actively imitating expressions helps us better empathize and understand, and it's part of a fairly established line of research called the "facial feedback hypothesis." For example, in one 2005 study researcher Paula Niedenthal had two groups of subjects look at the facial expressions of other people.

One group, however, was made to hold a pencil between their teeth, which severely limited their ability to mimic the expressions they saw. The result was that those clenching the pencils in their mouths were less able to detect emotional changes in the faces they observed because the lack of mimicry short circuited their brain's ability to replicate facial expressions, feel the emotions themselves, and then recognize it in others.

So, I suppose the moral of all this is that if you really want to get the full effect from The Walking Dead, don't cover your eyes and peek between your fingers in a way that inhibits your ability to mimic the expressions you see on screen. Your mirror neurons don't appreciate that when they're trying to get your to replicate expressions of crippling, existential doom.

[Jamie Madigan examines the overlap of psychology and video games at and writes the column Mind Games for Follow him on Twitter. ]


Carr, L., Iacoboni, M., & Debeau, M. et al. (2003). Neural mechanisms of empathy in humans: A relay from neural systems for imitation to limbic areas. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, 100, 5497-5502.

Iacoboni, M. (2008). Mirroring people: The new science of how we connect with others. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Niedenthal, P., Barsalou, L., & Winkelman, P. et al. (2005). Embodiment in attitudes, social perception, and emotion. Personality and Social Psychology Reviews, 9, 184-211.

Related Jobs

DeNA Studios Canada
DeNA Studios Canada — Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

Analytical Game Designer
University of Texas at Dallas
University of Texas at Dallas — Richardson, Texas, United States

Assistant/Associate Prof of Game Studies
Avalanche Studios
Avalanche Studios — New York, New York, United States

UI Artist/Designer
Bohemia Interactive Simulations
Bohemia Interactive Simulations — ORLANDO, Florida, United States

Game Designer


Joshua Darlington
profile image
Another strong emotive mechanic in Walking Dead is kinship bonds and psuedo kinship bonds.

Vin St John
profile image
This was a fantastic read! Funny, short, informative, and let me spend five more minutes thinking about how great TWD was.

Katarina Gyllenback
profile image
I must take the opportunity to join in with a comment. As I work with narrative as a cognitive process, and it's a matter very near to my heart to attract the game industry’s attention to elementary knowledge about narrative possibilities, the "mirror neuron" is very interesting. It says something about the reason why one should not write dialogue where a non-playing character tells the player how to experience something like “I get bad vibes here”, “This looks scary”, etc. The “mirror neuron” is also why one should write instructional text (tutorials) with care. As to tell the players in text where they are, how the world works, what conflicts they are facing, and what kind of relations the players have with several people (and on top of that tell how to use the hardware) have a huge potential to kill emotions. Instead one should explore how all the media specific features of a game, as the sound and visuals (narrative), can mirror circumstances. But what I find very interesting (lesson number 2 – now it’s getting advanced) with The Walking Dead is how Telltale explores the invisible art of film editing (developed along with comics) and game pacing (please let me know if anyone has touched upon this earlier). To me the narrative “secret” with TWD is the interface between level design and visual editing and how it goes beyond the ordinary “cinematic”, “cut scenes”, “kill cams” and “object cams”. So if someone likes to investigate “mirror neuron” they should try to recruit a really good film editor to see how the art can contribute to the level design (and I hope this is not understood as I like to see close ups of zombies applied like “screamers” in future pacing).

Joshua Darlington
profile image
"It says something about the reason why one should not write dialogue where a non-playing character tells the player how to experience something like “I get bad vibes here”, “This looks scary”, etc. "

I couldn't disagree more.

While the specific line “I get bad vibes here”, “This looks scary” - are a bit vague to be useful, such lines are examples of limbic tagging. Which can be done visually but can also be done with words.

If you are interested in cognitive science you may have heard of brain magnet experiments that prove that you can effect the taste of wine by telling the subject a different story about the wine. If you tell them that its cheap wine they enjoy it less. If you tell them its expensive they enjoy it more. One implication of the experiment is that waiters are essentially seasoning the food depending on how they describe it to customers.

Horror stories work using a similar mechanic. When the author repeats phrases about doom and gloom (and especially when they use poetic and sense memory associations), surrounding neural networks are activated into a summation effect which lowers action potential thresholds. It's like being in a dark room and your senses and something unexpected touches your hand.

The popular Halloween game where the player is blind folded and forced to handle peeled grapes while being told they are eyeballs and etc works using this mechanic.

Justin Kwok
profile image
When I was in screenwriting, we used to have a saying that the best way to make the audience feel an emotion is to show someone else feeling it.

I think that's the most important take away from this article. I think that brings up another point that it's that much more difficult to have the player experience the exact emotions we want them to. For instance, in FPSes, there's no one to empathize with so it's a challenge to know how the player is going to emotionally react to a situation. Arguably, I would say that's the main reason there's very little actual character development in first person games. Not that Chell or Gordon Freeman aren't great characters. But instead of being deep characters with emotional arcs, they're more like blank slates.

Joshua Darlington
profile image
Dunno, it seems worth building up sympathy to the protag and antipathy to the antag before the heroic massacre starts, even if its using that silent film technique "pet the dog/kick the dog."

Phil Freihofner
profile image
I think that the mirror neuron effect explains a lot about how music works. Music (sound in general) suggests or implies motion, and we tend to mirror those motions, which in turn have a relationship to emotions.

David Richardson
profile image
Mirror neurons?

I though we moved past that junk science years ago.

I guess Jamie Madigan didn't get the memo!

Luis Guimaraes
profile image
Fancy way to say "empathy" and pretend nobody ever heard of it.

Joshua Darlington
profile image
this memo?