Seth Schiesel sat down to review a slam-bang-punch-’em-out videogame for the New York Times. He ended up having to consider the differences in how stories differ from interactive entertainment in the psychological distance they offer consumers.
Schiesel’s review lays out the premise of the game Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 2:
In a panic, Congress passes and the president signs the Superhero Registration Act, requiring all heroes to submit to government oversight and monitoring. The fearful public approves.One of the benefits of reading fiction, critics have long said, is that it allows us to experience other people’s lives for a time, increasing our understanding and empathy. But can there be too much empathy? Is that effect overwhelming when we’re not simply reading about someone, even reading that someone’s thoughts, but actually making decisions for him?
And so the heroes are split between the pro-registration loyalists led by Iron Man, who believe that submitting to the government will increase security, and the anti-registration rebels led by Captain America, who believe that the act is fundamentally, uh, un-American.
You, the player, must choose a side. . . .
This story arc, known as Civil War, was first explored in a series of print Marvel comic books written by Mark Millar a few years ago. I’m not a comic-book expert, but after playing Ultimate Alliance 2 I read the main Civil War books. What I found was a nuanced, probing examination of the interplay between freedom and security that has always defined Americans’ discussion of civil liberties. . . .
Noninteractive media like books and movies allow the viewer some psychological distance from the characters. That sense of remove is a big part of how linear media can explore complex topics of morality: by depicting characters you are not expected to agree with, but merely understand. Great tragedies, after all, are propelled by characters who believe they are doing the right thing, not those trying to be villains.
For instance, a depiction of the psychological struggle of a Nazi soldier as he tries to reconcile his genuine patriotism with a realization that he is serving an evil regime could make a great novel. Books and films are filled with poignant characters who believe they have to do the wrong thing for the right reason. In a civil liberties plot like Marvel’s Civil War, the noninteractivity of print may allow readers to empathize more easily with the motivations of a character they disagree with.
But a game forces the player to occupy a character. That psychological distance is eliminated. And so the other side must be reduced merely to the Enemy. The story of that Nazi soldier would make a culturally uncomfortable, and politically impossible, video game because the player would probably have not merely to witness but also to act out the killing of Allied soldiers and possibly civilians.