29 September 2009

The Psychological Distance of Noninteractive Media

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.

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.
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?


Richard said...

One might argue the opposite: that an "interactive" entertainment where we watch some character who is not us doing things on a screen creates more psychological distance between ourselves and the story than a "noninteractive" experience where we provide every sensation and emotion and are therefore more immersed in the tale. Our imaginations work in 360 degrees and include touch, taste, and smell...not merely sight and sound emanating from the one direction of a screen.

Also, one of the glories of reading (prose or comics) over any other storytelling medium is that because we control the pace of events (by how quickly or slowly we choose to read) we feel safer about giving ourselves over to the fiction more totally.

Don't get me wrong; I think that review raises good points and is well considered. But there's more to immersion and character empathy than just POV.

J. L. Bell said...

I see your point about the dissociative experience of seeing an animated body on a screen that’s supposed to be “you” when you play a video game (at least a non-“first-person” kind). But is that a more artificial sensory experience than looking at black marks on a white page and imagining that you’re thus privy to another person’s thoughts? We can indeed stop reading a novel at any time, but we can also hit PAUSE on a video game, or RESET.

Perhaps the differences are merely those of degree, but nevertheless still different enough that interactive entertainment might create a new type of point of view.

Glenn Ingersoll said...

The videogame is a game, right? Thus you play it to win. Winning a game is not at all the same thing as living a good life. In life one typically works together with others to achieve a pleasing series of days. In a game one smacks down one's opponents as quickly and efficiently as possible in order to achieve closure - once the game is over, the game is over.

Much is made about competition in everyday life, but in truth we mostly cooperate rather than compete. Now, I know the game is set in a conflict-zone, a "civil war" and the reviewer was comparing it to a World War II situation but you, John, were talking about empathy, and empathy and soldiers contending aren't compatible in the way empathy and a reader turning the pages of a story are.

J. L. Bell said...

Good points about the differences between a competitive game, reading, and life.

One of Schiesel’s points seemed to be that, at least for him, he could imagine reading a book about a Nazi soldier or in the voice of a Nazi soldier, but he couldn’t enjoy playing the role of a Nazi soldier in a videogame, even if he could tell himself if was “just a game.” And he thinks such a game would be politically impossible as well.

We don’t usually look to video games to learn empathy, to be sure. But Schiesel seems to be coming at empathy from a different direction, suggesting that we come to video games with a reservoir of empathy and cultural understanding that would inhibit playing any point of view.

I’m reminded of Wolfenstein 3d, the first popular “first person shooter” game. That used our culture’s antipathy to Nazis (and guard dogs) to make the experience of being in a killer’s/soldier’s head more palatable. It seems notable that the next generation—Doom—made the bad guys into space aliens, so we’d feel even less empathy.