Voodoo of Gaming : Why We Torture Marionettes


 Lilo and Stitch (2002)
In Brad Shoemaker’s review of Mafia II, he expresses his surprise that there is nothing else to do in Empire Bay besides drive to the next plot point.  This is not entirely true, since there is always the most basic practice available to you: terrorizing mobs.  Yet, Brad sees this as something people are unlikely to engage in, since the player character is too human to be involved in such carriage.  He goes on to claim that this is a growing concern for open world games moving forward, since well-realized settings encourage player empathy with the characters.

While I would agree with him, I don’t think this is more about maturity than it is about realism.  As we have gotten older, it has become easier to equate the digital actors in games with real people, and we learn to empathize with them, even if the truth is they are simply meandering muppets.  As children, we had no control over the world. We could only see ourselves as the victim in any confrontation.  Therefore, when someone was mean to us, that was the end of the discussion - its only fair that the mean person would be punished.

The image above is from Disney’s Lilo and Stitch (circa 2002, same year as Mafia 1), where Lilo is using “practical voodoo” on her friends from dance class because they were teasing her.  My claim is not that we are taking real-world frustrations out on clockwork ballerinas.  Instead, what I’m saying is that, when we play video games, we allow ourselves to see a simpler world, the one we were immersed in as children.  In this world, the world revolves around us and there is only one side to any matter. If a doll just happens to be in your way, it becomes the villain, or at least you can’t be blamed for what happens to it.

In a video game, every problem has a solution, and there are no hard decisions.  The moral choices in recent games only create the illusion of real decisions; developers use them to increase customer value by providing choices which encouraging multiple play-throughs.  They cannot, however, force the player to empathize with polygonal people, because at the end of the day what you do in that space is completely meaningless.

That said, there are times, when the circumstance are just right, that I can’t help but see what I’m doing for its horrible, real-world equivalent. But that can happen in any game, regardless of its level of fidelity.  Its really more a matter of perspective, and in general its fun to just kick back to teach those meanies a lesson.  
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2 Comments
Posted by Jazz

Now that is an interesting point to make.  
Playing Just Cause 2 with my nephews (14 and 16) actually made me think of this recently. 
They wanted to go around shooting everyone and everything. I on the other hand only shot when i needed to or when I was being shot. It's a natural instinct for me. I don't tend to go around harming innocent pixel bystanders....but they aren't real, so what's the problem? Actually, this tends to be one of the reasons i don't like open world games. You wouldn't populate a book with people that play no part in the plot, but you would a game just to give fidelity to the scenery. Sorry..thats me just musing aloud. 
I have at times emphasised with the 'polygonal people': Aerith's death. Some parts of Heavy Rain, Carl in Blazblue (yes..that kid just keeps getting kicked in the teeth)..but I can see how many would just see them as 'hollow men' or voodoo dolls.  
none of that really makes sense does it?