Theme 1: Avatars and Empathy in video games

Part of:
The semiotics of Video Games

Can we feel empathy in a video game? In his essay Adamant Bodies. The Avatar-Body and the Problem of Autoempathy, Adriano D’Aloia argues that we hardly can, because of the relationship we need to maintain with our game avatar. First and foremost, the player is busy dealing with his intra-subjectivity, “the mediation between the actual user’s Self and the virtual avatar’s Self”. There is a lack of Otherness. The player’s hyperactivity – at the same time enunciator, character, and spectator – makes it even more difficult for him to establish an empathic relation with the characters of the video game. Paradoxically, passivity allows the spectator to fully mirror the emotions coming from a movie, which is very different from the kind of involvement required by video games.

The Goomba’s life video (2007) by Kei Houraku illustrates very well this saturation of the Self in video games. In Super Mario games, the screen always follows the hero, making him the centre of the universe – we find it ‘natural’. His enemies, the Goombas, don’t offer any meaningful Otherness. By choosing to lock the screen to two Goombas, Kei Houraku’s artwork exposes the hyperactivity and egocentrism of Super Mario – it ‘denaturalizes’ it for us.

A Gomba’s life, Kei Houraku, 2007

KarmaPhysics < Elvis (2004) by Brody Condon is a “modification of the bloody science fiction first-person-shooter computer game Unreal 2003. […] The convulsions of Elvis are controlled by the original game’s Karma Ragdoll real-time physics system, generally used to simulate the physical dynamics of game character death”. The application of this death algorithm to the avatars of Elvis is discomforting, despite its banality in Unreal 2003 and similar games. Our empathy for the virtual Elvis could be partly due to the absence of any interactivity, or of any avatars standing between us and him…

KarmaPhysics < Elvis, Brody Condon, 2004

Did you ever experience empathy in a video game? And if you feel sometimes that life is like a giant game, does it imply that you cannot feel empathy for others?

Next theme: Magic Circle in video games

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