Playing Video Games on Coke | Empathy | Self Awareness


For anyone interested in video gaming – whether as players themselves or simply vicariously as a cultural phenomena – Tom Bissell’s confessional in today’s Observer is essential reading. After years wasted playing Grand Theft Auto on cocaine, he concludes:

Once I wanted games to show me things I could not see in any other medium. Then I wanted games to tell me a story in a way no other medium can. Then I wanted games to redeem something absent in myself. Then I wanted a game experience that pointed not toward but at something.

Playing GTA IV on coke for weeks and then months at a time, I learned that maybe all a game can do is point at the person who is playing it, and maybe this has to be enough.

It’s interesting to compare that with the view of Heather Chaplin, a long-time commentator on gaming culture, who notes in The Believer (in conversation with Bissell actually) that:

‘Video games are good at fostering problem solving, but they’re not so good at fostering human empathy or a deeper understanding of the human condition.’

Comparing this with more traditional story forms, she continues:

‘Novels are about psychological empathy; games simply are not. And if games are telepathing something about the future, maybe that tells us something about the future, maybe that tells us that psychological empathy, concern with the human condition is not going to be that important in the twenty-first century.’

I wonder if we will see some hybrid game/novels develop – just as we’ve had graphic novels and fantasy role-play stories too? As the distinction between film and game gradually collapses, perhaps these new forms will embrace psychological empathy.

I’ve just come back from a few days with Pete Rollins, and one of the on-going arguments we enjoy is whether the virtual presences we mediate via Facebook or Second Life are ‘real’ or not. In the latest round I did grant him one very good point: because of its sense of anonymity the web encourages us to be candid, and thus the virtual selves we create may actually suggest some deep truths about the unconscious selves that lurk in the shadows within us… as Bissell suggests.

Perhaps these are not games at all then; perhaps they will develop to become powerful therapeutic tools, immersive fantasy environments within which we explore who we ought to be when we log off. It’s the difficulty of hitting that ‘sign out’ button that’s the problem though.


5 responses to “Playing Video Games on Coke | Empathy | Self Awareness”

  1. I just came across this interesting TED talk in which the presenter suggests that gaming can cultivate some of the essential skills and qualities that is needed to change the world. I think your critique of gaming is far more nuanced however.

  2. Chris Peterson

    Concern for the human condition has been on the way out the door ever since Skinner. Now we’re all just consumer drones for the slightly more advanced marketing bees. As the human condition becomes more and more empty, there’s more and more need to hide from it. Quite the vicious circle we’re caught in.

    Perhaps games are a mirror to the player insofar as the gamer chooses which game to play. As a long time fan of the Final Fantasy series, I have to say there’s a lot of imaginative and engaging narrative in those games that absolutely addresses the human condition in novel and fun ways. To sum up all of gaming using GTA would be like basing a general critique of cinema as an artform on the artistic value of the Nightmare on Elm Street series.

  3. To sum up all of gaming using GTA would be like basing a general critique of cinema as an artform on the artistic value of the Nightmare on Elm Street series.

    Very true, and I hope you didn’t think I was trying to do that. Chaplin’s article in The Believer is far more wide-ranging than an analysis of GTA, which Bissell’s Observer piece basically is.

    As to whether they do generate empathy yet, I’m not convinced. But I think they could in the future.

  4. Chris Peterson

    I didn’t think you were trying to do that. But in general, gaming as a whole gets a bad rap based on certain (admittedly popular) subgenres within the larger field. There’s a lot more going on in that’s not controversial, and therefore stays off the headlines.

    I’m more interested in the phenomenon in the other direction though – is the psychological escapism of video games really anything new? Would Kierkegaard make the same critique of the state sponsored Lutheran church of his day, that it’s some sort of existential escapism?

    In better words than I can put it:

    So, I guess this is my question – what *does* generate empathy, outside of the individual choice to surrender? Yes, gaming and the virtual medium in general allow us to cultivate this narcissistic image – but when has the world really been otherwise?

  5. I’d like to hear what some of those games are. As I’ve said, I’m not a big gamer, but would SIMS users say it generates empathy for real people? Or, as the tragic story of a couple who spent so much time online looking after a virtual creature that their actual daugher starved to death suggests, does online time decreases real-world empathy?

    Well, as I’ve tried to set out in the forthcoming book, I think it’s eye-contact with ‘the other’ that generates empathy.

    Levinas is particularly strong on this: look into the face of the other, he says, it is a book in which good is recorded. This, I think, is a too-romantic view, as I’ve blogged about over three posts here.