The player generally controls a “player character” within a game. I’ve heard designers discuss whether or not the player is becoming the player character, playing their role as a fictional character, or replacing them as their real selves within the fictional world. When you play Mario, are you playing as Mario as he saves the Mushroom Kingdom or are you saving the Mushroom Kingdom yourself? A lot of people say both are happening. You are yourself and the player character at the same time. How can that be possible?

I believe the blur comes from two issues. One, I’ll call an “illusion of individuality,” and the second “empathy.”

Illusion of Individuality

Going back to Mario, the guy has a head, arms, legs and clothes. He lives in a wacky mushroom world, has inhuman abilities and even an accent. All of these things create an illusion that Mario is his own man, defining his own destiny and players often seem to respect that. If Mario ever sat down and said “I want to climb a tree,” the player would be likely to manipulate the game’s controls so that Mario can do that. The player makes Mario’s mission their own. But that’s just it, in order for Mario to succeed, the player must take on the mission at hand. The player must use Mario as an extension of their own body, the end of a nervous system stemming from the player’s own brain, through the spine, arms, and fingertips, through the controller and into the game console, stimulating a virtual muscle that is only expressed on a television screen. In this respect, Mario ceases to exist and there is only the player.


When you move your character about, what’s really going on is a bunch of lights are turning on and off, but you interpret those lights together as an image and can analyze that image as though it represents something real. When the image of a player character is on screen, the player can empathetically “feel” what that character feels. Generally, the term empathy is applied to emotional experience, however I would like to discuss empathy in reference to all experience, all forms of perception. I’m distinguising this use of the word by calling it “absolute empathy.”

Mime is a great example of the kind of empathy I’m talking about. A good mime will generate the sense of a physical world as well as an emotional response within the audience, only because of the audience’s ability to empathize with him/her. That might sound crazy, so I’ll explain a bit.

If the mime acts out crying, you may watch and empathetically feel sad. All that’s really going on is that the mime is faking a facial expression that leads you to believe that mime is sad and therefore you feel sad. Well, the mime might also fake a gesture that suggests the mime is pulling on a rope. You may watch and empathetically feel that a rope actually exists and is being pulled on. The physical sensation works in the same way as the emotional. In fact, a good mime might also claim to feel the emotions and objects he/she is miming. The stimulus for those sensations may not exist, but the sensations are real and the audience’s empathy is completely genuine.

The application of absolute empathy to video games is based on the same princples, but goes beyond that illusion. For example, in the game Shadow of the Colossus, while I would sit on a couch holding down my controller’s D-pad, the player character would bounce around, stumbling across the back of a monster. At other times in the game, the character would be walking or running, but at this time he’s stumbling and maybe coughing or yelling “whoa!” The animations and sound don’t actually change the game itself, but they have a dramatic effect on my experience. Instead of just viewing the character as an extension of myself that does what I command, I see a boy struggling. I empathize and then I am struggling. I am struggling with the character as one would while reading a novel or watching a film.

I’ve heard players and designers say a game shouldn’t “tell the player how to feel.” There are blunt ways of doing that which I have disliked, but Shadow of the Colossus gives the player the feelings of its main character purely by way of empathy. We aren’t “told” what to feel, we see it and we see it in a believable form. For me, it worked perfectly.

I’m stopping there because this crap has just gone far enough. Hope I made sense.

-Christopher J. Rock

About the author:
Christopher J. Rock (http://)
Film student at California State, Long Beach. I want to make the gaming world a better place.
  • Hello Chris. Did you realize that there’s no way to tell who writes what on this fucking blog? I need to change the layout so we can make clear who’s writing the post. We should say something like “This is soandso” for now until I change it around.

    Anyway, I don’t know what you’re trying to get across with this post. An idea. Something to spur discussion. I’ll tell you what I think.

    The illusion of individuality is an interesting thing. Nintendo in particular focuses on leaving the characterization of the protagonist up to the player. You are Mario. If he’s an asshole and likes to jump on turtles shells endlessly to rack up extra lives until your lives turn into letters, that’s because you decided he should do that. Growing up, when I beat a game I didn’t say “Mario beat the game”, I said “I beat Super Mario Bros.”

    But to think of something like Final Fantasy, I feel this is a much more of a detached experience. The characters are relatively flat so you can put your imagination into them. But I’ve never got the feeling that I was Cloud or Zidane. You’re kind of like a God in these games, controlling the actions of many character to ensure their successful travel through these worlds. Well how is that different from Mario? I suppose it’s because these characters do have their own thoughts that effect the world that you have no control over. They’re just stupid and you have to light their path.

    Empathy in video games. Interesting to think about. I only care if Mario dies because it affects my success – my pride. He lives in a digital world, what do I care if he saves the princess? To use Final Fantasy as an example again, I play those games to see what happens. I don’t necessarily care what happens to the characters, I just want to see how the adventure unfolds and what obstacles lie ahead out of curiosity. But in the case of the Soul Reaver series, I legitimately cared about what happened to the characters.

    If you don’t know, Soul Reaver 1 starts off with an intense intro. You can watch it online thanks to YouTube ( But similar to other games, it tells the story of how you’re literally at the top of the world and you’re ripped of everything – your powers, your body, and even your soul. It’s like “that’s soooo fucked up” and then “here you go, you’re in control now, have fun!” I played those games for: 1. The satisfaction of solving the environmental puzzles. 2. To see how the story resolves and the challenges ahead. and 3. To get revenge on the assholes that betrayed me/Raziel at the beginning.

    I feel that the narratives make the empathy similar to something that you might experience with watching a movie but I think that feeling of control, or being, the character makes up for weaknesses in story or character development in many cases. Final Fantasy stories are not literary masterpieces by any means but the feeling of connection with the characters can be much greater than anything I’ve experienced through a film or book. It could be because you spend so much time following these characters, maybe 60 hours in one game. You have the option of spending a lot of personal attention with each character to make that perfect party. People connect to characters for all sorts of weird reasons, maybe just because they have cool spiky hair or a big sword.