The Games that Guide Us – Persona and Empathy

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It can be said that the stories that we experience are one of the primary things that allow us to grow as humans, because they let us experience things that are outside of our direct base of knowledge. This is the reason I think that video games can be a very important narrative tool. When playing a narrative-driven video game, not only is the player reading about an experience, that player is directly involved in interacting with the experience. The best games, then, are the ones that can craft a narrative that is personally and directly relevant to a subject and can give a player insight into other experiences and points of view.

It is fitting, then, that one of the first articles that I write about this is on the subject of empathy. It is widely theorized that people achieve a greater sense of empathy with others when they have read stories told from other viewpoints. Empathy, as a trait, can be defined in this sense as the ability to care what is happening to another person to such an extent as to be able to emotionally connect to that person and relate to what they are going through oneself. Empathy for others is a large part of how humans have connected to each other throughout history; if one individual can know even a part of the pain of another, that individual becomes more invested in the removal or prevention of that pain, after all.

However, empathy also has another meaning. A highly empathetic person can not only feel that another person is experiencing emotions and understand what those emotions are, they often taken on aspects of those emotions themselves. It usually isn’t a conscious thing, even though it can in fact be a learned behavior. It’s not something that’s fully understood by a lot of people, either, except for other people who identify as highly empathetic. This doesn’t always mean that an empathetic person has a high level of social aptitude. In fact, a significant number of people with empathetic tendencies tend to also have a degree of social anxiety, simply because it is difficult to react properly to what’s going on around them when they are starting to take on aspects of the emotional state of whoever is around them.

That’s the reason I have always appreciated games with a simulated social element to them. Western roleplaying games such as Baldur’s Gate and Planescape: Torment grabbed me early on with the promise of conversational choices that had actual effects in the game, and that fascination continued on with games like Dragon Age which, as a pillar of its development, features persistent consequences for various social choices across games. It wasn’t just the social choices themselves that really hooked me, though. It was the fact that there was always a reset button just sitting there. If I said the wrong thing, well, I could try again. I could practice.

Due to the fact that the initial SNES-era games in the series weren’t released in the U.S., Shin Megami Tensei was a series that slipped under my radar until Nocturne came out on the PS2. This was a series that was, ostensibly, a hardcore dungeon crawler, but which carried with it a rudimentary simulated social aspect as well. In this series, you caught demons and used them to fight, much like other popular monster-collection games. However, instead of throwing a trap at them or breeding and raising them, you obtained them through engaging them in conversation. This was very interesting to me as in order for the conversation to go in your favor, you had to work out what the personality was of the demon that you were trying to recruit. This required a certain amount of social aptitude, even if the conversations themselves were not very deep and often devolved into attempts at bribery.

Some attempts more obvious than others….

The Persona sub-series of Shin Megami Tensei expanded on this mechanic greatly in the first two games, and then completely overhauled it in the third. In this series, instead of the world being a post-apocalyptic wasteland with the main character as a survivor of humanity, the setting is a high school with the main character being a transfer student. Here, the character is thrown into a social situation that he does not know the topography of and must navigate that minefield in order to make it through the day-to-day student experience.

The main character of each game is what is known in Persona lore as a ‘wild card’. In short, every character in the series, whether that character is a party member or an NPC side character, draws a major arcana tarot card from the deck, and this represents the guiding aspects of his or her personality. The interesting thing is that the main character is the wild card. In order to interact with others, he can take on the aspects of any of the other cards, and can in fact have a great deal of insight into what card another person has drawn and how that affects their personality and motivations. In essence, the game uses the tarot metaphor to give the player the experience of what it is like to have a high degree of empathetic tendencies.

In each Persona game, the main character’s interactions with others give him power. As a gameplay mechanic, the more he interacts with someone of a certain arcana, the stronger his abilities related to that arcana become. Given that in the series, a person’s abilities are determined by their personality traits and emotional states, this makes a lot of sense. As the wild card interacts more with the same personality types, the more he takes on aspects of that personality and the more it affects how he interacts with the world and the face that he puts on when interacting with others whether on a conscious or subconscious level.

To someone who is not highly empathetic, the presence of this kind of empathy can be seen as a form of manipulation. The truth is that most of the time it really isn’t. It isn’t a conscious reaction. Instead, it is something that a person has naturally learned how to do in order to adapt to a social situation. It is a learned response, and is somewhat reflexive. If someone is happy, the empathetic person will be happy alongside them. The same applies for when an empathetic person is around someone angry, enthusiastic, apprehensive, anxious, or sad. Furthermore, the closer someone who experiences empathy becomes to another person, the more readily their outward mannerisms adapt to that person’s outwardly projected emotional state of being.

In Persona, this manifests through the conversations that the main character has with the people he becomes close to. The player is given sets of conversational options and based on which ones are selected, the relationship between the main character and the person he is talking to can improve, thus strengthening the empathetic bond between the two. The player quickly learns that the ‘right’ answers, the answers that result in a deepened bond and improved situation for the character, are not simply telling the person what he or she wants to hear. Instead, the player must understand the character, the emotional state, and the overall situation and must decide whether the character needs to be uplifted, guided, or told an uncomfortable truth that will make him or her unhappy in the short term but will result in an overall improvement in his or her life.

This is something that is almost second nature to a person with a high degree of empathy, but in presenting that as a game mechanic, it shows the sort of things that an empathetic individual thinks about, feels, and manages on a daily basis. Rather than go with the choices that a purely emotional response would dictate, the player needs to be able to get a read on the situation and figure out what is actually best for the person to hear. Sometimes this might be telling a person what he or she wants to hear, knowing that they need the validation or emotional boost in the moment. And sometimes this means actually giving them advice about the situation, no matter how badly the person will take it in the short term. The important thing from the player perspective is that this gives a lot of insight into how an empathetic person needs to manage and balance internal emotional states in order to be able to give constructive outward responses, rather than be pulled into an emotional feedback loop.

Empathy gives a person a lot of insight into the thoughts and feelings of other people. Rather than let it rule one’s thought processes, a person learns how to manage a sort of balance so that they can utilize that insight to be a positive force in the lives of others. By providing that insight in the form of a narrative game experience, Persona succeeds at giving others an inside look at what the quality of being an empathetic person can be like at times. It also shows how that quality can be used constructively and not manipulatively, and how it can be managed and not allowed to take over one’s thoughts and feelings completely.

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