Projecting the Self: Forming Empathy Through Ludonarrative Mechanics.

Travis Pynenburg - The video game is a wonderfully-powerful vehicle for delivering affective narrative. As an inherently-interactive medium, video games empower players to assume roles in ways no other medium can offer. Perhaps the closest experiences to playing video games are acting in a play or participating in make believe. Video games, and interactive drama in particular, ask players to assume two identities at once while allowing agency within the limitations of an authoring force that encourage players to explore a central theme, feeling, idea, or sensation. By participating, players learn what it feels like to assume the role of someone other than themselves. These games utilize a many ludonarrative devices to strengthen an empathetic connection with characters and, thus, foster learning from a perspective other than the player’s own. Three of the strongest mechanics of this kind are incomplete information problems, anagnorisis, and player-character dissonance.

What is interactive drama?

In their article “Interaction and Narrative,” Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern define Interactive Drama as participatory art that “takes drama, rather than literature, fine art, or game interaction tropes, as the guiding narrative conception.” Interactive drama is distinguished from other video games by its goal to have “player interaction… deeply shape the path and outcome of the story, while maintaining a tight, author given story structure.” Inherent to this genre is a constant “tension between interactive freedom and story structure” (647), as current technical limitations limit storytelling techniques available to game designers. Janet Murray, in her book Hamlet on the Holodeck, famously suggested that true interactive drama would be possible once certain technologies were made available. One of these critical technologies is artificial intelligence, in particular, AI that can convincingly converse and engage with players. With this technology, game designers would not have to put time and resources toward developing complex dialog trees, limiting the player to a set number of narrative permutations. Dialogue could occur naturally between player and character, and the drama the player would experience would, in essence, have limitless branches.

The interactive drama of today does not precisely fit the definition set by Mateas and Stern, nor is it as free and limitless as Murray’s vision. While players can assert agency in games, they can only do so through the affordances, or ludonarrative possibilities, that the game presents them (Mateas, 653). The player can only interact with objects in the game world that the designer specifically enables. Despite not trusting a character, players may be forced to complete objectives set by them if no option to refuse is specifically afforded. Progressive games such as Heavy Rain have pre-constructed narratives for each and every choice a player could possibly make. If you (as Ethan) reject Madison’s apology, the characters go their separate ways. If you accept Madison’s apology, they fall in love. Emergent games, however, follow a form of narrative construction that Henry Jenkins calls “narrative architecture” which provides narrative-rich spaces for players to explore and interact with in their own preferred order. These games, such as Skyrim, utilize less rigidly-constructed narratives than progressive games that are usually localized to specific areas of the game world. To find the Dark Brotherhood, you must travel to Windhelm and kill Grelod The “Kind.” This form of storytelling is more closely aligned with Murray’s vision of interactive drama as it favors player agency over close authorship, however it is still limited by predetermined plot sequences and finite interaction with in-world AI.

Neither progressive nor emergent games can claim inherent superiority over the other in its ability to establish empathy with a character. By convention, however, emergent games, and sandbox games in particular, tend to utilize blank-slate characters or characters with an affliction of amnesia. As these games seek to allow players to explore open worlds freely, they tend to feature protagonists that easily serve as empty vessels so that the player can act as themselves in the game world. That is not to say that these characters come with no empathetic qualities, however. In Skyrim, for example, a player assuming the role of a Khajiit or Argonian, the two playable “beast-races,” is often treated as inferior by the non beast-race characters they encounter. In doing so, players are put in a societally othered role, and gains empathetic knowledge about what it feels to be treated as second class. However, progressive narratives, and more specifically the complex protagonists they commonly feature, require players to take on identities which have to potential to differ from their own in many ways. This can include social identities, such as race, gender, sexuality, age, ethnicity, and ability. It can also include philosophical and moral differences. A pacifist, for example, may be made to play the world through a warrior’s eyes, and the everyperson may take on the role of a king. It is within this act of roleplaying that players are made to examine themselves through the lens of another.

Narrative architecture, Jenkins argues, is most compatible with narratives that share a core focus on spatiality. These stories “often taken the form of hero’s odysseys, quest myths, or travel narratives. The best works of J.R.R. Tolkien, Jules Verne, Homer, L. Frank Baum, or Jack London fall loosely within this tradition.” His argument serves as one explanation for why video games so often explore science fiction and fantasy settings, and for why so many games are constructed within the action-adventure genre. Players gain pleasure from discovering new landscapes and plunging into imagined worlds. This immediately-accessible pleasure has a useful effect on players, as it lulls the player into assuming a role within a game. Serving as a hook of sorts, the spectacle and the affordances made immediately available quickly reinforces acting within a game space and discourages questions of whether or not the player wants to assume the particular character they’re being asked to. One game in particular, Spec Ops: The Line,  utilizes this pleasure to bring players into an awesome exploration of a sandstorm-ravaged Dubai. Players are initially drawn to the new sensory input–the vivid depictions of the city, the way their weapons feel when fired, etc. By bringing players into a familiar heroic space, one that’s common in first person shooters, they are then slowly able to unravel what it means for the player to act as a hero who subsequently kills far more than saves.

About Spec Ops: The Line

In Spec Ops, the player takes the role of Walker, the leader of a three-man American unit named Delta squad. Walker’s mission is to locate the United State’s 33rd Brigade that went missing in action during rescue operations in a sandstorm-devastated Dubai. More importantly, his mission is to return to base once he has gathered the Intel he needs. However, when he is fired upon by armed locals, and ultimately the 33rd itself, he continues fighting and pushing deeper into the heart of Dubai in search of the brigade’s commander, John Conrad. The action is primarily centered around cover-based shooting in the fashion of Gears of War. The camera is set in a fixed third person perspective, and cutscenes act as seamless transitions between action sequences.

Incomplete Information Problems

To solidify the empathetic connection between player and character, game designers may force players to make quick, important decisions with limited knowledge of how their choice may affect events further in the narrative. These scenarios are known as “incomplete information problems” (Extra Credits: Choice and Conflict). Often, these moments force the player to make choices under a time restriction. A popular example is Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead, where players, as Lee Everett, make decisions which often determine who among Lee’s companions lives and dies.

In one of Spec Ops most critically-acclaimed scenes, the player is attempting to reunite with John Lugo, one of Walker’s partners, after surviving a helicopter crash. Over the radio, Lugo’s shouts can be heard as he attempts to calm a mob of Dubai survivors. When the player finds Lugo, he has been hanged by the mob. Walker is visibly pained and enraged. The crowd casts stones and gestures angrily at the player. “You brought this on yourselves,” a woman shouts. Alphonso Adams, your remaining partner, encourages you to open fire on the crowd in retribution. In the moment, the player may wish to seek retribution, or may fear for the safety of his character or the safety of Adams and choose to shoot. Or perhaps the player is in the position where they desire to cut their losses and prevent further bloodshed, leading them to fire in the air and scare off the civilians.

Walt Williams, lead writer of Spec Ops, utilizes incomplete information problems as narrative-rich moments as they cause players to ask of game developers, “What do you want me to do?” The player was not informed what would happen in each scenario and was being forced to make a decision on limited information. Williams stated that here he “wanted to build on [the] feeling of choice with consequences. He wanted to create a game where the moral choices offered by the game’s story were less of the ‘do thing A, get reward B’ variety, and more tied into the narrative that itself would be continually evolving based on the choices [the player makes]” (Pitts). By not explicitly telling the player how their actions will affect the larger narrative, the player finds themselves more closely relating to Martin Walker, as they are forced to make difficult decisions on the same information available to the character. More importantly, the choice is not one of superficial value. Choosing to fire does not unlock a new weapon, or increase the character’s attributes. It instead affects the player’s relationship with Walker. Have they been seduced by the game to seek retribution? Will the player (and thus Walker) say that enough is enough? Spec Ops shows players how easily one can justify extreme behavior.

Complicating interpretations of the game are the multiple mental frameworks available to the player when playing a given role in a video game. Players may choose to prioritize the character as a central identity, asking what Walker would do in a situation and follow through accordingly.

The opposite is also valid, choosing to instead ask what would I do in Walker’s shoes? Either option, or even a mixture of both, has the potential of affecting precisely what the player learns, changing the focus away from empathy and toward self discovery in the situation where the player considers themselves first. Spec Ops, however, with its cinematic storytelling and its provision of Walker’s inner monologue about intelligence items found in each level, characterizes the protagonist with certain immutable traits that the player must wrestle with against their own identity. Walker will always, on every play through, exhibit delusions of grandeur in the name of heroism that causes the death of hundreds. The player and Walker began their mission in “an identical psychological state,” one which is challenged when the player witnesses that “the city is burning and you’re the ones who burned it” (Pitts).


Anagnorisis is another ludonarrative mechanic that is available to game developers to help strengthen empathetic experiences. The term comes from Aristotle’s Poetics, and is defined as a moment in plot structure that features “the discovery or recognition that leads to the peripety [or ‘reversal of fortune for the protagonist’]” (Harmon 23, 410). Anagnorisis frequently occurs within a “recognition scene,” and is a core mechanic of stories that feature “recognition plots,” or plots in “which the principal reversal or peripety results from someone’s acquisition of knowledge previously withheld but which, now known, works a decisive change” (461). In some form or another, anagnorisis is present in nearly every modern story-driven game. One early, simple example is the revel at the conclusion of Metroid that shows Samus, the bounty hunter the player controls, is female. By withholding that information until the conclusion of the game’s action, certain players had their preconceptions concerning gender norms challenged, particularly those that assumed that Samus would be male based on name and occupation. Strengthening the egalitarian message was the game’s focus on showing Samus’s ability before revealing anything about her, allowing the player to empathize with the female-identified character before the player had the chance to reject said empathy.

In the case of Spec Ops, anagnorisis is present in a big way at the conclusion of the game’s narrative, but also during smaller dramatic moments where the player makes critical choices. Walker, after being faced with an incomplete information problem regarding the use of white phosphorous mortars against a group of 33rd soldiers, decides to use the weapon. After the dust settles, he and his men navigate the field of burned soldiers, only to find a amidst the corpses a group of huddled-together civilians who the soldiers were apparently trying to protect. While the player does not truly have the choice not to use the white phosphorous, the game does place the player in a position where they feel they do have the choice. In this moment, Walker knows how devastating white phosphorous truly is and, most likely, the player is not in the same psychological state to confront the terrifying results of its use, especially when it cost the lives of innocents. This disconnect between player and character causes results in a greater empathetic relationship between the two, as both end up in the same psychological space by the dramatic reveal.

More recently, game developers are utilizing anagnorisis to an extent that is approaching cliche. Critically-successful titles such as Bioshock, Assassin’s Creed, Shadow of the Colossus, and Braid all use the dramatic reveal to characterize the player’s actions as morally questionable. The player usually operates under the assumption that what the game asks them to do is the correct or good thing within the game world. These games challenge the false equation between ludic progress and moral good and actively teach players to be more critical of the gaming spaces they participate in, to question each element and not just follow passively. In essence, the increased use of anagnorisis in story-driven games comes from a rejection of earlier, more simplistic plots that preceded them. As critically-acclaimed titles popularize the new use of a mechanic, other titles will seek to emulate it, often with varying levels of success. Time will show whether or not high-profile games will continue to use anagnorisis strongly enough to cause players to reject its heavy-handed use.

Player-Character Dissonance

One final mechanic which strengthens the player’s empathetic response to an interactive narrative is dissonance between the player and character. This dissonance occurs any time a character’s knowledge significantly and dramatically differs from the players about any given situation. In literary and dramatic terms, this is similar to dramatic irony, or  “any situation… in which some of the actors on the stage or some of the characters in a story are blind to facts known to the spectator or reader” (Harmon 177). However, for games, the situation is frequently reversed where the character knows more about a given situation than the player. In video games, players are often expected to seamlessly step into the shoes of a character who has a backstory, personal philosophies, and morals, much as an actor assumes a role when performing in a play. However, actors are given many hours of practice and additional information outside of the text in order to better embody that role. Players are expected to infer about their character as they go. This is why players so often find themselves controlling a character afflicted with amnesia. The affliction makes them a blank slate, and the player knows precisely the same things as the character.

Strategic use of player-character dissonance can lead to empathetic moments, particularly when the player incorrectly assumes the motives or rationelle of the character they control. As for Spec Ops, from the beginning the player is likely to assume that Walker acts rationally and intends to do what is right. However, as the game progresses, it becomes more and more clear that what the player is experiencing and what is reality are two radically different things. The player experiences hallucinations that are unexplainable in the logic of the game world. Even the loading screen directly questions the player, asking if they feel like a hero yet.  In another moment of anagnorisis, the player is confronted by Conrad who is busy painting a portrait of the burned civilians from earlier in the game. He reveals that the events from before were very much real, but not as Walker envisioned them. Walker had been willfully delusional, making excuses to continue the pursuit of Conrad in the name of bravery. Furthermore, the Conrad that stands before the player turns out to be a mere vision, as the real Conrad had killed himself long before the player began his journey.

The player is thus taken out of the general atmosphere they are used to experiencing in other first person shooters. They are asked to consider just how many people they have killed in their journey, and why they felt like they were the hero when all they caused was destruction. This moment highlights the power of dissonance between the player and character, as it allows for games to make commentary on the assumptions people make about the characters they embody, and more importantly, it allows for revelations that form empathetic bonds with characters that can appear shockingly villainous. If games are able to make players feel empathy for people who commit atrocities, it is likely that games are able to foster empathy with nearly any kind of character. Video games, then, become a vital learning tool that people may use to broaden their view of the world. They serve as the best possible tool available for one to experience what it is like to be someone other than themselves.

Video Games are Growing Up

To experience tragedy, Aristotle argues, is to experience “the liveliest pleasure.” People are drawn to theater as they enjoy “seeing a likeness” in the characters and the action of the play, and they thus “find themselves learning or inferring” from it. Games, like drama, allow players to find likeness in the characters and the narrative, however it takes one additional step to allow players to actually embody those characters, forming a strong empathy in a way unique to interactive media. On the topic of games exploring these deeply personal matters, Senior Designer of Spec Ops: The Line, Shawn Frison, said that he is happy to witness the “games industry… growing up” (Guetti). Williams adds to this sentiment, saying that he is happy to know that players responded both positively and negatively to the game’s critical message, saying “If you pay your 60 bucks because you want to shoot something… and at the end of that game you feel bad for shooting something because I’ve taken you through a narrative journey to that point where you’re kind of regretting having gone through it, not because of you but because of the actions that you’ve taken part in, I think that’s something to make people rejoice about the emotional impact of games” (Pitts). By using the right mechanics along with the right story, games can give players emotionally-rich experiences that can radically impact their world view.

By allowing players to step into another’s shoes, video games are able to make a significant impact on popular culture by helping increase people’s empathetic capacities. Additionally helpful is the video game’s qualities as a collaboratively-constructed artform. Lead designer Cory Davis speaks of the importance of creating within a multinational collaborative. Spec Ops was developed by people representing sixteen different nationalities. Davis claims that the differing perspectives and backgrounds prevented the game from becoming “more one-sided, and less well-informed” (Pitts). When an artistic drive is fueled by groups founded on multiculturalism, it’s possible to make great steps toward making art that appeals to many different audiences while simultaneously challenging them by subjecting players to points of view they otherwise may have never considered before. Most exciting is that interactive drama is proving to be viable in the here and now. While a holodeck may be ideal, games, even in their limited state today, can evoke powerful empathy in the players that choose to seek something meaningful from them.


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Mateas, Michael and Andrew Stern. “Interaction and Narrative.” The Game Design Reader. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006. Print.

Pitts, Russ. “Don’t Be a Hero – The Full Story Behind Spec Ops: The Line.” August 27, 2012. Web. January 20, 2013. Web. <>.

Portnow, James. “Extra Credits: Choice and Conflict.” Penny Arcade. Web. January 23, 2013. <>.

Salen, Katie and Eric Zimmerman eds. “Player and Character.” The Game Design Reader. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006. Print.