EMPATHY, QUALITY & NEURONS

December 29, 2011hkcross media, film, gaming, neuroscience, social impact, storytelling, transmediaNo Comments

Are YOU there, immersed, while you are walking through the streets in your town or village? Are you really there when you are playing a game and forget the time and where you actually are? What happens to your sense of NOW…

if you run through a fantastic real-time 3D World in first-person perspective like the beautifully crafted and balanced “BioShock” (Ken Levine, 2007)? Do you sink into it, into the secrets of an underwater city called Rapture because you are tricked to believe your ARE the protagonist or you want to find out WHO he actually is? Or do you identify more easily with a strong main character watching him from a second person perspective like a flying camera, eventually finding pleasure observing his/your performance through ardent action sequences or puzzles like the “Uncharted” or “Tomb Raider” series? Maybe developing visible changes while leveling up like in World of Warcraft is hooking the interest? Emotional attachment and empathy might not be synonymous but it is definitely clear that the depth of immersion might come hand in hand with stronger, deeper feelings and caring for what is going with YOU in a game. So a subconscious or conscious connection with the character you are steering or observing and the story he/you are immersed in might be powerful reasons why you are returning to play a game – or re-watch a movie.

How could you identify with a clumsy heap of colored pixels like in Jason Rohrer´s indie game “Passage” where through the course of the game the simple walking character will only get older until he irreversibly dies. What are the mechanisms which allow us to see one´s own life being mirrored by blocky graphics or a detailed, more complex gameworld? Some neuroscientists propose it is all because of mirror neurons in our brains which facilitate this kind of “resonance”. That brain cells which get activated when we observe somebody else carrying out action which is meaningful to us could be the base for mutual understanding. It suggest that we learn or strengthen learning through blending the borders between doing and observing. The neuroscientific findings may point to the underlying principles of a complex psychological and social behavior: we seem to be wired for learning through observation.

We want to see us reflected and project us in other human beings, otherwise social interaction becomes futile or at least very difficult. You simply have to assume that in general you are able to understand and anticipate the inner states and motivations of other members of society, might it be good or bad feelings. It still does not seem to self-evident that in Interactive systems like games and less interactive sequential media like film the empathy, the quality of storytelling and the level of immersion are key factors for engagement. As a consequence you would have to tell stories in a compelling way to interest audiences enough so that they return to your product or even recommend it. And this is not easy and not easily repeatable.

It might be the quality of story in combination with immersion which also might form the base of Returnable Elements. By the way, 3D as a technology might not do a lot of things but certainly enhances immersion and some people return to cinemas now exactly for that, even though, usually nothing much is added storywise with 3D technique. The incentive to come back to a certain story – “that thing that prompts us to return, that keeps us coming back. it might a plot cliff-hanger and a ‘what happens next?’ dramatic question; it might be a character that we come back to spend more time with; it might even just be an idea or a way of feeling” (Mike Jones) – is what may define the long-term success of a product or whole storyworld. Quality content is king, to be more precise, it is becoming king again, after it´s decapitation by cynical media dynamics, the “one-to-many revolution”, suggesting the content is just good for providing cheap, mediocre quantity you might capitalize on. Anyone doubting that trend should re-watch the film “Network” (Sidney Lumet, 1976) and compare it with our media landscape of 2011/2012 – the rants of Howard Beale (“I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”) are as fresh as they were then and even a lot more meaningful now. Look at the global news corporations which more and more favor a flow of marketable and advertising friendly quick clips over longer formats based on “cost-inefficient” quality journalism.

The network of networks is far too interesting for the quick traffic-buck than to waste effort on telling interesting, engaging and meaningful stories. The same might be implied for the games and the film industry but supposedly film makers, broadcasters and game designers nowadays realize that they need engaging well told stories to reach and expand their audiences beyond a sequel and a prequel.

ARE you engaged and immersed in a news feed so much that you dig deeper there, or just fed and distracted to consume more of the same elsewhere? Are you returning to a certain gameworld, filmplot, channel, brand or name, because you cannot relay yourself to what is shown? No, you return because it means something to you and cherish how it is told.

Youtube might defy that logic, but the Big Video Machine is the emperor of empathy, the Admiral General of offering legions of Returning Elements. People produce for people and people seem very much to be able to connect to that content, how ever badly produced it might be. You might not immerse well there, but you understand the feelings being evoked. And you are searching for quality to pass on to your friends. “All technology is a tool to tell a story” (Ken Levine) – the best graphics, the most prominent actors the biggest vault for video content do not sufficiently distract from the fact that a story might not well be written.

This is especially true for the more complex storyworlds of transmedia and crossmedia projects. Storyworlds and games do unfold their stories differently than films: you are free to choose more or less where to enter and how fast to progress in a world as opposed to the strict pacing of linear film and video. To engage an audience to interact with these multiple-platform worlds, games, movie franchises or episodic TV shows cries out for a focus on old methods and handicraft: tell an interesting story, spark fun, foster empathy and immerse the participant in a world, where he/she feels the urge to return and find out more.

Your neurons mirroring this are your tools, means to an end, relating you to the world, it´s inhabitants and the storyworlds they create and inhabit…

This post reflects partly and mirrors two blog posts:
* Anton Zhuk, Ivan Kapustin and Ivan Vasilenko: KEN LEVINE. IN THE GAME INDUSTRY WILL NOT BE A TARANTINO 07/07/2011
* Mike Jones: THE RISE AND APPEAL OF EPISODIC STORIES www.mikejones.tv 19/12/2011

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *