Empathy levels are dropping. It’s been true for years, especially for college students.
A study out of McGill University, published Jan. 15 in the science journal Current Biology, says being around strangers hinders the human ability to express empathy – unless you play a bit of Rock Band together first.
According to the study, undergraduates reacted to panful stimuli in a number of situations: alone, with a friend, with a stranger, between two strangers given a stress-blocking drug, and between two strangers who had spent 15 minutes playing Rock Band together prior to the test.
Pain levels in students submerging their arm in ice water remained the same whether the student was alone or next to a stranger. But pain levels were higher when two friends performed the same test.
“It would seem like more pain in the presence of a friend would be bad news, but it’s in fact a sign that there is strong empathy between individuals – they are indeed feeling each other’s pain,” said McGill University psychology professor Jeffrey Mogil, senior author of the study, in a news release.
After realizing these findings, Mogil and his team furthered the testing by giving the students who would participate in the test together as strangers the opportunity to play Rock Band beforehand.
After rocking out together for as little as 15 minutes, the strangers showed empathy towards one another (showed higher pain levels) while their arms were submerged in the ice water.
“It turns out that even a shared experience that is as superficial as playing a video game together can move people from the ‘stranger zone’ to the ‘friend zone’ and generate meaningful levels of empathy,” said Mogil in the release. “This research demonstrates that basic strategies to reduce social stress could start to move us from an empathy deficit to a surplus.”
Whether it’s the lead character’s voice, a small side character’s voice, the motion capturing of facial and body movements or the sole face of the game itself, celebrity actors have been spotting video game worlds for as long as games have been around. As with most aspects of video games, the appearances of celebrities in them has evolved over the years. Let’s take a look at some of these star-studded games!
Back in 1983, when Chuck Norris was famous for being a martial artist and action film star, he also starred in Chuck Norris Superkicks, a video game for Atari 2600 that used his name and image as its selling point. His name and picture on the front of the box are literally the only things that attach him to this game, the playable “Chuck” character doesn’t even have a face. Norris is one of the earliest celebrities featured in a video game. If you love Batman: The Animated series you’ll love that Sega CD’s version of The Adventures of Batman and Robin brought back many of the original voices from the series, including, of course, Mark Hamill as the Joker. This version of the game, released in 1994, included animated segments that were developed by TMS Entertainment who also worked on episodes of the original cartoon. The combined segments have been referred to as a “lost episode” of the series.
This is an interesting way to view celebrity appearances in games – not only were the voice actors simply portraying the characters in the show to recreate them in a game version, but, while unintentionally, another piece of the original show was created and remembered as well.
In contrast, games that starred popular musicians were also a popular way to include not only celebrity bands and musicians, but their music. Revolution X was released on many consoles and DOS computers in 1994, an arcade rail shooter where the player must save Aerosmith, who’ve been abducted by the New Order Nation regime led by evil Helga. The game features many songs by the band, and so serves as a platform market their music.
Revolution X may sound as ridiculous as it gets. But it’s not. The 1982 Journey game, Journey Escape, based on their album “Escape”, features only black and white cut-out style heads of the band members, but the title song of the album managed to “escape” even being featured in the game at all.
Many 90s games also used full motion video as a way to create realistic theatrical cut scenes. Wing Commander IV: The Price of Freedom and Command & Conquer: Tiberian Sun feature famous actors in real-life video sequences, which serve as cutscenes in the games. Between bouts of battling troops on the ground in real time, the player gets to watch scenes of James Earl Jones as a commander, leading the GDI to conquer Kane and the Brotherhood of Nod in Tiberian Sun.
Then there’s fighting your way through space on the TCS Lexington in Wing Commander IV, between cut scenes of once-retired Colonel Blair (Mark Hamill)’s attempt to find and destroy the threats arising on the Border Worlds. Blair should consider himself lucky that Admiral Tolwyn (Malcolm McDowell) called him back to the military. His plan to become a farmer on a desert planet probably wasn’t working out too well. WCIV’s cut scenes account for nearly two full hours of celebrity-stuffed, full motion video action. Amazing.
There are a multitude of games that feature celebrity actors’ voices in more current releases – Destiny, and the Mass Effect and Halo series all feature multiple celebrity voices.
The newest way to include celebrities in games is with motion capture and performance capture technology: Ellen Page and Willem Defoe in Beyond: Two Souls and Kevin Spacey in Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare are two well-known examples. This method not only features the voices of celebrity actors but the digitized movement of their bodies and facial expressions. Now celebrities can be fully active in video game cut scenes, like Hamill and Jones were in Wing Commander IV and Tiberian Sun, but act as the playable main character throughout the game as well with the digital capturing of their physical attributes and expressions.
The Walking Dead’s Norman Reedus’ voice and motion captured form will star in the anticipated and upcoming Silent Hills game. But to add to the level of celebrity, it was also revealed that a huge filmmaker is working on Silent Hills as well. No one is sure what kind of role well known filmmaker Guillermo del Toro will have in producing the game, but he’s sure to add bizarre and horrifically beautiful ideas and visuals to it.
The whole motion capture thing kind of freaks me out still. When I recognize Kevin Spacey in a film because I’ve seen him in another film before it doesn’t bother me. Non-animated films capture images of real objects and humans. But there’s something unusual about playing a game with a digitized version of an actor – to start a game and already recognize one of the characters – especially when it initially reminds you of Gwyneth Paltrow’s severed head in a cardboard box.
After roughly 25 tries at getting to the first checkpoint in Shovel Knight’s second-to-last level, I decided I was done with the game. It wasn’t that I thought Yacht Club Games’ retro platformer was bad—far from it actually—but because I realized I’d reached a point of diminishing returns. Up until stalling out in the game’s final section I’d been enthralled by the difficulty of each stage. Figuring out how to defeat tough bosses and navigating the titular knight across screens filled with traps provided enough of a challenge to make success exhilarating, but not so much that the game ever became outright frustrating. All of that changed as the difficulty ramped up for Shovel Knight’s finale. At a certain point, having hit retry on a seemingly impossible screen yet again, I realized I simply wasn’t having fun anymore.
This isn’t the first time I’ve put down a game because its difficulty was turning playing it into a chore. In the past, though, I’ve tried to keep going too far beyond what was enjoyable. In From Software’s Dark Souls, a title that I had a lot of fun with for the first dozen or so hours, I found my progress bottlenecked by an incredibly tough boss fight (Ornstein and Smough, for reference). Maybe I had built my character poorly. Maybe I just wasn’t clicking with the patterns necessary to beat a vicious enemy AI. Whatever the case, I kept trying and, unfortunately, kept failing. It wasn’t until realizing that repeatedly attempting to get past this point was making playing the game more of a compulsion than an enjoyable pastime that I stepped away. Now, despite having completed and adored its predecessor and sequel (Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls II), thinking about Dark Souls fills me with dread.
It was in recalling how easily a fun, positive gameplay experience can shift to a negative one that I decided to put down Shovel Knight. Hard games can be incredibly rewarding—learning and implementing the skills required to overcome a stiff challenge often leads to a great sense of accomplishment. But playing to the point where frustration begins feeding into itself hardly seems constructive (it’s why anecdotes about players smashing controllers exist, after all). Aside from generating unnecessary anger, continuing to attempt to get past a punishing gameplay obstacle can also obscure any appreciation of what a title does right.
I loved the difficulty balance of Shovel Knight until it turned up a bit too high. Until then, I was able to clearly see how well designed the stages are and how perfectly tuned the character movement is. If I had kept trying to get past an obstacle that was quickly becoming stress inducing, though, I probably would only talk about Shovel Knight’s positive qualities through gritted teeth. I love Dark Souls—it’s highly original and wonderfully designed—but I don’t like writing about it much because, unlike other Souls games, my immediate memory of it is annoyance and unbearable tension.
The point at which fun turns into needless frustration is obviously different for everybody. Some people get a tremendous amount of satisfaction from overcoming seemingly impossible challenges while others would just as soon play games that concentrate on atmosphere or story but offer no substantial difficulty. There’s also the fact that some players are just more skilled at certain types of games than others. Someone who can breeze through a tough platformer may find themselves stumped by a difficult puzzle or strategy game. Our brains and reflexes function differently, which means that even a professional Starcraft player may be unable to complete the first area in a game like Dark Souls.
Being “good at games” is an umbrella term that doesn’t account for the wide variety of skill sets—and behavioural tendencies—that players possess. Even if, as a critic, I can appreciate how well Shovel Knight’s challenging final levels are constructed, smashing my head against them isn’t going to improve my experience with a type of game I’m not an expert at. For myself, recognizing the point at which a game is giving me nothing but frustration seems important. I’d much rather be able to remember the positive aspects of a well-made title like Shovel Knight than think back on it as a stressful experience just because its final levels were too difficult.