Video games have tremendous potential to spark empathy in the apathetic. But the apathetic must first choose to play.
This is the “value” of artful art: to realign perspectives, let you see the other side, another side, or your own side through other’s eyes. But not all art is artful. There are literary novels and popular novels—each with their own affect. Technically complex, aspiring, narrative emotive films, and then cinematic blockbusters written and directed to a formula to equal greatest box office earnings. You can make a Pacific Rim fan watch The Deerhunter, but you can’t make her enjoy it and you can’t make it leave an effective stain if only her eyes’ whites are shown. Those who watch/read/review artful art do so because that’s the type of person they are or want to be. They want to see another side and they want to be affected. Others just want to affect. Those who’ll voluntarily play empathy games will do so because they are already emphatic people, or wish to be one.
Not to take any value from these games. There’s a niche and a market, and troves of pleasure to begot. But there’s also an ongoing discussion about how these games will make young players more empathetic, serve a better role in their development than Halos and CODs, and I think this is bollocks. Yes, maybe, if we can encourage them to play the games on their own will (this, here, is a discussion in its own right). But we’ve had middle school students read “To Kill a Mockingbird” for decades and I suspect the novel turned more potential literary readers off from literature than it turned on.
People can seek out media that reinforces their mindset at the time (listening to sad music when they’re sad, or watching comedy when they’re looking to extend their euphoria), which means they’re already open to empathy. Less often, I suspect, are people coming to media as a “blank slate”, who are actively seeking to have real feelings generated by the medium without any preconceived plans to do so. I’ll go ahead and blame the Internet that spoils all things, so maybe by the time a lot of people got around to watching Avatar, they were so inundated with cynical reviews focusing on the formula and the preaching or the technology behind it that they weren’t willing to just go with it and allow themselves to be affected in any other way.
These games are intrinsically great, simply because A) they fly in the face of popular media’s lazy portrayal of video games as “murder simulators”, and B) that game design and development has reached the point where these kinds of games are possible. But those reasons don’t make them fly off the shelves. People don’t buy them because of the stellar graphics or the complex mechanics or the intense multiplayer action. The people who buy these kinds of games have decided up front that they want to open themselves to the emotional impact that these games might offer them. That is actually part of their mechanic, like an inventory system is to an RPG or an upgrade system is to a racing game.
I believe we’re in a transition period right now, in that gaming is just now being allowed to become an art, and that children right now are growing up with the fruits of this transition. Adults can decide to be affected by these games if they have an open mind, but I think the COD generation is more or less a lost cause. That leaves the next generation to learn that these kinds of games are every bit as valid as the CODs and the Halos, just as tearjerker movies are every bit as valid as action movies. Parents can encourage this by playing these games and allowing their children to participate.