Role-playing, Games, & the Dangerous Lure of Historical Empathy

Spectres on the Stage

Scene one: you’re a terrorist with a gun, in an elevator. The doors open, and you calmly walk out with your fellow radicals to begin taking deadly aim at crowds of civilians in a Russian airport. At stake is your ability to maintain your cover as a CIA mole in Vladimir Makarov’s ultranationalist network. The carnage is as bad as you can imagine. You’re playing a character in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, in a scene that attracted international notoriety – but also helped the game reap millions in sales.

Scene two: you’re a fire-eating slave-owner, from Kentucky. The 1861 special winter session of the General Assembly has opened, and you arrive in haste in Frankfort, desperate to convince your fellow lawmakers that the state needs to join the Confederacy. At stake is the right to exploit human property, your life’s blood; failure would mean destruction. You’re role-playing as part of a Civil War history course, using a version of the Reacting to the Past pedagogy that has earned plaudits from educators and elite journalists nation-wide – but has also attracted student protest.

The potential pitfalls and productive tensions of video game design and historical education are more alike than they might appear. In part, that’s because in the overlap in the Venn Diagram of “history” and “video games” there sits role-playing, the practice of inhabiting a character. All at once it is a core mechanic, a dramatic technique, and a practice at the heart of disciplinary knowledge production. But as the scenes above suggest, the power of role-playing brings with it unique challenges and considerations. When we play a role, it changes how we understand a narrative, by placing us in it. What might that mean for how we understand historical arguments – and ourselves as critical observers?

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At first glance, historical thinking might not seem to involve much role-playing at all. There’s the historian, and there’s the sources; one analyzes the other in order to craft an analysis. That’s it: the roles are clear, the action simple (if difficult in performance). So how can I describe the practice of role-playing as one that’s deeply implicated in the discipline’s form of knowledge production? The answer is empathy. A critical part of the historian’s craft, the cultivation of imaginative empathy for the subjects of research is what allows a historian to step into their shoes, and (hopefully) understand their motivations. Only once that understanding is achieved – or at least partially so – can a broader analysis be built out of readings of primary sources. Empathy provides the link between data and analysis without which sophisticated historical arguments about causation involving human agents could not be made. Because it is part of historians’ efforts to understand choices and decisions, the historical practice of empathy, at some level, always involves role-playing – often tacitly or implicitly, but sometimes quite directly and with creative interpellations.

This is as true in teaching as it is in research. Thus, while the media coverage (or self-promotional materials) of some of the “new” history pedagogies may suggest that they are innovative disruptions – meteors streaking through the atmosphere of late capitalism to effervesce educational dinosaurs into incandescence – it would be more accurate to say that the teaching technique of conscripting students into playing roles as key historical actors are, at their core, structured exercises in developing empathy.1 As such, they continue a very old, and a very necessary art among historians and history teachers alike.

While critical to historical thinking, if anything, role-playing is even more fundamental to video games. Interaction is the sine qua non of games as a medium – and interaction premised on controlling an avatar, or otherwise providing a direct experience in modifying an environment, has a tendency to create a powerful degree of identification and empathy in the user for the character (or “player experience”) being controlled. Indeed, role-playing is such a deep part of the medium that we rarely even notice it, a marked  contrast to other art forms, like films or novels, where attempts to incorporate the reader into the character’s perspective is a notable, and often jarring, affectation.

Moreover, many of the most popular kinds of commercial video games invite the player to inhabit specific persona – when they are not making character design a core part of the experience of play. This identification that interaction produces was present from the end of first the first game of Pac-Man (“my guy died”), but now the market in commercial games has begun consciously pursuing more directed strategies to augment this effect. Ever-more sophisticated RPG mechanics have crept into an ever-wider array of genres as a means of providing hooks into an experience that might otherwise get caught up (unprofitably) in alienating artifice.2 Empathy and identification are part of the profit model of most games, as well as their art and entertainment.

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Though important to the production of historical knowledge and video games as artifacts, role-playing presents a potential threat. There is always the chance that removal of critical distance might lead the player to too deeply identify with odious points of view; or that the discomfort of empathizing with immoral or inhumane characters will worsen existing pathologies or traumas.

This should come as no surprise; productive discomfort is often the purpose of role-playing in the first place, and the source of it’s effectiveness as a dramatic technique. (The absence of empathy because of discomfort is itself an important analytic tool, as Robert Darnton demonstrated with his exploding cats). The developers who designed the “No Russian” mission in CoD:MW2 intended to arouse intense cognitive dissonance. Though it never explicitly state this to players, the game never required any murder of civilian NPCs – the mission would play out the same either way. Rather, it simply set up a situation where the player-character, as part of their undercover work within a Russian terrorist group, could participate in a massacre. Many players, assuming that this mission followed the usual script of the game – shoot to kill, shoot to advance the story – committed a virtual atrocity, and felt the consequences, as they were intended to. After the furor over their consumer-grade Milgram experiment died down, the developers claimed that their intent was to shock for narrative effect, not mere notoriety; to touch on something “raw and emotional” in order to provoke players into seeing a new perspective on the normal routines of the game – to make the player “actually consider his actions” as a participant.3

Given that all the following missions in Call of Duty did not trouble themselves with such weighty considerations, or wrestle with the consequences of this ethical horror, this is seems most likely a case of haphazard moral hazard than a thoughtfully sustained artistic intervention. But subsequent games, like Spec Ops: The Line, have gone further than CoD:MW2′s naive approach to achieving player complicity in war crimes, and used the intimacy of the medium and the moral responsibility that control of a character in the game world brings with it to interrogate the morality of the genre itself.4

Indeed, games exploring the role of player-agency and empathy have become almost their own sub-genre, expanding beyond military first-person shooters to include non-violent (or at least less-obviously violent) works. Within this set of games, a variety of techniques are used  to comment on a player’s connection to the character (beyond massacre, that is).  2013’s Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, for example, directly manipulates control mechanics to communicate one of the game’s character’s intense sense of loss, while 2015’s Soma, on the other hand, uses repeated glimpsed reflections of the in-game avatar to lead the player to question what their control really represents, leading to a sort of AI / trans-humanist spin on the problem of empathy. As Austin Walker’s thoughtful 2014 article demonstrated, questions of empathy can also be raised indirectly, as new, responsive, and detailed NPC systems provide sharper reflections on the morality of player actions. When the world in which the player is role-playing more closely approximates reality – with real consequences for very specifically drawn individual lives – the more uncomfortable Walker (and others) is with their consequences. And nowhere is this more true than in those games where slavery is involved.5

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To her surprise and chagrin, Professor Tamara Venit-Shelton found this to be true in her own history classroom.6 Seeking to an opportunity to engage her students with  primary sources in new and rich ways, Venit-Shelton incorporated a Reacting to the Past module into her Civil War course. She chose to focus on the 1861 secession crisis in Kentucky: role-playing as state legislators, students would debate “the merits of remaining in the Union or leaving to join the Confederacy,” and thereby better grasp the “complex motivations,” and “imperatives of economics, politics, religion, and — most uncomfortably — racism” that drove events in the Civil War.

For some students, this attempt at providing students with an opportunity to “inhabit a worldview wholly unlike their own” worked too well. In November 2015, Venit-Shelton found her course identified as a specific object of protest among students calling for a more inclusive college environment for students from underrepresented populations. Though she felt herself to be a supporter of the students’ “Call to Action” against racial insensitivity, Venit-Shelton nonetheless was shocked to find that her secession simulation identified as “extremely insensitive and hurtful” to students of color in the protester’s manifesto.

Reflecting on the situation – beyond her initial reaction of indignation – Venit-Shelton describes her use of the role-playing pedagogy as paradoxically overindulgent and inattentive, in terms of empathy: “Perhaps in encouraging my students to practice empathy with people who lived in the past, I forgot to practice empathy with the very people sitting in my classroom.” Her diagnosis of what went wrong focuses on authority: specifically, hers, over the classroom environment and her students’ experiences.

Revealingly, however, her plans for the future do not include any retreat from the role-playing pedagogy or her own authority as a teacher. Rather, she says that she seeks to combine the game with preparation in the practice of critical distancing that she as a historian uses in her own research. That is, she plans to emphasize the difference between actor and role, player and game, and thereby provide space to reflect on what role-playing can mean.

I think this strikes closer to the root of the matter than any parsing of the problems with professorial authority. It is the inhabitation of the role of the slaveholder, the practice of making choices as a slaveholder, and witnessing classmates making those decisions that makes role-playing this history potentially hurtful, dangerous, and troubling. Critiques of this role-playing effectively update Thomas Jefferson’s concern about slavery’s effect on masters in Notes on the State of Virginiathat it was a “perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions” – by arguing these are replicated by the simulation of slaveholding, too. Intimacy is what’s at issue.

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Historical video games have a unique purchase on the related questions of role-playing and creative empathy. Encompassing both the immediate experience of interaction that  can make role-playing a powerful engagement technique, as well as an attempt to realize (in systemic form) the key intellectual practice historical research, historical video games can, in theory, combine a medium with a discipline. But this is not costless; empathy cuts in more than one way. The challenge seems to lie in balancing the lure of  intimate connection and detailed knowledge with the critical distance that can enable analysis – and transcend the experience of “living the past” in order to reach a better understanding of it.   


Header Image: Cosson-Smeeton and A. Jahandier, Spectres on the Stage, Wood Engraving, 1871, Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library, http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e2-c54a-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.

[1] For an example of exuberant coverage, see Christine Gross-Loh, “A Better Way to Teach History,” The Atlantic, February 8, 2016. For self-promotion, see:“About Us,” Reacting to the Past, accessed February 27, 2016.

There is, of course, more than a little elitism in the Atlantic’s warm account of some new methods in history classrooms; the cliché of “Harvard department rearranges chairs; new innovation in furniture pedagogy sweeps the nation” is alive and well. Still the fact that there are multiple and competing pedagogical programs that embrace role-playing to one degree or another suggests a wider trend, in awareness of the utility of role-playing as a technique – even if it does not conclusively prove its existence beyond the Style section standard of proof.

[2] In some regards, the original sin of “gamification” is not that it engages a powerful gambling “instinct,” but rather that it simulates the effects of empathetic identification – especially with success – without providing any of the substance. You know that you want to play more Candy Crush to accumulate points for … someone … but that persona has no ongoing reality outside the climbing totals of points; the character is simply information, and its motivation is only toward increase.

[3] Matthew S. Burns, “A Sea of Endless Bullets: Spec Ops, No Russian and Interactive Atrocity,” Magical Wasteland, August 2, 2012 ; Patrick Klepek, “That Time Call of Duty Let You Shoot Up An Airport,” Kotaku, October 23, 2013.

[4] And attracted concomitant critical interest: Brendan Keogh, Killing Is Harmless: A Critical Reading of Spec Ops: The Line (Marden, Australia: Stolen Projects, 2013).

[5] Austin Walker, “Real Human Beings: Shadow of Mordor, Watch Dogs and the New NPC,” Paste, October 10, 2014.

[6] Tamara Venit-Shelton, “Call and Response,” Vitae, The Chronicle of the HIgher Education, December 1, 2015.

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