Thursday, 24 September 2015

The Empathy of Videogames (SOMA)

Greetings friends!

So over the past couple of days I've been playing the excellent SOMA by Frictional Games, famous (or perhaps infamous) for Amnesia: The Dark Descent.

It's a fantastic game, and for the first time in a while it has made me stand back and question a few things in my own gaming experience.

Now if you go and read any other review of SOMA you will see much the same sort of comment as I have made above, citing moments from the game where you as the player have to make tear jerking and horrific decisions that make you hate the developers for putting you in those situations.

My experiences so far have been very different then these, and why exactly I feel that way is the questions that I have been forced to ask myself.


One of the things the game makes you ask yourself early on is quite simple:

If something thinks it is self aware and alive; is it?

I've had a chat with my significant other about this, and despite probing questions and many disagreements, I don't know where I stand with this. Does "I think, therefore I am" really stand up to scrutiny?

If an artificial intelligence walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, is it a duck?

Can we really define ourselves by our physical body, or are we more than that? How much of what identifies us as us is personality? And how much is simply how our mind interprets the electrical signal of stimuli? If you were to take a digital map of your identity, and if it reacted in the same way as you, had the same opinions, the same ideas and the same prejudices, would it be you? If you were to then die and it was 'downloaded' into your body, would you still be you?

Honestly, I don't know where I stand with this. And likewise there are countless other questions that I don't know where I stand; is Artificial Intelligence potentially equal to or greater than organic intelligence? If everything you perceive is in the form of electrical nerve impulses, then is a reality made up entirely of digital electrical impulses just as real as the 'real' world if you perceive it to be so?

All I can understand is my own reactions to the game, and how when presented with situations where I was supposed to be moved, I was not. My reactions and actions seemed clear and obvious. Do I kill something that is of no use to me, but believes itself to be alive, or do I kill something that is useful, but would not feel pain?

The 'human' way of reacting is to kill the thing that would feel no pain, that we should be 'humane' and 'care' for the sick and the elderly.

My reaction was not that at all. But to look and decide what is of use. By killing the one who feels pain and believes itself to be alive, would I be worse off? No! By killing the thing that IS of use to me, would I be worse off? Almost certainly!

What has bothered me is that this reaction seems so different to the other reviewers of this game, that they all either put themselves in a worse-off situation, or they made the logical decision but felt bad about it.

I felt no remote for my actions, it was the right thing to do in order to prolong my character's survival chances and I know that in a heartbeat I would make the same decision again.


I spoke to my significant other about this, I asked her why she thought I felt no remorse for these 'digital' actions compared to others who apparently felt like the game was figuratively ripping out their heart.

Her response was (jokingly) "It's because you have no soul".

It reminded me of a conversation I had with a good friend the other month, where we discussed how when I read about the suffering of others in the paper or on the TV I feel nothing but indifference, and if asked why my reaction is simply "why should I care about people I have never met?" Emphasis on should, as if it is expected.

We came to the conclusion that I simply lack empathy for others; something I find very interesting due to arguing for years (over a decade in fact) that empathy does not exist. Having this opinion would make sense if I did not feel it.
- Why that is the case, and if it is something that I 'switched off' as a learned defence mechanism, or was just born biologically incapable of feeling; that is a question for another time.


So what else have I found in the game which has been a challenge? Surely if I am feeling no empathy towards these characters (and considering what the other reviewers state about the game, it would be very easy to think the game was one whole empathic mess) then the game should be a cake walk, with nothing to challenge my choices of right versus wrong?

Far from it my friends!

Just last night I encountered a databank full of AI constructs; personality matrices which is put into a digital simulation would act and think just like a real, living person. I had to ask myself what to do with them.

My choices were simple: erase the data! Doing so would put these people to rest. Currently they were in a dormant state, doing so would be putting them out of the misery of one day waking up and seeing just how shit their lives had become and they would feel no pain. Plus it would save them from the maddening corruption that was spreading through the world.

The other choice was to leave them be. They would remain in a dormant state until either being later erased, woken up or corrupted to see the world through twisted eyes, a horrific mockery of their former lives.

I chose the latter.

But it was a difficult decision, I won't lie to you, but not for the emotional reasons others may experience.

For me I looked at the situation; essentially kill them and drastically reduce my chances of running into them later on as corrupted versions of themselves, or instead leave them be but in a state that meant if I had a use of them I could use them.

Like I said, it was a difficult choice. I want to further my survival, but what is a greater threat; a potential enemy who may come to kill me later? Or being in a situation where I need their expertise to survive and not having them available (because I had killed them?)

I chose Door B. There were already hideous monsters running around, a few more wouldn't be that bad, but being in a situation where I need a technician's access code and being unable to work around it was more worse!

Is that the same question I had to ask myself that the developers wanted me as the player to ask? Of course not, but it stopped me in my tracks and made me think for a moment, and that was a first for a video game!


And on that note; stay safe and be excellent to each other!

- Your friendly neighbourhood Doctor Loxley

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