This is what happens when we can occupy our heroes’ bodies.
BY JON IRWIN
Whenever the Kingdom of Hyrule has been in danger, a young boy named Link has risen to the challenge of saving the land from all manner of pixelated evil. The latest chapter of Link’s ongoing quest in the video game series The Legend of Zelda is about to be released. And while the graphics have improved since the 1980s, Link is still an empty vessel for players to inhabit, only facing danger with a push of the joystick. Videogame heroes take up a larger amount of people’s imaginations today than they ever have before. In the cultural economy they are as big a force as the heroes in books and movies. But as relatively new as videogame heroes are, some still question their ability to impact us on the level of more traditional art.
In 2010, the late great movie critic Roger Ebert argued that video games can never be art. “One obvious difference between art and games,” he wrote, “is that you can win a game.” By comparison, literature and movies emphasize the contemplation of their subjects. “Prose gives you the chance to do what no other medium can, which is dare to represent the contours of human consciousness,” says Tom Bissell, author of Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, as well as short stories, narrative non-fiction books, and big-budget blockbuster games including Gears of War: Judgment and Battlefield: Hardline.
But videogames do explore the consciousness of their players in ways that other media do not. Whereas literary or cinematic heroes are locked in place by the time you consume their tales, game heroes rely on your decisions. In Bioware’s Mass Effect trilogy, you inhabit Commander Shepard, a male or female super-soldier (your choice) who leads a resistance in the 22nd century against alien forces across the Milky Way galaxy. Over the course of the games, your decisions—how to respond to certain alien races or characters, when to fight or flee, who to save or kill—affect a long and complicated system of branching narratives, adding up to a final conclusion: Were you a force for good (Paragon, in the game’s terms) or not (Renegade)? As in life, good and evil walk very different paths. Certain characters in the game will talk to you very differently, if at all, if you hold a Paragon ranking. Your play determines your path; your hero’s quest is your own.
Do video game heroes measure up with those of Voltaire, Austen, Capra, or Kubrick? Perhaps not, but they do deserve our attention. According to the NPD Group, the video game industry’s leading sales-tracking service, 65.4 percent of all videogames purchased in 2014 were action, adventure, shooter, or role-playing games, genres most likely to include heroic protagonists. With over 155 million people playing games every day, that’s a lot of heroes being born and killed. The importance of the video game hero is particularly pronounced among children and adolescents in the United States, 97 percent of whom play video games for at least one hour a day.
Collectively, these experiences are changing what we expect of our heroes—and of ourselves.
In a 2012 experiment at Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL), associate professor Jeremy Bailenson, clinical psychologist Robin Rosenberg, and then-student Shawnee Baughman studied whether people who inhabit a virtual superhero would actually be more altruistic in real-life. They studied the behavior of participants in a virtual city evacuated due to an earthquake. Two groups were given the power of flight, while two other groups were passengers in a helicopter; one of each group was asked to find a lost diabetic child wandering the city who needed their insulin, while the other spent the time leisurely touring the environment. What the team focused on was what happened next: After their time in VR, a real-life helper “accidently” spilled a cup of pens off a table. A camera recorded the participants’ reaction. In each case, the person given super-powers in VR was more helpful than those who had been passengers in the copter, regardless of their goal. “The superheroes were faster to help and more thorough,” Baughman told me over the phone. Efficient pen-collection is not your standard superhero power, but the result points to a kind of absorption of heroic tendencies following active engagement in a virtual environment. Baughman, now the senior operations associate at STRIVR Labs, and the former director of operation at the VHIL, explains that “people tend to respond to these [virtual] environments the same way they would respond in real life. That’s one of the biggest features of VR that we’ve found that’s different from reading a book or watching a movie.”
The same elasticity that allows for a distinct hero experience permits the player to fail.
That’s not to say that reading can’t feel life-like. Veronique Boulenger, a cognitive scientist at the French National Centre for Scientific Research, in Lyon, has found that reading simple active verbs causes activity in the brain commensurate with performing that same action. For example, she measured heightened activity in a participant’s motor cortex, specifically the area related to arm movement, while they read the phrase, “John grasped the object.” But the reactions to reading and VR participation are not the same: Compared to reading, a brain in the middle of an act of virtual heroism has an increased response from the sympathetic branch of the automatic nervous system, which is related to our fight-or-flight response, among other things…