losing oneself in a simulated world

I had an odd experience whilst playing Skyrim.

I had always been interested in playing this particular game. I started at the beginning of the game and began the main quest. As I went along I found that there were various people I had to find and talk to in the game. When I got into a small hamlet I was walking around and talking to various people. Then, just to see what happened, I shot a little girl in the face with my bow and arrow. This was my chance to let the tigers out of the cage.

Her parents/entire village were understandably pissed. It turned out that her parents were actually the people that I was supposed to talk to in order to continue the quest. Luckily I had an autosave point that was not too far back in the past so I went back in time (time travel is real!) and started the section over. I was more careful about where I pointed my bow and arrow this time.

At this point something strange happened. I was just laughing about shooting the girl in the game. She is not “real” and the consequence of killing her in the game was trivial to me because I knew I could just go back to the save point. My friend said something I was not expecting. He said, “I dunno, I feel bad when I kill people in the games.” 

Pretty much sums up my reaction.

I mean they are just virtual people, right? RIGHT?

*flashback to Sherry Turkle*

In this kind of play children have to learn to put themselves in the place of another person, to imagine what is going on inside someone else’s head. There are no rules, there is empathy. There are no dice to roll, there is understanding, recognition, negotiation, and confrontation with others.

She is talking, not about video games, but about

the open-ended role playing that children offer each other when one says “You be the Mommy and I’ll be the Daddy.”

Interestingly, Skyrim was allegedly the most played game of 2011. Also of interest is its genre, RPG or role playing game.

In Skyrim you can play the main quest or you can just wander around the world, looking for things to do. You can hunt and climb things, even get a significant other if you would like. You can do whatever would would like and play whichever role you wish.

All children play variations of the cops 'n' robbers / cowboys 'n' indians games

It is fantasy play that adults are allowed to engage in.

There are studies that suggest imaginary play has an important role in cognitive development.

The research reviewed by Berk, Mann & Ogan, (2006) and Hirsh-Pasek, Golinkoff, Berk, & Singer (2009) suggest that make-believe games are forerunners of the important capacity for forms of self-regulation including reduced aggression, delay of gratification, civility, and empathy. When children use toys to  introduce possible scenarios or friends, the representation of multiple perspectives occurs naturally. Taking on different roles allows children the unique opportunity to learn social skills such as communication, problem solving, and empathy (Hughes, 1999).

This is, of course, just an anecdotal story, but it would be interesting to study the role of RPGs on adult development of empathy, aggression, gratification, self-regulation, and civility. The virtual playground that video games can provide is an interesting sort of place that has not existed for very long.


About Adam

I am an architecture undergrad @ Virginia Tech with an interest in emergent and interactive design.
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