A row of Game Boys. Credit: ven y siente el RUIDO / Flickr Creative Commons
What if you could tell Gatsby to quit pining after Daisy? Or get Hamlet to stop monologuing and actually do something? What if you could control how Billy Pilgrim jumped around in time?
From his vantage point as the Director of the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University, Drew Davidson asks these types of questions. Davidson studies interactive media, games and video games, and examines how interactivity changes the art we consume. When we control the movement of Pac-Man, fight mushroom zombies in The Last of Us, and walk through the house in Gone Home, the stories might be quite different than the ones we’re used to telling.
Davidson says it's important to remember that storytelling is “always a two-way street. Someone might be telling the story, but the listener, through their interpretation or their intention or their experiences they bring to bear as they’re paying attention to this story - whether it’s oral storytelling, reading a novel, watching a movie, playing a game... that mix of the communication process is where you interact with the story and make it your own.”
That leads Davidson to be particularly excited about the unique possibilities of interactive media, especially since it allows us to walk in someone else’s shoes.
Davidson believes that giving the player a sense of agency is conducive to nurturing empathy; it helps them feel like an active player in the story in a way that’s wholly separate from films, television, or novels.
Take Peacemaker, a game “set in the Middle East where you choose to play as the Palestinian President or Israeli Prime Minister. Then you go and you have to keep the peace. It was a very hard game to win, and [its makers] were very smart about how they worked with subject matter experts from both sides of the equation, so that it was as true to life as they could make it.” In fact, the creators of the game actually tested the game in the Middle East, using Israeli and Palestinian teens.
“Teens would go in going ‘Man, this would be so easy to solve if they [the other side] would just be reasonable.’ And after playing several rounds of the game, they would come out and [get a sense of how] complex the situation was.”