Digital Dabbling

After a meeting with some tutors to discuss the issues I was having getting the players to empathise with characters they made some useful suggestions for me to take forward. These suggestions boiled down to a simple solution: try to create empathy and an emotional reaction in a single person, then scale up to multiple people.

I began by looking into the research links they provided me. The first was a piece of research conducted in 1944 by FritzHeider and Marianne Simmel. Their research was a landmark study into interpersonal perception. Specifically: “perceiving individuals, their behaviour and their personal qualities” [Psychology: 2018]. They did this by creating a short animated film that featured circles and squares, and participants were asked to describe the events of the film. With no human features at all participants placed meaning and emotion onto the film. The majority of people perceived the triangle as an antagonist, and participants had a range of explanations for who the circles were. The fundamental fact was that personality, intention and action was applied to each “character” that was different from the other “characters”. So it seems ambiguity is a good place to start when building player-character relationships. The ambiguity left enough room for people to imagine whatever scenario they wanted, and their own imagination created the empathy and emotional experience. This is in line with previous research into LARPs and role playing games I have conducted, I just wasn’t sure how I could use that information to create the desired experience.

I have drawn some conclusions about character-player empathy that I intend to use as I go forward:

  • The two/three types of empathy are not in fact separate entities that can be evoked individually, they are in fact all different components of the same experience. For example when individuals feel fear they experience sweaty hands, increased heart and breathing rates and a perception of time “slowing down”. These are all components of fear, not fear itself. So in my mind empathy is an emotional/cognitive response to stimulus with which the individual can identify and is concerned for the outcome of the stimulus.
  • Empathy is directly related to an individuals perception. Both Dr. Singer and Heider/Simmel experiments revealed that individuals empathised with those similar to them, and even more with people/characters that they perceived to be experiencing unjust conflict.
  • Cooperative environments allow empathy to flourish.



The biggest problem I was experiencing was I didn’t know how to get that kind of reaction from an individual using non-digital games. So I put together a basic, quick and dirty digital prototype using the empathy research I had conducted to this point but leaving the “characters” as ambiguous circles. Below are images of playtesters playing the game.


Why did I do it that way?

-Circles for ambiguity of character, so players can have whatever perception of the character that comes naturally to them.

-Jumping/wall climbing for variation of experience, to keep the player doing something “fun” and therefore engaged.

-Circles for shape of characters so they are perceived as friendly, harmless and safe.

-The sequence of events itself was chosen because it is open to interpretation, but there are clear events of loss and abandonment which will give me a benchmark for if there is any empathetic connection to the characters. If the player is upset or angry or even just remarks about these events then that shows there is some connection between player and avatar, no matter how small. The events are also circular, so they repeat themselves with different characters. People seemed to be highly aware of this, almost like a sense of foreboding. Once the light blue circle and the purple circle are bonded and moving together and it becomes time for the light blue to become a blue square so the tiny green circle can grow most players knew it was going to happen, and rallied against it.


Of the 6 people who have playtested so far, the results show that 3 people did feel something playing the game. I wouldn’t call it empathy, because their reaction wasn’t strong enough to the events of the game. However there was a definite shift in attitude and behaviour when the dark blue circle becomes a square and when the pink circle is left behind. They were effected enough that two or so of them made comments like “I want to bring all the circles with me.” And exclamations of “No, I know whats going to happen. I’m not going to sacrifice myself.”

However the two players who did not feel any emotional response were unlikely to have one due to personal preference and because they ruined their own experience by reading the code before playing the game, and then proceeded to playtest the game to break it. They both expressed that they had more of an emotional reaction reading the code/comments than they did playing the game. Both are very logical thinkers (as programmers tend to be), however this is also in line with the 1944 experiment by Heider and Simmel. In their experiment there was a group of people who recounted the events of the film factually with no emotional or anthropomorphised context.



To improve the experience I will do the following:

-Source art assets to create visual consistency.

-Utilise the platforming to create interesting choices and dilemmas for players in regard to direction. Eventually each direction could present players with a different event.

-Optimise code to prevent the bugs that occurred during play.

-Add an antagonistic “character” to create conflict, to make the characters suffer from an external force.



Psychology. (2018). Fritz Heider & Marianne Simmel: An Experimental Study of Apparent Behavior. [online] Available at: [Accessed 24 Jan. 2018].

Bergland, C. (2018). The Neuroscience of Empathizing With Another Person’s Pain. [online] Available at: [Accessed 24 Jan. 2018].


GraphicMama Blog. (2016). How to Convey Character’s Personality Through Shape, Variance and Size. [online] Available at: [Accessed 22 Feb. 2018].

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