Emotionally Investing in Games and Their Characters

Emotionally Investing in Games and Their Characters: A Justification of Why your Best Buds are Space Alien Pixel Clusters.


Who is in the video game fan base? The Baby Boomer generation probably has a word or two to say about the perceived basement dwellers, hermits and recluses of the community (because what don’t they have an opinion on). In addition to the high school student, tech enthusiast and internet savant, the gamer crowd is populated with dog moms, bank tellers, surgeons and buttoned-up business women. Every one of them can leave their day job, step out of the monotony of their everyday identity, and in a very real way, become Commander of the Normandy, Hero of the Galaxy.

Google any topic (leave this tab open while you search for “cats in hats”) and find yourself bombarded with blogs, listicles, and testimonies from thousands of impassioned contributors to the world wide web. Gamers and their enthusiasm for the franchises they love are no different. The webosphere is bursting with odes on what there is to cherish about video games.

Authors, philosophers and scientists have chimed into the conversation, eager to validate our affection for the fictional. Here we will argue not only for the legitimacy of games as fully-realized worlds of art, but advocate for our roles in them. The emotional investment we experience with games and their characters directly reflects on our ability to project ourselves into the protagonist. (And spoiler alert: our feelings are backed up with science.)


Why we Love Games

How many relationships might come to a screeching halt if one partner were given the opportunity to colonize an alien garden planet, open a candy shop in the steampunk city of Columbia, or hunker down over a fire in Haven? Our lips say we know it’s fictional, but what might a die-hard gamer exchange for the chance to stroll through the fields of Hyrule?

This could be my summer home but the galaxy's playin
This could be your summer home but the galaxy’s playin

The logical launch pad for this conversation starts with what there is to love about today’s bounty of video games, particularly modern RPGs. As Sam Mag’s puts it in her three cheers for BioWare:

“When was the last time you played a game (or read a book, or flipped through a comic, or watched a television show, or saw a movie) where the savior of the universe was a lesbian woman of color? In a BioWare game, that’s not just within the realm of possibility, it’s completely normalized. The rarity with which marginalized people are able to see ourselves as the heroes of these stories makes BioWare’s titles that much more appealing to gamers and active fan communities.”

She’s regaling the customizable options of BioWare’s protagonists. In their blockbuster franchises Mass Effect and Dragon Age, you are able to modify the main character to reflect not only how you look, but how you feel—you know, in your heart. Customizations allow us to create characters that we can see ourselves in, and then those characters—those versions of us—are able to make moral choices, cultivate deep friendships, and court romantic interests in whatever ways we want. They are extensions of us, manifesting hopes and dreams and other lofty, frilly abstract nouns.

In the video game’s inherently interactive medium of story telling, we’re able to take part as the protagonist in deeply flushed-out, complex worlds.

“The Lore is my favorite part,” states Scott, a life-long gamer from North Dakota. “In the [Mass Effect] codex you can find out infinitely more about the biology, the culture, the history, etc of every race than you ever need to know. You get details about the ships, the cities, just everything. You know you’re stepping into a conversation that feels like it’s existed for a thousand years. When you want to know more, there’s always more.”

Just what I needed: thousands of hours of reasons not to do homework
Just what I needed: thousands of hours of reasons not to do homework

The fully-realized universes of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Jordan’s Wheel of Time, and now Ruthfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles don’t have to be literature-specific. The same care and development goes in to the creation of the games we love with the unique added benefit of being able to stay in that world, even after the story has finished.

“When a book’s over, it’s over.” Contributes Liana, 23, a pre-med student from Minnesota. “When a game is over, you can keep doing side quests, you can play in some of them in multi-player, you can read more in the codex, you can keep talking to characters. You don’t have to be done until you want to be, and when you start over, you can sometimes make different choices and experience the game in a new way. You can’t do that with books.”

In addition to the feeling of adventure, the stunning graphics of today’s games are nothing less than a contribution to the world of art. I’m sure it can be said that some days, to the horror of the global community of parents (and probably Michelle Obama) a gamer might skip going outside in favor of taking a stroll through the Hinterlands, plugged into our consoles. The love and appreciation for art doesn’t need to be argued as we’d be hard-pressed to find someone with the balls to say the Mona Lisa doesn’t matter. Perhaps convincing the world that video games are viable members of the artistic community is worth pursuing when the topic is explaining why we love video games.

Who needs vitamin D when you can get Vitamin D(wagon Age)
Who needs Vitamin D when you can get Vitamin D(ragon Age)

Why We Invest in the Characters

With fully realized worlds and the ability to see ourselves as the protagonist, it makes sense that the characters who march along side us as our squad mates, our counterparts, and our playable characters begin to feel like friends. After all, they’re the protagonist’s friends, and we are the protagonist.

Novelist and BBC contributor Will Self philosophically tackled the topic of character relationships. First he pauses to compliment the beauty of well-done fiction, commenting that it’s already an astonishing feat to regard an invented scenario as believable or impactful to human life.

His article is wordy and jargon-heavy, but he uses the example of Anna Karenina to explore the idea of eternity. “Anna Karenina’s fate” he writes, “like those of all fictional characters – was, is, and will always be utterly determined.” In a chilling, potentially disturbing evolution, Self goes on to say, “It occurs to me that it’s precisely in fictional characters’ conviction – despite all evidence to the contrary – that they are the authors of their own lives, that they resemble us most. We really intuit that in between the alternative scenarios of chaotic contingency and universal necessity, there can’t possibly be any real wiggle-room within which the human will can operate, yet we persist – and cannot help persisting – in the delusion that we too are the authors of our own lives.”

Self’s bleak mouthful of a fatalist view takes a less depressing turn if we reflect on our free will to choose. (Must be a Calvinist thing?) The very joy of free will is more accurately represented in today’s RPGs than in the linear mode of literature.

If DNA strands and lab coats are more your thing, Abby Norman has written for The Mary Sue about the psychological implications of fandom, exploring the “realness” we experience. She uses science (because someone had to) in order to explain what it is we’re feeling when we bond with fictional characters.

Good 'ole right supra marginal gyrus, highlighted in yellow, his favorite color
Good ‘ole right supra marginal gyrus, highlighted in yellow, his favorite color

The snappily-named right supramarginal gyrus is responsible for the empathy we’re able to project not only onto other humans, but onto fictional characters as well.

Norman thrills fans everywhere when she says, “On a neurobiological level, our experience of consuming fiction is actually very real. Measurably so.”

My Best Buds are Space Aliens

Emotional investment in the video game characters occurs not only because of their well-written dialogue, their developed backgrounds, and their opportunities to live beyond their medium (hello, fanfic), but for their “realness”. When we stop the Reapers, we’re not only involved in an authentic sense of accomplishment, but we get to share it with an equally legitimate group of pals.

Science says it’s real. Why argue with science?

#SquadGoals? More like #SquadRealities
#SquadGoals? More like #SquadRealities

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Piper CJ: M.A. Folklore, Commander of the Normandy, contracted digital media guru helping with the new age of archiving during the day and a full-time RPGer by night.

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49 Comments

  1. Jessica
    0

    I love Ellie from The Last of Us. Just between the way she was written and what she meant for humanity and how the game ended. Just a great character. I think about what would happen to her as she got older, knowing what she knows (or thinks she knows).

    • Spencer

      Yes! The characters in TLOU were so well written, and then the DLC gave them another side which was just so awesome!

  2. Phan
    0

    To this day, Shadow of the Colossus remains the game that had the greatest emotional impact on me. The ending, which I won’t go into, leaves you with a deep sense of melancholy. I didn’t want to leave, it still breaks my heart that I had to. The fates of the two main characters are actually pretty open, and you’ll never really know for sure what happened to them. I always wonder if there was more you could have done, if the developers had let you continue the story a little bit longer.

    Definitely my favorite game on a Sony console.

  3. Krystle
    0

    Mass Effect… The simple pleasure of wandering down to the lower decks and chatting to your favourites was one of the best things about the series.

    Every route in Katawa Shoujo is tinged with melancholy, and even though I always got the good endings, I was never not sad. The characters were travelling off into their futures and I was being left behind, with nothing else to do but turn back the clock and see another way things might have played out.

  4. Torrence
    0

    I often get emotionally invested in long RPGs.

  5. Vilma
    0

    I wouldn’t have played videogames as long as I have if there had not been an emotional connect. I can’t wait until the next one.

  6. Dennis
    1

    I’ve found that some games leave me kind of sad after beating them. Especially those with good characters.

  7. This is a great article and it’s so true! I find myself so attached to some of the characters I play as in videogames. It’s a bittersweet feeling to finish a great game that you invested so much time in but that attachment and love for the characters and their story never truly goes away.

  8. Munjeera

    I learned so much from your article.

  9. danielle577

    What a phenomenal article! Wow!! And this is coming from a “non-gamer.” You weave this narrative that provides so much weight to why we should care about the characters. One of the best examples is the way in which a book ends, and it is over; yet a game allows the player to reenter the gaming world from a different angle and create a new “story.” Also, as a neurospych. minor, I adore your inclusion of the influence the act of playing a game and feeling a bond with a character is experienced in the right supramarginal gyrus! Gaming +neuroscience= an article that captures a multitude of readers! Well done.

  10. Completely agree with all you’ve said (especially Bioware, BEST) and the photo of Ellie is spot on 😉

  11. Storm
    0

    For me it was Tales of Symphonia, I never realised the first time that there would be a point where my choices would determine which of two characters would be with me to the end of the game. I was so heart broken the first time that it took me months to come to terms with it and play it again under the advisement of a friend. I was then heart broken all over again at the loss of the other character.

  12. Fati
    0

    This is why I keep replaying The Witcher 3 and Mass Effect 2 over and over again. I want to inhabit those worlds and interact with its characters. It feels like reading a book. I love these characters so much I don’t want to let go.

  13. tom
    0

    I get very easily attached to characters. It’s part of why I can’t play “evil” routes because I don’t like disappointing my allies or being a dick in general.

  14. Charlton
    0

    Undertale is pretty savage.

  15. Ria Ault
    0

    Really relevant article. Mass Effect 3 had a major effect in me. As weird as it sounds it took me forever to truly detach from that world. I probably played through the trilogy twice after got sucked into the multiplayer for a year and then Citadel pulled me back in. I still need to do a trilogy reply with all DLC. I started it to get knock out some of the early questing in ME1 but didn’t get much further.

  16. Riddick
    0

    The best example for me is Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. I got quite invested in Harry Mason’s plight to search for his ever-elusive daughter, so when that culmination happens I’m just kinda left joyful to have experienced such a good story but… damn, that ending. Not even Silent Hill 2 got quite as poignant as that.

  17. richard
    0

    Heavy Rain. I felt genuinely bad when I lost a character.

  18. Kati Card
    0

    I actually cried at the end of Klonoa when I was 9. Cried when Aeris died when I was 12.

  19. Emily Connor

    Every child loves it, for us when we were child, it was just not a game. We found ourselves in the main character and the character resembled us when we say for example played a fight game. I use to get emotionally attached upto a level that it was always me in there and use to proudly show my friend how I defeated my opponent! Always shouting in fun and being proud of myself like I was really doing it in real life. It was always more than just a game and its the same till date.

  20. Jack Chau
    0

    When I beat Fire Emblem Awakening for the first time, I felt a sense of emptiness. Sure, I still had several post game paralogues, and I wanted to keep making my units stronger. But, actually finishing the story was so sad. I had grown very attached to at least 20 different members of my army.

  21. Fekke
    0

    Persona 4 was the one for me. I wasn’t expecting to like the game much, but I ended up finding all the characters quite interesting and likeable.

    • samina
      0

      Persona 3 was mine. I played it over the course of about a year, fairly regularly, during a period in which three of my relatives died. Given that the story spends a lot of time talking about death, I could relate to it then as well. Playing it over such a long period of time also made me grow more attached to the characters then I normally would be. It also had one of my favorite game endings ever. I highly recommend it to anyone who hasn’t played it. Somehow I always seem to relate to the themes of those games.

  22. Mitzie
    0

    The closest I’ve been emotionally attached to a game character was the Minum I traded in Pokemon Ruby..

  23. Magnolia
    0

    Recently, Undertale has taken me in a storm. In the past? Mass Effect for sure and even Fable 2. Clementine in The Walking Dead as well for me.

  24. LAW
    0

    Sometimes I just can’t bear to finish a game as I have become to attached to the characters or something else in the game. When I feel like “This is all just to emotional” I just stop playing, never finishing it. In so doing I never have to say goodbye to world. I’m weird I know.

  25. Roush
    0

    it’s not the video game that they are addicted to. It’s the “addiction gene” is what they have. Some people will get addicted to anything, others will never get addicted to anything.

  26. HiTT
    0

    Undertale. Both times when I finished the pacifist ending I was in tears. The amazing music, goofy dialogue and ludonarrative synchronicity combine to be absolutely overwhelming. It’s like listening to the last movement of Beethoven’s 6th Symphony when the strings swell and release. It’s just so perfect, and that ending scene… god damn I was openly weeping at that point.

    I can’t bring myself to play it again because in order to do so, I have to undo that “happily ever after”. That’s the tragic part. The fact that the game allows you to replay and just slaughter everyone after such a perfect ending… wow.

  27. Patel
    0

    I’ve become attached to fictional characters in general, game, novel, even self-created tabletop rpg characters or other PCs even. If I become invested in something, yeah I feel.

  28. Fry
    0

    I’m still not totally heartbroken and bitter over Mass Effect 3’s ending. Nope…no tears from me.

  29. Justa
    0

    I never knew how attached i became to the characters of xenosaga, until i got to the end of episode 3. I couldn’t stop the tears for flowing.

  30. As a recreational gamer, I enjoyed this article. Like other commenters, I really connected with Ellie and Joel from The Last of Us. Just a bit of constructive criticism: It seems to be your writing style, but try to shoot for fewer parenthetical asides. Sometimes they disrupt the flow of the article. Otherwise, good work!

  31. LondonFog

    Adding my two cents about character I’ve connected with. I really connected with the characters from Life is Strange on a deep level to the point that I’m still not really over the ending!

  32. LondonFog

    Adding my two cents about characters I’ve connected with. I really connected with the characters from Life is Strange on a deep level to the point that I’m still not really over the ending!

  33. fgx747
    0

    I often find myself thinking how the character would think, even when I’m not playing the game. I always wonder if it gives me an outlook/thinking method I wouldn’t otherwise have.

  34. yoshi
    0

    The quality of writing in games is never strong enough to elicit any sort of emotional response from me.

    That’ll probably change at some point in the future, though, as writers start to get a better hang of the medium.

  35. Lexzie

    This was an immensely well done article.
    I am an avid gamer and have researched into my own emotional connections to games before, but your article sums everything up in one place. Great work.

  36. SimpleCrumb
    0

    This article made me want to travel back in time and play Telltale’s The Walking Dead all over again. In reality the outcomes were the same regardless of the choices you made, but the initial journey…

  37. Wow! Amazing article

    I don’t stroll through Hyrule field- I roll! I’ve replayed multiple games because I was devastated when I finished them. I’m extremely attached to LOZ most of all. I remember crying at the end of Phantom Hourglass. The journeys I go on with characters become personal after the experience of it all.

  38. I loved the Mass Effect series because of their blend of Action-Adventure. I spent as much time battling aliens as I did working on my alliances in the series. The story lines got so complex I wondered if my computer was going to explode from all the churning and calculating of different possible timelines as I progressed through the story.

    I think much of the investment in the game comes directly from being able to influence fate, as the gamer must live with their choices in the virtual world. The game is a fantastic illustration of choice; there are a limited number of available variables to affect (i.e. plot points, character relationships, morality dilemmas), but a seemingly unlimited number of plot experiences due to the different combinations of choices.

  39. I think the point made by Will Self is excellent. The most frustrating and heart-wrenching quality of reading is the inability to change the character’s fate or choices. The author decided where the story was going and ended it according to his/her own sensibilities.

    This point is best illustrated by the Witcher 3 (possible spoilers), if we followed the books alone then everyone would only ever experience being Yennefer and never mind the numerous endings possible in the Witcher 3. We wouldn’t be able to experience a romance with Triss or make Ciri an empress and so on. The appeal of video games is the ability to fall in love with characters, feel heroic in our choices and fight until the bitter end for our chosen ending.

  40. This was an excellent article that brought so many good points that help explain why gamers are such die-hard fans. Mass Effect provides you with plot, amazing characters, and a way to interact with the game that makes you fall in love with the game more and more. Becoming emotionally invested in a video just makes sense, it’s like that book you’ve read over and over the story may not change but the feelings that it has invoked in you remain the same.

  41. i really loved this article! such an intriguing topic. could a lack of social life in the real world also contribute to more emotional attachment to characters?

  42. Brad Hagen

    Finally, someone that gets it.

  43. I’ve always looked for this kind of emotional storytelling in Square Enix’s Final Fantasy franchise. At 13 years old, I connected with Final Fantasy VII in a way that I had not previously experienced with out games; it began my love affair with RPGs and storytelling. I haven’t experience a game as strongly as that one (and am highly anticipating the FFVII remake), though others have come close–Final Fantasy X, Warcraft III & The Frozen Throne Expansion, The Last of Us. Most recently, I’ve become intrigued by the Tell Tale games and am actively playing through a lot of them. I’m really interested in the balance of storytelling and active gameplay, which Tell Tale completely flips on its head.

  44. It’s hard to remember that all these characters that we fall in love with are a bunch of pixels on a television or computer screen, but they’re much more than that. It’s because video games, in my opinion, are the most immersive experiences a person can have. We’re not just spectators; we’re participants. In many ways, we craft our own stories in addition to the ones that are being told to us. That’s very powerful, and it’s only possible through video games.

  45. The greatest attribute that top games share is the ability for the user to customize their character or game world in some way. Immersion is one of the most integral principles regarding video games. The best way to immerse a player is to give them something to get emotionally attached to, i.e., the character or the hero’s journey.

    In the early days of gaming, it was solely adventure/RPG games that allowed for customization of your character. In the mid to late 90’s is when you started to see a shift in the industry from dynamic environments with static characters, to more static environments with customizable characters. For example Mario, Sonic, and Lara are legends of the game world, but they look the same throughout, so the story and environments are what drive those games. Then you have MMO’s like WoW and Neverwinter that allow the user to not only use a class to their liking but further customize that character’s look. The same goes for games like Fallout.

    Even shooter games are more than ever allowing customizable characters, and not just the look. Games like ‘The Division’, allow the player to obtain gear that is suited for their playstyle.

  46. It’s a great article! As a gamer, I can relate a lot.

  47. A well written article to say the least. Quite enjoyable!

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