On empathy, games and evolution – Star Wars (KOTOR)

On empathy, games and evolution – Star Wars (KOTOR)

This post is not going to be exclusively about Star Wars KOTOR, but it is linked to my previous post on the game and my experience with the game. In that previous post I talked about how I felt bad playing it because I made choices that hurt others, in quite an evident way. In other words, the game invoked empathy for some of the other characters. At the same time I was the cause of these characters pain (which was what caused my empathy), so imagine the emotional toil of going through that! Good thing it was only a game.


This is the first point I would like to make. Narrative based games, like books and films, are an excellent way for humans to explore our emotional reactions to various situations, without actually having to live through them. It is a vicarious experience. This explanation is, in broad terms, also one of the very likely explanations as to the evolutionary reason for why we started telling stories to begin with. In very much our galaxy, not too long ago.

Okay, time to backtrack slightly. First, what is empathy and how does it function? It is basically a mode of communication, and one essential to humans in order to function fully within our complicated social groups. It differs from sympathy and compassion, and that is because the emphasis in empathy is on the observer who to a certain degree shares the emotional state of the observed. With sympathy and compassion it is generally more an understanding, but with empathy it is a, let us say mirroring, of emotions vicariously through observation. And that was indeed a very basic way of putting it.

Empathy is a mode of communication that most people intuitive learn throughout growing up, and studies indicate that our abilities to engage with empathy evolves through different stages, from new-borns to adolescence. I will return to the importance of this momentarily.

For a fear of this becoming slightly too technical in its explanations I shall refrain from mapping out what researchers have to this date discovered about how empathy works on a neurobiological level. Let me just say that it is quite a complex process, that does not only activate one part of the brain, but is rather a combination of different areas. To sum up there seems to be two different neural activities going on at the same time when feeling empathy, one emotional and another is executive. The emotional mode is through mirror neurons. These mirror the emotional state of someone we observe. The executive comes through theory of mind. ToM is our ability to consciously and cognitively place ourselves in another person’s shoes and understand their viewpoints and thoughts, even though they may differ greatly from our own. The minds chemistry also plays a large part in empathy. It is too relevant to today’s subject, but it is interesting nonetheless. The hormone Cortisol, it seems, is essential if we are to feel empathy, as it has been shown that people who show tendencies of callousness or even psychopathy, have a considerably lower cortisol level in the brain compared to people who feel empathy at a normal level. For more information on this check out my list of sources at the bottom of this post.

Before moving back to video games, I want to look slightly closer at empathy and its place in human society. Eric E. Nelson wrote an excellent article on this. He generally voices a slight concern to do with the way in which our society has been evolving at late, suggesting that our modern lifestyle dictated by technology and communication through screens may partly decrease our ability to show empathy. He does not paint a doomsday picture of our future though, as he towards the ending of the article states, ‘we are clearly not a species that is devoid of empathic capabilities. Indeed modern humans spend a great deal of time and effort engaged in multimedia activities such as films, television, music, and even video games that induce empathic responding’ (16). Is this not counter arguing what I said he was saying at first, about empathy decreasing, you might ask. In fact it isn’t. Here we come full circle and must return to how empathy evolves throughout our upbringing. The issue seems to concern mainly babies and children of a young age. It is well known by now that the first few years of our lives are in many ways defining as to how we turn out as people in adult life, and this is no less true when it comes to empathy. Commons and Wolfsont sketch these developmental changes throughout growing up, and infants, according to research, develop mostly through sensory and motor actions. This requires investment of time from the infant’s parents, and this is where trouble may arise. It is a sad tendency that more and more people spend increasing amounts of time on their devices, even when they become parents. There is a risk of detachment between child and parent, or at least an encumbrance of the development of empathy. Why am I explaining all of this? Well, the latter developmental stages encourage a more abstract way of engaging with empathy, which also includes the use of stories and narrative. So usually at the time when people will begin engaging in video games based on narrative, they will be at such a developmental stage that they can engage and use the narrative to explore and use empathy.


Phew. I hope that wasn’t too tough to get through. I included it, as I believe it is important to know some of the theory behind what is discussed. And hopefully now, next time you feel empathy, you will know a little more about what is actually going on – your neurons mirroring what you observe to induce an emotional state, and your brain working hard on figuring out how the observed may feel, think and want.

So, to return to Star Wars. I felt really bad because, well I acted in hurtful ways towards some of the other characters. The hurt was expressed through facial expressions and tones of voices; these are cues I have learned to identify as a way of expressing a certain emotional state. I feel bad for them, because I recognise the fact that they weren’t feeling good. Not good at all. I then started feeling bad about myself, because I was the cause of their misery, something that certainly did not feel very good. It didn’t matter that these characters were just fictional, because my reactions were based on cues I, just like most other people, have learnt to react to through my upbringing. The story might be physical, but my feelings of empathy and guilt were real enough.

You do not need to be able to lable exactly what you have learned through a fictional story. It is merely the experience that is important. Although I might add, after playing Star Wars KOTOR, I am at least certain of the fact that I am not cut out to be a real life bad guy.

Thanks for reading! owl-clip-art-owl-green-polka-dot


Nelson, Eric E. 2012. The Neurobiological Basis of Empathy and its Development in the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness. ‘Evolution, Early Experience and Human Development’.

Commons, Micheal Lamport; Wolfsont, Chester Arnold. 2002. A complete theory of empathy must consider stage changes. BEHAVIORAL AND BRAIN SCIENCES 25:1.

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