A few weeks ago I contributed to the script for an episode of Game/Show, the YouTube web series put on by PBS. The episode was about why we form attachments and emotional connections with video game characters when we know very well that they’re not real. Here, you can watch the episode below. You should also subscribe to Game/Show via their YouTube page; they put out new episodes every week.
I had some leftover material that wasn’t used in the video, so I thought I’d throw together a quick article using it. You’re reading that article RIGHT NOW!
Video games often make us feel real emotions for such NPCs, so much so that we sometimes feel like we have a real relationship with them. Ellie from The Last of Us is a strong example of this. By the end of that game I cared about what happened to her, hated seeing her endangered, and wanted to see things turn out well for her. All this despite the fact that she didn’t even know I existed, much less give a flip about me.
Granted, this isn’t new or unique to video games. The Greeks were making audiences react to plays full of actors thousands of years ago. But I think video games are unique among different kinds of media in their ability to create these kinds of characters and relationships and Ellie is emblematic of that. To understand why, let’s look at a concept that communications and psychology researchers call “parasocial relationships.” In the 1950s, social psychologists became interested in how people relate to characters, news anchors, and variety show hosts that they saw on television. The term “parasocial relationship” was made famous in a 1956 paper by Donald Horton and Richard Wohl1 in which they explored the phenomenon of people relating to TV characters as if they knew each other. They noted that if a person had such a relationship with a television figure, he/she was more likely to be engaged in the show, trust the person more, and genuinely felt intimacy with him/her.
A 2011 review of the literature on parasocial relationships published in the Journal of Communication2 summarized several characteristics of the media figure that facilitate a stronger parasocial relationship:
- Addressing the viewers directly (e.g., looking at them, saying “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen”)
- Using nonverbal communication to acknowledge the viewer (e.g., facing the camera, making eye contact with the camera)
- How good looking the person on camera is
- The ability of the viewer to see things from the media figure’s point of view (i.e., how relatable the figure is)
The researchers had subjects watch an actress they had employed to make a simple video while manipulating these variables. And indeed they found that people increased a sense of having a parasocial relationship with the woman who displayed all four characteristics. They also found that viewers enjoyed the film more and conformed to social norms as if the filmed woman were actually there. People said it would have been rude if they turned off the TV in the middle of the lady’s program. It would also be rude to –and this is my favorite part — pick their nose while the woman was on screen.
So minus the nose picking, let’s keep this in mind and take another look at Ellie from The Last of Us. It turns out that she nails three out of the four characteristics listed above.
First, Ellie addresses the player directly. Well, almost directly. She talks to us through Joel, and to the extent that players embody or role-play Joel while playing, it feels direct. Even if this seems like a stretch, consider how often Ellie seems to react specifically to things that the player has agency over, from conversing with Joel when he inspect items in the world, to exclamations when Joel kills someone, to the player’s prompting Ellie to solve some environmental obstacle when Joel is moved into position. Ellie also often says things or offers advice to no one in particular that can be construed as also being said for the player’s benefit. At any rate, she responds way more directly than any TV character could.3
Second, Ellie is –to use the term broadly– attractive. She’s obviously not meant to be sexually attractive to Joel or any player who has business playing a M-rated game, but her character design is such that she’s clearly not supposed to be hideous.
Third, Ellie makes it easy to relate to her and to her relationship with Joel. This is, in fact, the most powerful item in her parasocial relationship toolbox. Ellie creates a situation that many players can identify with: protecting a child, then stressing out as she gets more and more in danger in the course of growing up. We can easily think of emotions, drives, and mental states to project onto her given her situation, even though they aren’t made explicit. In fact, as I’ll talk about in a separate article, we are hard wired to expect these kinds of internal thoughts and motivations, and will accept them if they form a good explanation for what we see. In short, Ellie and her situation makes it easy for us to fill in the gaps in her character and to understand her point of view. She even acts as a stand-in for the player in terms of experiencing new things in the game world. After leaving Boston, most of the zombies, locations, and rules of survival she encounters are as new to her as they are to the player. We’ve got that in common with her.
So Ellie hits (or in this case, shivs) most of the triggers for parasocial relationships. To tie things up, let’s step outside that topic and consider some related research on the psychology of interpersonal attraction. Again, I’m using the term “attraction” broadly here, to mean how likable a person or character is. Research on interpersonal attraction of this sort has found that we tend to like people who are attractive in one or more of three ways:
- Physically attractive (they look good)
- Socially attractive (they are friendly, nice to be around)
- And task attractive (they are useful to us)
Again, Ellie hits on all three. First, as noted, she has an appealing character design. Second, while she’s initially abrasive and emotionally distant, by the middle of the game when our relationship with her is most important and strongest, Ellie is pleasant and charming. Finally, she’s task attractive in that she’s useful to have around in a couple of ways: she helps navigate the environment and she will sometimes call out important items or locations.4
So that’s why we like Ellie so much. And Clementine. And Elizabeth. And Claptrap.5 Not every character elicits such strong feelings of a relationship, nor need they. Sometimes you just want somebody disposable there soaking up damage or nuking the area with firestorms. And sometimes you want someone –I’m looking at you, Lydia from Skyrim— who will carry all the stuff that you hoover out of dungeons. It all depends on the design goals of the game and what the player wants out of it But for a good example of a fake person custom-made to elicit real feels, you can’t do a lot better than Ellie. Though I have to admit it would be nice if she’s learn to swim, already.