Video Games and the Problem of Empathy

By Paul Pardo Cota, GUG Contributor

This article was edited to Geeks Under Grace standards, and the personal opinions of this author are not necessarily that of Geeks Under Grace.

A man hugs a girl

Warning: This piece contains spoilers for the following video games…


When I was writing the article “Religion and Violence in A Plague Tale: Requiem,” I interpreted how the characters in the A Plague Tale series interacted with one another in light of religious and anthropological theories of violence and desire. But looking back, I realize there was one important question I neglected to mention – perhaps the most important question of all: What was my own interaction as a player with the characters in the series? I didn’t stop to ask why I was feeling what I was feeling for the main characters as they went through brutal trials and tribulations.

Pondering this question, I found myself diving back into the rabbit hole of some of my favorite story-driven series: Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us and Telltale’s The Walking Dead. Both series have as their premise a male guardian figure with a troubled past who grows to develop an adoptive paternal bond with an orphaned little girl as they both struggle to navigate a world torn by zombies and depraved bandits while also being faced with impossible moral dilemmas that would determine their survival. Both games have received accolades from both critics and audiences alike.

In recent years, however, I noticed both series have also undergone some controversy, with the former getting a sequel that created a sharp divide in the fanbase and the latter getting a spin-off graphic novel series that left fans of the games confused at some of the creative decisions made for the main character’s story arc. While I find many of these criticisms to be entirely valid, what fascinated me even more was just how passionate and extreme many people were in voicing their views that The Last of Us: Part II and the Clementine Lives! comic and graphic novels seemed to have retrospectively ruined the series for them. So much so that fans of the first The Last of Us took to a concerted campaign of review bombing of the second game while fans of The Walking Dead games are calling for the graphic novels to become non-canon.

On paper, this doesn’t make much sense, and it is very easy to ask why so many people are getting worked up about a piece of fictional media. I wish it were as simple as, “It’s just a video game. Move on.” However, I recently came across a video titled “The Last of Us Changed My Life,” published in 2013 by YouTuber Grant Voegtle (who has since been hired by Naughty Dog as a video editor). In the video, he made some rather interesting points about how he not only related to but also connected with the main characters, which, to me, shed light on why there was so much backlash to The Last of Us: Part II and Clementine Lives! While there is more going on here than just action-adventure gaming experiences, I still feel something is missing in this raging discussion of whether or not video games could be classified as pieces of “fine art.” 

Video games offer the unique and (for now) exclusive medium of allowing us to directly interact with the fictional world and influence characters in a way that movies and literature can’t. In my view, it has everything to do with how they play to the basic, all-too-human dynamics of desire and empathy; I would even go as far as to say video games are the only medium for people to fully navigate and explore these traits in themselves due to the interactive nature of the story being experienced. While The Last of Us and The Walking Dead are certainly not the only narrative-driven stories that play to our innate desires and empathic intuitions, I still personally hold them to be prime examples of dramatic gaming narratives in mainstream pop culture.

Unfortunately, however, terms like “desire” and “empathy” have so many misconceptions and catch-all terms attached to them that shroud their fundamental nature (for example, the term “desire” is very often used to denote sexual interest, while the term “empathy” is often conflated with the term “sympathy” to the point where people believe they are interchangeable terms for basic emotional understanding for other people’s problems). To better understand both concepts as they would relate to our relationship with the narrative gaming medium, we would have to turn to two theories: Mimetic theory and the problem of empathy.

The first component to understanding our unique immersion in gaming narratives is the concept of mimesis, formulated by the French Catholic anthropologist René Girard. I had previously discussed Girard’s mimetic theory at length in my article analyzing A Plague Tale: Requiem, but his argument generally posits that a pattern of desire emerges when one person witnesses how another person patterns their own desires (which, ironically enough, is patterned on another person’s pattern of desires). This formulation is what Girard refers to as a triangular and mimetic structure of desire, where a subject is subconsciously or explicitly “manipulated” by a mediator to desire an object the former would not have otherwise desired in the first place. Before you desire an object, however, you either admire or envy the subject’s being. 

According to the main thesis in Girard’s 1961 book Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, it is this dynamic that forms the plots of so many works of classical literature, from Shakespeare to Cervantes to Dostoevsky. To give an example from Scripture, in Genesis 3:1-4, Eve didn’t want to know as God knows until the serpent communicated his own desire to dethrone God to her, leading her to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. There is the physical desire of Eve wanting to eat the fruit itself, but there is also the metaphysical desire of wanting to become more than God Himself. 

What this inevitably leads to is a conflict between the subject and mediator, though the reason could either be due to the object of manufactured desire becoming more lucrative or the actors seeking new ways to be unique and distinct from one another, which, paradoxically, leads to more intense mutual imitation (if a billionaire wants to show off to another billionaire that he has a Beverly Hills mansion with a Bugatti in his garage, then the other billionaire will ironically imitate their desire to be distinctly unique by buying a beach house in the Bahamas with a yacht). That conflict could escalate to the point where it might boil over into forms of violence as the actors vie for the object or metaphysical uniqueness.

To make matters worse, the violence itself becomes mimetic, and the actors enter into a positive feedback loop where each violent act taken only compounds the previous one until there is one left standing. When the conflict reaches such proportions that it collapses hierarchical and functional differences operating within society into nothing, the actors involved, refusing to acknowledge themselves as the originators of the violence, need to reconstitute some solidarity by concentrating all of the repressed violence in society against a singled-out, agreed-upon victim: A scapegoat. 

The mechanism that leads to this generative scapegoating is only further legitimized when the scapegoat succumbs to the perspective of the persecutor by either agreeing with them or seeking retaliation against them, which, ironically, is a further perpetuation of mimetic violence. The main thesis of Girard’s interpretation of Christ’s Passion Narrative in his 1982 book The Scapegoat is that because He neither agrees with nor resents the Pharisees and the Romans for setting aside their differences to conspire to sacrifice one to save the nation, as John 11:50 clearly shows, Christ’s Crucifixion is a complete revelation of the unconscious nature of the scapegoating mechanisms. Mechanisms that, according to Girard, lead us to “fetishize” violence as a solution or cathartic means to an end of our societal problems (Girard, The Scapegoat, 111).

The second component to understanding our unique immersion in gaming narratives is a particular understanding of empathy, as discussed by the German Catholic phenomenologist Edith Stein (now canonized by the Church as Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross). To better understand what empathy is, first, we have to know what it isn’t. Empathy isn’t simply the vicarious “walking in other peoples’ shoes” mindset we learned from To Kill a Mockingbird, where we imagine how we would feel in the other person’s situation. 

In such an exercise, the two subjects become indistinguishable from one another, and the condition for empathy being a transaction between two distinct and unique people would disappear; if the “I” doesn’t retain its character while submerged in a foreign experience of the world, the exercise would become a form of solipsism where you paradoxically don’t go beyond your own experience of the world. It simply isn’t “mind reading” either because (since we don’t have the brain tech to read minds yet) such mind reading requires us to infer by analogy what the other person is experiencing rather than what they might be experiencing; the inferential act provides a more or less probable knowledge of the other’s interior life rather than a direct perception of its reality.

For Stein, the act of empathy is intuitive; as she defines it in her 1916 dissertation On the Problem of Empathy, empathy is “the experience of foreign consciousness in general” (Stein, On the Problem of Empathy, 11). The German word Stein uses for empathy is “Einfühlung,” meaning “feeling into,” which was originally used to describe how one views a work of art, be it an immersion in the art’s aesthetic or an interpersonal exercise with the artist’s intentions. But this experience of foreign consciousness has two further components to it: The experience of what are called primordial content and non-primordial content. 

A girl looks out a car window as a man drives

While this might at first seem abstract when dealing with an emotional transaction between two people, Stein argues these components could also work to explain how memory functions. For example, when you go to a football game, your physical presence in and experience of the stadium itself is primordial in both experience and content; if 40 years later, you’re reflecting on the experience you had at the game, the game is no longer primordial in content, but your experience of it still is. 

The game is present in your consciousness as you remember, but it is not present in the moment. Empathy, like memory, is therefore a primordial experience with non-primordial content, though your primordial experience is rooted in the other person’s primordial experience. When you experience another person’s feelings, you experience their feelings as their own, and in so doing, you truly experience a felt sense of difference between yourself and the other’s “otherness.”

So how on Earth does this all apply to narrative video games? How can games like The Last of Us and The Walking Dead guide us to a better understanding of ourselves and our relationships with others? In the 2006 book The Architecture of Happiness by literary philosopher Alain de Botton, he writes in regards to the beauty of certain building designs that “…when we speak of being ‘moved’ by a building, we allude to a bitter-sweet feeling of contrast between the noble qualities written into a structure and the sadder wider reality within which we know them to exist. A lump rises in our throat at the sight of beauty from an implicit knowledge that the happiness it hints at is the exception” (De Botton, The Architecture of Happiness, 22). 

When we perceive beauty (be it in art, music, or literature), there is a cognitive dissonance between what we perceive and what we know the average in our life to be, and to fix the discontinuity, we cry. While both The Last of Us and The Walking Dead are technical marvels of storytelling and have an impressive aesthetic through their graphics, mechanics, animations, and sound design, the worlds depicted in both series are cruel, brutal, and morbid at times. On the surface, there is nothing beautiful about the games compared to our own wider reality; if anything, we don’t envy the characters’ situations and it shows us just how good we have it compared to them.

The fine art in these games that makes us cry is arguably not in the games themselves, but in the characters’ experience of their worlds; specifically, how the games allow us to both directly interface and interact with them. In some meta sense, the game removes us from one sad wider reality to another; from our relatively routine everyday lives to one filled with unpredictable perils. Granted, this makes for some rather enjoyable gameplay at times, but for the worlds of The Last of Us and The Walking Dead series, there exists a ludo narrative consonance where the narrative told through gameplay and story are the same, which keeps the gameplay from breaking our immersion of the story. In The Last of Us, Joel’s brutal killing of zombies and bandits in gameplay is consistent with his troubled past and skills as a former bandit himself. In The Walking Dead series, Telltale was careful to craft how the decisions Lee and Clementine made are rooted in the consequences of other decisions they had made.

While in some segments we do have fun, I’d argue that for most segments, we are biting our nails and on the edge of our seats as we wonder what plot twist is lurking around the corner for our protagonists. We “share” the gameplay with the protagonists. Their actions are our actions, and at the same time in our imagination, we subconsciously suspend our roles as the players making their choices through the controller/keyboard. On the surface, this looks very much like Stein’s criticism that empathy is merely “walking in another person’s shoes,” but nothing could be further from the truth. This isn’t simply a role-playing game like Skyrim or World of Warcraft where you and the character are the same. The aforementioned Grant Voegtle said it best in his video on The Last of Us’ characters:

“The Last of Us is a linear story [with one beginning and one end]…The player is not meant to be Joel or Ellie…In [role-playing games], often, you can customize your character’s appearance to match yours or to match whatever you want them to look like because this character is meant to represent you or whatever you want that character to represent. Joel and Ellie, however, are themselves. Playing the game is only meant to serve as a window into their thoughts and emotions that you can peer through. [Emphasis mine]”

After the zombie outbreak in the prologue for The Last of Us, when Joel sobs as his young daughter Sarah dies in his arms after getting shot in cold blood, we can’t relate to how he would feel as a father experiencing the loss of a child since many of us are not parents ourselves. This is made worse by the fact Sarah is the first character we play as in the game before switching perspectives with Joel; we experience the outbreak as a little girl who is scared and confused, and as we play as her, we fear not for our safety, but for her safety; our first impression of the game is her perspective, and when our first impression dies innocent and suffering, it carves something out from within us. The subjective individuality of the player is still retained while submerged in the characters’ experiences. Though we play as Joel and Sarah in the prologue, which allows us to completely experience their experiences, we experience them as their own and not ours.

The last episode for The Walking Dead: Season 1 achieves this same effect by doing the inverse: For the entire game, you play as Lee, the paternal guardian to the little girl Clementine. But when Lee begins succumbing to a zombie bite, in his weakened state, he makes Clem choose between shooting or leaving him cuffed to a radiator. The impossible choice is presented to us as two button prompts for dialogue choices: Shoot Lee or leave him. When we see those prompts, our hearts break for Lee because while we are seeing it and even choosing for him what to say, we can’t possibly imagine having to force a child to forsake her innocence by leaving you to die for her survival. We experience this impossible choice as his impossible choice even if we make it for him.

What this seems to demonstrate is that the video game story itself is non-primordial in content (it is not our story, but the character’s story), but it is primordial in experience. So how are games different from film and literature? As we empathize with the characters, we aren’t simply passive observers confined to the reception of information. Video games allow us, the players, to actively engage in the non-primordial content. We “share” the gameplay and story with the protagonists as a primordial experience, but we also have agency as to how the non-primordial content plays out! Because we can influence the non-primordial content in this manner, our emotional attachment to the characters we play deepens all the more. When the screen gets red as you’re running out of health from too many zombie hordes ganging up on you, you don’t experience the content of being injured, but you experience the character’s own experience of that pain.

We “feel into” the lives of the game’s characters.

But there is also something to be said about how the player-character interface displaces our sense of reality. In the 1927 book Being and Time by the German phenomenologist Martin Heidegger, he claims technology generally comes with its own way of “seeing” the world. When you use a hammer, you don’t focus on the hammer itself (shape, material, size, weight, etc.); it disappears out of your immediate consciousness as you focus on the nail or the surface you’re hammering. You “adopt” the hammer as an extension of yourself and feel the end of the hammer hitting the nail. A clearer example might be when you parallel park a car. You don’t have to see the outside of the car and fixate on the steering wheel, gear shift, or pedals to “sense” where the entire car is in space. 

Similarly, when you’re engaged in gameplay or immersed in a character’s story, you don’t simply disengage with your normal reality, but engage with a new one with cruel characteristics that make new cathartic “exceptions” possible. In other words, a world with hypothetical tragedies that make release from them more satisfying in a way the real world you are already familiar with cannot achieve. A world where, after all the dirt and grueling survival, you can catch your breath and appreciate life in a new way. The very fact you control the character’s actions means you enter into a new state of being where your subjectivity is completely immersed in someone else’s.

You don’t imagine how you would feel in the character’s situation because you are technically already in the character’s situation, and you still have your own feelings as you react to the situation transpiring in real-time. You don’t actively try to reason your way into the character’s head because you want to know more than simply what is probably or probably not going through the character’s head. Our primordial experiences as players remain unique and distinct from the protagonist’s, but they are formed in parallel to them.

A man holds a girls face in his hands

Along with empathy, we also on some level imitate the character’s desires as our own. In both The Last of Us and The Walking Dead, we have as a categorical imperative the safeguarding of a child, but we also understand through the story that there is something more going on in the guardian’s heads: The children grow on them. As the children grow on the protagonists, they also grow on us. We experience how the characters’ circumstances and relationships shape and reorient their desires. We subconsciously identify those desires, and we intuitively feel ourselves desiring that same sense of hope and love within the scope of that zombie-filled world as well: A healthy form of mimesis. Healthy desires that, as the Trappist theologian Thomas Merton claims, are rooted in the true self as opposed to the false self (the false self being the one filled with inauthentic desires that lead to destructive tendencies). However, the games do so in a way film or literature have yet to achieve. Why?

This is where I come back to Grant Voegtle’s video on The Last of Us. Not only does he point out exactly how we empathize with the characters’ world in a linear narrative, but also how even the little things in the characters add to our sense of connection to them. It’s moments of small talk, banter, and offhand remarks that are ultimately immaterial to the main plot and even themes of the story. It’s Ellie talking about gnomes, ice cream trucks, comic books, and arcade games; it’s not just moments like Ellie touching a giraffe with wonder, but also quirks like her randomly making spaceship or rock metal raspberry noises, reading from a joke book, playing pretend to check into a hotel, and not knowing how to swim. All of these add more gravity to each peril Joel and Ellie endure, from Joel being impaled by a piece of rebar to Ellie almost getting butchered by cannibals.

Characterizations like these create an illusion of a genuine connection to a real person who is actually a fictional avatar that was intricately rendered and animated through state-of-the-art motion capture technology and programmed into the game. If a book or movie attempted the same thing, it would likely drag the plot and lead many audience members to question, “What was the point of that?” The point in the video game is that it adds nothing to the plot, but adds so much depth and nuance to the character who drives the plot. You are free to pay as much or as little attention as you want to these interactions as you deal with other pressing matters like searching for supplies and ammo.

As Grant Voegtle said, it was “a display in reaction so true to Ellie’s character and so fitting to the scenario, that I had no choice but to believe in a character I knew was fictional…The Last of Us made me lie to myself without my own consent.” Voegtle even went as far as to say these little interactions combined with the overall narrative made him want to have a daughter. Everything that happens in the game mediates our desire for a relationship like the one Joel and Ellie have with each other in our own lives. This is the exception from the sadder wider reality of the game. The little flower in the middle of a muddy cemetery. We love Ellie as an end in itself amidst the carnage of the apocalypse, but we also love her for what that relationship with her says about ourselves.

This comes to a head at the climax of The Last of Us, where, after Joel learns Ellie’s immunity to the zombie disease can create vaccines that can save humanity at the cost of harvesting her brain, he decides to kill the surgeon who was about to kill her. Voegtle points out how players must have felt in that moment when they entered the clinic and came face-to-face with the surgeons, regardless of whether or not the players agreed with Joel’s actions. The debate about sacrificing Ellie to save the world is ultimately a question of justifiability, meaning it is still open whether or not Joel did the right thing by stopping the surgeon. But there is no question about the understandability of Joel’s actions because we as the player grew to know Ellie as one of our own. He killed the surgeon because Ellie was the only thing left in the world worth saving.

A man has his arm around a girl

I’d argue a similar phenomenon was at play throughout all four seasons of Telltale’s The Walking Dead, but with the additional feature of the player having the ability to choose what the characters say! As a determinant, decision-based story game series with button prompts for dialogue choices or actions, everything you do and say has consequences your character might suffer down the line; whether you agree or disagree with what other characters want or say will greatly affect your relationship with other characters you interact with; at pivotal moments, the save icon will even show up in the upper corner of the screen saying, “S/He will remember that.” Speaking from my own experiences, there were times when I even felt guilty about certain choices to the point I wanted to replay the entire episode again just to take it back.

The first season of The Walking Dead has us play as Lee as we shape Clem through life lessons we give her and lead by example. After Lee’s death, the following three seasons of the series have us play as Clem as we apply what she had learned from the decisions we made through Lee. Whatever choices we made through Lee funnels the course of whatever choices Clem makes going forward. I will say one criticism I have of seasons 2-4 is there is a very sloppy narrative structure, as Clem jumps from one group to another while people around her drop like flies. The story doesn’t seem to have some ultimate aim or underlying theme other than the fact the world is brutish and unforgiving. If anything, the only thing giving Clementine purpose through these three seasons other than carrying the memory of Lee is her relationship with AJ, who is born in the middle of Season 2 and grows up to the age of 5 in Season 4 under Clem’s protection.

A girl drives as a younger child sits in the back of the car

But despite this flaw, a mythos seems to have grown up around the character Clementine grew to be, not only rooted in how Lee took care of her, but how she now cares for AJ. Why? Because when we made all of the difficult decisions we made, we didn’t know we were giving the characters a part of ourselves. We were growing up with Clementine, exploring new decisions and new contingent story paths to see how they affect her growth as a character through her relationships with others. Through four choices at every beat of dialogue, we are immediately influencing and involved in who the characters are. We identify with them more as we participate in their interior personalities even if their experience of their relationships and perils are their own experiences and not ours. We love Lee and Clem not for specific character traits since they are determinant on our decisions, but we love them because we shared metaphysically in their growth. Regardless of what happened to the content of their characters, it was all still rooted in their relationships with those closest to them.

A girl holds a gun with a child next to her

In my opinion, this is why there was so much backlash against the new Clementine graphic novel series – not simply because there was poor character verisimilitude when Clem made the unbelievable decision of abandoning AJ after all they’ve been through together to search for some new life (though that remains the central reason from a narrative perspective), but because it took that control away from us as gamers by shifting our interface with Clem to a completely different medium. This version of Clementine is unrecognizable from who we knew her to be because we don’t get to participate in her interior life anymore; we’ve returned to being a spectator, and can no longer empathize with Clem the way we’re used to empathizing with her. This is made worse by the fact that in Clementine: Book Two, there is not a single reference to Clem’s past with Lee and AJ when the whole point of the games is that all of her decisions are rooted in what Lee did for her and what she did for AJ.

The reasons for the controversy for The Last of Us: Part II, however, are completely different. In sum, the game’s story retcons the brain surgeon who almost kills Ellie at the end of the first game by having him be the father of a girl named Abby. The daughter, traumatized by her father’s violent death, then hunts down Joel in the second game and tortures him to death with a golf club while forcing Ellie to watch it all unfold. The first half has us play as Ellie on a revenge quest for Abby while the second half has us play as Abby as we understand her reasoning for killing Joel and trying to find redemption from it by rescuing a child from religious extremists.

The game is an attempt to comment on the nature of the cycle of violence. In that moment we see Abby kill Joel in cold blood, we experience with Ellie a range of emotions from shock and despair to hatred and bloodlust, and we would have liked nothing more than to deal unto Abby what she dealt unto Joel. Then, as we continue to fester in this quest for vengeance against Abby, the game has us shift perspectives with Abby and see her gain noble and selfless qualities towards the child she rescues; a deliberate mirroring of the relationship Joel had with Ellie.

A girl leans on a child

This decision to allow us to play the perspective of an antagonist who suffered the consequences of actions we committed in the first game is an admittedly ballsy story beat. The game even has us play as Abby as we try to kill Ellie at a climactic point in the game! But if YouTube walkthrough videos like those of Pewdiepie, TheRadBrad, H2ODelirious, AngryJoe, and The Closer Look are any indication, most of us have at this point tried to “sabotage” Abby during this segment by deliberately putting Abby in compromising situations so Ellie could have the opportunity to kill her in some vague and unrealistic hope it would change the overall narrative somehow.

Why has Naughty Dog, for the most part, apparently failed to effectively disabuse the players of their hatred towards Abby? To better understand this, recall how the Passion Narrative of Christ disabused us of the mechanisms that lead to such contagious hatred: The victim is neither positively nor negatively complicit in the perspective of His persecutors. He does not feed into the violence committed against Him, and He does not vindicate or vilify His persecutors for what they do to Him. Naughty Dog did a fantastic job of illustrating how the mimetic conflict between Ellie and Abby escalates, but the characters we engage with both vilify the other perspective and vindicate their own. Abby never changes her mind that Joel needs to die for his sins, and Ellie only changes her mind that Abby needs to die at the very end after she kills dozens of people to make her way to her. Moreover, while Abby and Ellie imitate one another’s desire to kill the other, we as the player also imitate those violent desires as we play as them. Even if the game’s message is that the cycle of violence is bad, through the gameplay itself, we ultimately continue to “fetishize” violence as a cathartic release.

René Girard’s mimetic theory argues Christ’s Crucifixion is unique precisely because most (if not all) of the world’s literary and religious texts have at their core the authorial perspective of the persecutor, where all characters, including the victim, only prove violence is the answer to pacify the mob and satisfy the gods. The Gospels don’t take the perspective of the persecutor, but rather, the perspective of the victim. It’s therefore difficult to see the mechanisms that lead to mimetic violence if you buy into the perspective and/or participate in it. In Part II, we do see the escalating cycle of mimetic violence, but the characters’ mutual hatred of one another combined with the player’s active participation in that violence through their perspectives doesn’t allow us to impartially see the mechanisms for what they are. The message is overlooked and we are left dissatisfied that neither of the characters was satisfied with what they both set out to accomplish.

But if the point of the game was to have us empathize with both characters, why have many players failed to empathize with even Ellie’s character arc? The reason for the divide within the fanbase was that, when Abby killed Joel, the feeling was not so much loss as it was outrage, not towards Abby, but to the game itself. The circumstances leading up to Joel’s death felt so unbelievable and contrived that we feel we could see the author’s intention to create shock value and plant the seed of intrigue as to Abby’s motivations. 

Why? To return to Martin Heidegger’s hammer example, he claimed it’s only when the hammer breaks that we see our own relationship with the hammer: We either need to fix or replace it. As this applies to our lack of empathy for Ellie in Part II, we stop seeing real people and start seeing written characters. We see the author’s attempt to be experimental rather than the character’s experience of the world. By attempting to be an avant-garde deconstruction of traditional story structure, the narrative points itself out as “daring,” but in so doing, it inadvertently points itself out as an avant-garde story rather than an authentic experience of the world. The theme of the mimetic cycle of violence therefore gets in the way of us empathizing with the characters.

Be that as it may, I don’t wish to end this article on a disparaging note; if anything, I commend the developers at Naughty Dog for taking this immense risk to try and offer insight into our relationship with mimetic violence. On some level, I’d even say it’s agreeable to Christian sensibilities of mercy and forgiveness. But what both The Last of Us games and all four seasons of The Walking Dead seem to demonstrate is linear narratives in video games are a way to navigate how we can fully perceive reality alongside someone. As I came to realize this, I was reminded of a concluding remark on Stein’s phenomenology of empathy made by Nikolas Prassas of the University of Oxford:

“An empathic act…is that act by which I am brought into the life of a foreign consciousness as a zero point of orientation in the world…When we attempt to think what it would be to hold in our apperceptive grasp the life of every [person] simultaneously and stand with each at their point of consciousness, we are given some sense, although an infinitely weak and finally fugitive sense, of what it might mean to know the Mind of God.”

Whether it’s an estranged father or an innocent little girl, we get this sense there’s something more to who these fictional characters are rather than just a fictional character. In the sadder wider reality of zombies, despair, cannibalism, and meaningless violence, Ellie and Clementine are the exception. We want to see them grow and survive. We want them to see a world where they don’t have to lose their innocence. As we get to know their internal conflict and understand them for who they are, we begin seeing in them a simulation of what God sees in all of us, and in so doing, understand what it means to be made in His loving Image.


Alain de Botton, The Architecture of Happiness, (2008)

Edith Stein, On the Problem of Empathy, translated by Waltraut Stein, (1964)

Grant Voegtle, “The Last of Us Changed My Life,”, (2013)

Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, translated by John Macquarrie & Edward Robinson, (2019)

Nikolas Prassas, “Empathy and the Constitution of the self in the Philosophy of Edith Stein,”, (2015)

René Girard, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, translated by Yvonne Freccero, (1976)

René Girard, The Scapegoat, translated by Yvonne Freccero, (1986)
Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, (2007)

About the Author

Paul Pardo Cota holds a B.A. in political science and religious studies from the College of the Holy Cross. When he isn’t reading thriller novels or cross-country running, he enjoys watching and talking about Star Wars.

This article was edited to Geeks Under Grace standards, and the personal opinions of this author are not necessarily that of Geeks Under Grace.

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