During recent debates on the matter of the emotional impact in gaming, people tend to forget one very important reaction to virtual worlds, a reaction both profound and necessary for a satisfying gaming experience: empathy.
A force that enables us to identify and feel with a distant being, empathy in ICO showed us how to care for someone else, The Sims made us look out for somebody leading the alternate life we maybe always dreamed of, and Tropico sparked empathy for a whole nation and its inhabitants.
This kind of virtual compassion makes use of an effect which is probably as old as gaming itself—when a child plays with his favorite cuddly toy, it will name it and it will take on a personality of its own. Humans are very good at granting lifeless objects an independent character; why else would we be able to take two dots and a dash for a face? This phenomenon does not blur the line between fantasy and reality no matter if the target of our empathy is rather abstract, like a crudely manufactured teddy bear or very close to the real thing, like a beautifully rendered avatar with an outstanding AI. We know it's just a game, and a constant reassurance that it isn't happening in the real world would not only take out all the fun it, it would furthermore contradict the immersing process of playing itself. Like a child with its teddy bear, we convince ourselves that the world on the other side of the screen is an independent entity of its own. That's the beauty of gaming.
Nintendo's Nintendogs, which started a world wide craze last year, is a lecture on empathy in games par excellence, basically an enhanced version of the Tamagotchi principle. But instead of a fantasy creature, the player takes care of up to three puppies of various breeds. I chose, in agreement with my girlfriend, a female beagle which we named Holly. From then on Holly has become a good friend of the family. It is amazing how attached we grew to her and we certainly wouldn't have if Nintendogs weren't also a very nicely executed piece of software.
First of all, Holly is animated very well. Her motions are fluid and resemble for the greatest part those of a real life puppy, as does her behavior in general. Holly demands food, water and bathing on a regular basis. Furthermore, two extensive walks a day with stops at the park to play a little, are her minimum workout plan. In return she sometimes does what she is supposed to in one of the three available trials: obedience, agility and disc competition. Those earn us the money to keep up with Holly's demands. One interesting feature is the fact that Nintendogs has a built-in playtime limitation. Each puppy can only learn a certain number of tricks at a time and participate in a limited amount of competitions a day. Nintendogs is no highly immersing single player experience, but a cozy place to retreat to now and then. But since the puppy has a personality of its own it is not always as cozy as it could be. In fact Holly turned out to be quite stubborn from time to time, to a degree where we started wondering whether we are playing her or vice versa.
Nintendogs puts the DS's touchscreen and microphone features to excellent use. The controls are intuitive to a degree that one can hand the game to almost anybody without a word of explanation and they will start petting and playing as if they never had anything better to do with their lives. While this fact accords to Nintendo's strategy to claim new markets, it doesn't seem to spoil the fun for more experienced gamers. On the contrary. Nintendogs' accessible game play quickly turned me into a drooling idiot whenever something cute happened on screen. Look, a new hat for Holly. Oh my, how cute. While in reality I absolutely despise people who dress up their pets because in my opinion it's a bit odd to disguise a member of the animal kingdom as a little human, nothing is too fancy for my beagle princess in the mind-numbing realm of Nintendog-Land.
After a while, though, the gameplay can get rather tedious due to its basic premise: teaching my pet stuff (from a behavioral biology standpoint) relies on constant repetition of the same action. That's how puppies learn. This repetition doesn't minimize the initial fun and excitement of Nintendogs, but it points to a very serious real life issue. People eventually get bored with their pets and stop caring as much as they should. After a couple of weeks other games demanded more attention and suddenly caring for Holly was more from my guilty conscience than from joy. Responsibilities were discussed, and even a few accusations had been spoken. The puppy suddenly felt like a burden, and eventually our interest withered.
But no matter how long the puppy love lasts, Nintendogs is certainly an innovative enrichment to the medium. If we assume that videogames are partly about realizing control-fantasies, Nintendogs is about the absolute opposite. Coping with the stubborn and playfully anarchic mindset of a puppy can teach gamers an important lesson: learn to let go. Because deep beneath Nintendogs's furry, cuddly surface lies a demonic truth: the dog is the one in charge. I am just her toy.