Catharsis – Pity and Fear

I was talking to my friend about horror & thriller films, and the subject of Catharsis came up.

He told me, “I don’t understand why someone who is so afraid of something would watch a film about it to frighten themselves.”

Some fears are universal, such as the fear of rejection. Some are personal, due to traumas of any magnitude, or very real threats such as abusive adults, natural disaster, illness, or snakes or spiders (personal anecdote: around the time I started getting parasthesia, I also had a nightmare about spiders–a real threat where I grew up–attacking and crawling all over me. I’ve lived with a controlled phobia since then).

But because we have the ability to empathise, when we emotionally invest in characters who experience fear, we can allow ourselves to actually feel those feelings that we hope we won’t have to actually feel in response to events in our own, real life. When we choose to watch something, we’re choosing to experience it in a safe (ie, not-real-world, no lasting implications) way. When we watch something that frightens us, we identify with the person it happens to, we feel that what happens to them is happening to us (which is why we will, for example, hold our hand during a scene when someone’s hand is crushed); yet, importantly, we also know that it isn’t us, and we feel relieved. That’s catharsis. We feel emotions for something that’s happening to someone else, and emotions about knowing isn’t happening to us – relief, without a lingering sense of guilt about our relief.

Why do we seek these feelings out? Well, it feels good. It feels good that we are safe, and that we can be happy about it in a way that we know isn’t actually sadistic or voyeuristic- a way of avoiding “it should have been me,” in favour of “it could have been me.

It’s a way of playing with a feeling, a fear, or a dark desire, without needing to actually encounter it in the real world where there may be lasting repercussions. Rather than suppress the forbidden thought or emotion, we can play with it, and teach ourselves how to overcome it.

We don’t become desensitized to the horror, violence, or evil. We become desensitized to our feelings of fear and powerlessness. We’re training ourselves how to deal with fear.

Don’t be it, just experience it

I just finished reading the GDC talk by Richard Lemarchand, Lead Games Designer at Naughty Dog, “Attention, not Immersion.” Firstly, I highly recommend reading it if you haven’t and didn’t see it at GDC.

But I actually wanted to post about something he mentions about 1/7th of the way through (pages 17 & 18)…

If I could reach into your mind, make you forgot who you were while leaving your
skills and emotions intact, and have you literally believe that you were Nathan Drake,
hanging out the back of a cargo plane with the desert floor a quarter-mile below you,
and gun-wielding enemies above you, you probably wouldn’t be excited and
entertained in the way that everyone at Naughty Dog hopes for, for players of our
games…
…you’d almost certainly be scared witless! No disrespect, you understand.

Continue reading “Don’t be it, just experience it”

New Behaviour: Observed before Trained

I was reading in a handy/cheap book called “50 Psychology Ideas You Really Need To Know” about theories of how we learn. What struck me was Albert  Bandura’s Social Learning Theory, particularly observational learning (aka modelling), which states that our first stage of learning new behaviour is through observation. We watch someone else perform a task, we see their success, and then we go into the next stage- we attempt to mimic, or practice. Now, a lot of people get all uppity about how video games are a bad influence. They teach us to be bad people: violent, aggressive, with no regard for other people. Well, if they didn’t already have a belief that this was a good idea, why would they even be drawn to play such games? We seem to have no problem with violent, aggressive behaviour in film (Actually, the book says this: “Hence the power of television and films to encourage behaviour change through the use of attractive, trustworthy actors doing particular things for specific rewards” p175). The argument seems to be, “Well, that’s just watching another person. In video games, you’re actually encouraged to BE that person!” Continue reading “New Behaviour: Observed before Trained”