On Experience-Taking

This is a quick bit of writing about “experience-taking,” which is a term created by Lisa Libby and Geoff Kaufman, from Ohio State and Dartmouth, respectively. If you don’t care about what I have to say about it, just read an article about the whole thing here. 

The general concept revolves around how readers of fiction react to that fiction. Libbyy and Kaufman’s paper, based on experiments, asserts that readers of texts can sometimes take on the emotions of characters in the text. The study took an extra step and found that those who read about characters who were different from themselves became more compassionate toward the people of that group.

“When you share a group membership with a character from a story told in first-person voice, you’re much more likely to feel like you’re experiencing his or her life events,” Libby said. “And when you undergo this experience-taking, it can affect your behavior for days afterwards.”

While people are more likely to lose themselves in a character who is similar to themselves, what happens if they don’t learn that a character is not similar until later in a story?

In one experiment, 70 male, heterosexual college students read a story about a day in the life of another student. There were three versions – one in which the character was revealed to be gay early in the story, one in which the student was identified as gay late in the story, and one in which the character was heterosexual.

Results showed that the students who read the story where the character was identified as gay late in the narrative reported higher levels of experience-taking than did those who read the story where the character’s homosexuality was announced early.

Experience-taking is a measure of compassion combined with an affective affinity–the reader of the story becomes drawn to the character; the lines between the real and the fiction begin to melt.

While this has application for fiction, it is hyper-applicable to studies of video game narratives. Instead of reading about what the character experienced and then being compassionate to them, we instead experience the event at the same moment the character does. On face, I think that probably supercharges the ability for the player to develop new subjectivities in the face of the game–we can become different people, and through that, we can better understand certain scenarios (like war) or positions of power.

But there is also a part of me that thinks that it could have the opposite effect. There is something powerful that happens when you read a particularly powerful narrative. For instance, my own work/readings in domestic violence has led me to some incredibly moving narratives from victims of domestic violence. There is a lot that goes into making those narratives powerful, and maybe the most important thing is that it is spoken from a subjective experience. A story is situated in a person, in a body, with affective and emotional content that gets communicated verbally and nonverbally.

Most of that narrative, that becoming-story, is lost in an actual encounter. Does a digital moment of experience-taking facilitate that uptake as well as an analog one? Or does it just matter that we get lost in the diegetic, absorbing whatever we can?

I have heard that you can access the full pdf of the original article here.

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