Criticisms of violence in games are essentially about a lack of empathy. Behavior modeling, presented in person or via media (like games), are a constant source of learning...for adults as well (learning how to live doesn't end in our teens or twenties). Questions about the appropriateness and nature of violence in art have been raised since Plato, if not before. The main concern has always been that art must not discourage empathy where empathy is due; conversely, it should encourage perverse empathy (anything good can be perverted into an evil shadow).
Where empathy is due is a matter of reasonable debate, but let's explore methods of its communication. If nothing more, perhaps this will help some of us to achieve our goal of making game stories (verbal and non-verbal) as compelling as celebrated dramatic works.
In Gears of War, the player can smile as his character takes the face off an enemy with a chainsaw and says "Nice!". The player is able to enjoy this because of disassociation. He perceives the enemy as an object, rather than a person with whom he can empathize.
In Call of Duty: 2, the player can see a fellow soldier ripped to shreds by machinegun fire and never think of the fallen soldier again. In real war, it may often be necessary to focus on one's enemy before looking to one's fallen comrade, but would one simply leave the mate behind like dropped popcorn?
In games like Neverwinter Nights, in which the player may choose between a variety of henchmen, I'd venture to say that few players choose a particular henchmen for more than complimentary powers or skills. How often does the NPC's personality come into play?
PERSONAL, NOT HUMAN
Empathetic value results from a perception of personal kinship, rather than of human kinship.
The Locust in Gears of War are what we often call "humanoid", separated from humanity by only a handful of characteristics. Their similarity to humans...in body, behavior, and language...is an appeal to empathy, but falls short enough that most Western guys aren't afraid to laugh as we slice our enemy in half.
Now consider a wild, snarling Rottweiler. Could most players saw through the dog's head with as much glee as they would a Locust? I doubt it. But they might still enjoy it.
What if the dog was not aggressive? What if it stood before the player with its head down in submission? What if it seemed happy to see the player, wagging its tail excitedly? How would it feel then for the player to saw the animal's body in two?
Lastly, think back to the Locust of Gears of War, and try to imagine one that was culturally and personally unlike its fellows. Try to imagine one without menace in its expression as it sits back and smokes on a pipe. Imagine one smiling as it watches two young squirrels chase each other around a tree. Ugly as the Locust is, would you then still feel fine carving it into a bloody mess?
IT'S NOT COMPLEXITY
Things don't need to be complex or even have cognition to be objects of empathy.
Southerners often perceive an old Live Oak much the same as they would perceive an old person. It's almost criminal to kill a tree that's lived over a century just because you don't like the inconvenience of having to build around it. We perceive the tree as a living being that has outlasted many hardships and has a wealth of experience, much like a person. Bear in mind, these aren't tree-huggers I'm talking about; these are no-nonsense country folks. I'm sure people from all parts of the nation, all parts of the world, perceive their own local trees in a similar light sometimes.
The point is that even a tree, an inanimate object, can take on aspects of personhood and have empathetic value.
THINGS TO TRY
How about tackling that muddy ground of distinguishing between an "enemy" (a label which discourages empathy) and an ally? In the early years of World War I, German and English soldiers once sang Christmas songs together from their separate trenches. Some even got out to shake hands and share Christmas gifts. This is an exceptional example of empathy between enemies, but it is common for soldiers to witness acts and objects which encourage such empathy (if only temporarily).
In a video game, a player could be encouraged to sneak slowly upon his enemy. During the approach, the player might witness any number of empathy-encouraging acts...such as talk of children, talk of home or favorite meals, whistling a familiar tune, exhibiting symptoms of a cold, etc.. This does create a more serious tone and a greater degree of care expected of the game developer. But as I've said before, "games" don't need to be fun; they need to be appealing, and that may be as Saving Private Ryan or Schindler's List were appealing.
Keep in mind, empathy for enemies needn't be limited to violent situations. An equally compelling situation may be created in which the player perceives a character as both a friend and an enemy. A relative who has a long history of support for you but believes in an opposing cause can be a point of deep trouble and contemplation.
One way of encouraging the player to take personal interest in an NPC comrade is for the player to witness a painful sacrifice that NPC makes for the player.
The pain is the key there. Developers tend to avoid realistic presentation of pain in their games. John Cleese once said that a Vietnam-era American audience didn't seem to appreciate the humor of the black knight losing his limbs in The Holy Grail until they recognized the absence of pain. An absence of realistic pain in supposedly painful situations discourages empathy.
True, charming dialogue can make an NPC likeable, but few things invite personal concern so quickly and effectively as a loving sacrifice. If you can create a situation in which the player watches that sacrifice, like the NPC shoving the player out of an enemy's crosshairs to inadvertently take the bullet (to use a clichè example), and the player's attention is drawn to details, such as the injured man's labored breathing and weakness, then the player will be much more likely to take notice when the NPC is harmed or killed later in the game.
Sometimes, one's personality has a suggestive effect, such as annoyance or inspiration. If a player must decide between possible companions, it's possible to include among valid considerations that a less combat-capable NPC is clever and able to aid in intellectual/social tasks (think of the archeologist in the Stargate film). On the other hand, an extremely combat-capable NPC might have such an annoying or abrasive personality that the player bypasses his/her obvious abilities (that NPC's design costs would obviously have to be justified somehow, such as future story involvement: "You could have shared this power with me, but you chose the snivelling sage!").
Or an NPC's personality can have a more immediate and tangible effect. If I understand correctly, Bioware's Mass Effect will present the player with the possibility of violent dissent among companions. It may also be interesting for companions to commit acts of treachery or aid behind the player's back. This could sometimes be visible to the player (such as the companion leaving the player's side to whisper to another NPC) or it might be hidden (story events during game-level transitions).
Needless to say, there are many opportunities for improvement in the promotion of empathy in games. Empathy's purposes go far beyond qualifying presentations of violence, but that's what got me thinking on the subject.