Social conditioning in Undertale

The video game Undertale shows how games, as social systems, have the power to change the way we interact with others and see ourselves. If you have not played the game and have any inclination towards RPGs, I highly recommend you play it before reading this article. Much of the charm and effect of the game comes from the unexpected situations and choices you have to make while playing. For those who don’t, though, I’ll do my best to spoil as little as possible.

The only thing you have to know about the game is that you play a child who is attacked by monsters. The monsters are frightened, aggressive, or both, but in any case they want to kill you and they will not stop attacking until you are dead.

What would you do in such a situation? The obvious thing to do is to kill them first. (Our national debate about mass shootings and how to handle them comes to mind.) This is the default way to play the game. Indeed, most other games in this genre require that you kill legions of monsters in order to become the hero/heroine who saves the world. So too does our culture at large — for instance the core idea behind a superhero movie is that to stop bad guys who use violence, you need good guys who use violence too.

Undertale is different because it offers a less obvious path. You can try to reach out to the monsters, talk to them and listen to them, fumble through awkward attempts to understand and connect to them, even though the two of you are very different. (Sometimes you even try to flirt with them! It doesn’t always go over well.) If you succeed, the monster loses their will to fight you, and the combat ends. In this way you can resolve almost every conflict in a non-violent way. But you pay a high cost for this: you don’t gain any experience points and you don’t level up. For those who don’t play RPGs, this means that you won’t get stronger as the game goes on, so you become more vulnerable and it is much easier for bosses later in the game to kill you. This can be very frustrating. At any point, if you are fed up with how hard it is to be nonviolent, you can always go back to being violent to make the game easier.

The game was well-loved by many fans when it was released. What drew most people to the game was not the graphics (which are nostalgia-inducing but still pretty low quality), but the characters. They feel real and you feel emotionally invested in them. This emotional investment is sometimes attributed to the writing and pacing, but I think the real cause is the fact that you’re encouraged to humanize your enemies, view them as flawed individuals who might need help, and to be fearless enough to help them in the face of very real danger to your own character.

I am not afraid to admit that this game had a profound effect on me, and the way that I interacted with people around me. From what I’ve gathered from browsing various conversations by fans, this happened to a lot of other people who played the game too. Before I describe the effects in detail, though, I want to first ask: why? Why should a simple game have such power to change our behavior?

Games are often dismissed as meaningless diversions, and sometimes they are just that. Sometimes they are much deeper than that. A game is an alternate world of rules and stories that we immerse ourselves in, to have fun, and also to explore the possibilities of our minds. It is also not an exaggeration to say that a game is a social system. Like the social systems that we encounter in the real world, it is a collection of relationships, between you and your avatar, the avatar and the other characters, the other characters and each other. It is also a collection of rules and scripts. You learn how to behave in certain situations. You learn what meaning your actions have, in the context of the game world. (Which actions will score more points? Which things do I have to do to win?) You learn what sequence of button presses or options to hit to communicate a certain intent. The social system of a game is artificial (at least moreso than the social system of your school, company, or nation), but it is a social system nonetheless.

We have a reciprocal relationship with social systems we take part in. The social systems provide structure and meaning to our lives. They help us understand who we are and how we stand in relation to other people in the system. They help us know what to say in a conversation. Without a social system to guide us, we would have to continually re-invent every minor interaction and we would never get through our day. Social systems are essential. The downside of this is that if there is something toxic about our social system, then it will have a profound negative influence every one of our interactions with everybody, often without us even being aware of it. This is the kind of problem that racism is, this is the kind of problem that sexism is, and this is why these things are often invisible to those in power and so hard to effectively weed out.

Of course, social systems can’t force us to do anything. We participate in them, but we have a choice about how to participate. Our social systems tell us the meaning of our actions, what will happen if I make this choice or that choice. For instance, in one culture it may be the case that if you speak up in front of the boss, you will be shunned as a troublemaker. In another culture, the same action might prompt respect and accolades because you’re a confident rebel who can play by their own rules. The prevailing social system doesn’t just provide you with scripts for various situations, it tells you what your actions mean. This includes telling you which actions are generally expected of you (the path of least resistance), and which actions would prompt a surprised, inquisitive, dismissive, or hostile reaction from others (the paths of greater resistance).

On the other hand, your own decisions about which actions to take feed back into the social system and change it. If you are a man and a male acquaintance demeans you, you could laugh it off, or be stoic or even aggressive toward him (all paths of less resistance), or you could honestly tell him that he hurt you and that you won’t attack him back but this kind of behavior is not acceptable (a path of greater resistance). Our idea of what the social system expects of us is shaped by the behavior we observe in everyone around us, so if someone sees you acting differently, it will have a subtle but permanent effect on their own beliefs about what is expected. In short, your actions can change the social system you take part in.

So what does this have to do with Undertale? As a social system, the game gives you two options (violence or non-violence) and explains the meaning and effect of each one. The non-violent path is in some sense harder, but it is rewarded more heavily by means of a richer story and by unlocking the “True Pacifist” ending to the game.

Over the course of this game, the player learns that their default actions have unintended consequences, and they are conditioned to follow a different path, one in which we respond to violence with nonviolent resistance. Most of us learned something about nonviolent resistance in school, when we studied the life of Martin Luther King Jr. But it is one thing to read about someone else’s experience of nonviolent resistance, and quite another to experience it directly.

There are a number of other things that make this experience richer. As I already mentioned, the path of violence is the easier, more immediately satisfying path, while the path of nonviolence is the harder, more frustrating one. It’s simply not fair to “fight back” with nonviolent communication, when your opponent is literally trying to kill you. Although it’s not too frustrating, at least in this game, so the reward is great enough that we as players feel motivated to take that path (as opposed to how this plays out in the real world).

The fact that non-violence is a deliberate choice, made in response to violence, is also critical here. There are many games, movies, shows, etc that take place in non-violent settings, where the characters are non-violent. That is not so remarkable. There are far fewer narratives that take place in a world of violence, where the protagonist confronts and solves difficult problems without violence. It is even rarer when the protagonist themselves has the strength and ability to solve these problems more easily with violence, and still chooses the non-violent route. (The ending to the animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender comes to mind, although that is an exception and “kiddified” violence still plays a prominent role in that series in many ways.)

Which brings us back to what Undertale did to me. By practicing a kind of active non-violence in the face of violence, I learned how to respond differently to the more aggressive people in my own life. Our prevailing culture tells me that, as a man, when someone threatens me or my sense of self-worth, I am supposed to respond aggressively. This usually doesn’t mean actual violence. Insults, smug superiority, or simply underhanded, dismissive comments are all acceptable forms of aggression. What is not acceptable is being open about your feelings, and willing to listen and communicate, even with someone who is hostile. Or, when that is too hard, simply refusing to fight back. Undertale pushed back on my psyche by modeling what it looks like to not fight back, re-introducing the idea that this could lead to a better life.

The flip side of this is that violence in games must be reinforcing antisocial behavior. I feel torn about this, because there are many games that I love dearly that are violent. At the same time, I am beginning to see the antisocial effect these games have on my interaction with others. We need to at least be more honest about the effect these games have. Yes, of course, we are intelligent beings who can distinguish fantasy from reality, but the things we do in a fantasy world still provide a model for our behavior and perception of others in the real world.

Undertale itself has a more violent side. There is a route leading to another secret ending after the True Pacifist ending, called the Genocide route. To pursue Genocide, you have to mercilessly kill every monster in the game, even the ones who are your friends and who never try to harm you. From browsing some of the fan forums, I’ve learned that many players who tried the Genocide route were left feeling irritable, angry, and distant with others immediately after playing. If the Pacifist route had such a positive effect on my social and emotional life, it is not hard to guess that the Genocide route might have a strong negative effect, if I were to play it.

It feels easy to dismiss this with, “it’s just a game, what you do in the game doesn’t matter.” But your actions in a game do matter, precisely because you are playing it. In order to play a game, you must submit yourself to its alternative social system. You must adopt its rules and goals, at least to some extent. If you don’t believe me, just ask yourself, if nothing in this game really matters, then why do I want to win? Would I feel frustrated at all if something happened and suddenly I couldn’t win? Most likely you would be frustrated, because you want to win, because what happens in the game does matter to you, at least while you are playing it.

This is why I would not want to play the Genocide route myself. I don’t believe it would make me want to kill or physically hurt anyone, but I am pretty sure it would make me more distant. I know that some fans are proud of the fact that they can play Genocide without feeling anything, or even feel murderous glee. It’s not so different from when someone has the ability to watch a torture-porn movie like Hostel or Saw and brag about how the gore and the screaming don’t bother them. And I understand this impulse, because at one point in my life I wished I could be “strong” like this. But these days, I do not think this is something to be proud of. The very fact that you are distant from the effects of your actions, is exactly the kind anti-social behavior that I want to avoid. Emotional distance makes it easier to hurt, control, and dominate others. This is why we demonize the enemy and refer to them as the “bad guys” when fighting a war. And to Undertale‘s credit, the game explicitly comments on this point in the ending, explaining that this is why you level up and get stronger if you decide to kill the monsters.

Games, like all life experiences, permanently change us. In a video game you can erase your save file and start over. But you can never erase your previous experience with the game. This is one more idea that Undertale captures quite powerfully: if you finish the Genocide route and kill everyone in the world, the effects are never fully erased from the game, no matter how much you reset. This quirk of the game runs parallel to the very real fact that the effect of your actions, not just on the game but on you, can never be fully erased from your life.

But the same is true for the positive effects. Though every violent game I’ve ever played had a permanent effect on me, so did Undertale. If games can help us practice being aggressive and distant, then they can also help us practice being compassionate and empathetic. And practicing physical, emotional, and social nonviolence, recognizing your common humanity with people who you thought were your enemies, is a radical act that changes you and never goes away.

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