Games can put players through an emotional gauntlet. With The Walking Dead especially, players feel empathy for and anxiety about their characters. One aspect of the game that enhances its emotional power is the expressive, realistic character animations. We can recognize by their facial expressions if they're feeling doubtful or scared.
Reseaqch tells us that when we see human bodies doing something, we partially experience what we see. It's probably one of the reasons porn is so effective. It's also why it's easy to get caught up in the drama of a videogame with expressive characters. Jamie Madiga at The Psychology of Video Games summarizes the research on mirror neurons and faces and applies this to The Walking Dead.
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Iacoboni and his colleagues conducted a study (Carr, Iacoboni, & Dubeau, 2003) where they used very expensive equipment to monitor the brain activity of subjects who watched images of faces expressing different emotions. As expected, mirror neuron areas activated when people saw the expressions, and so did the limbic system, a portion of the brain known to be related to emotions. In short, upon seeing facial expressions, mirror neurons fired as if the subjects were making those expressions themselves, then triggered activity in the brain’s emotional centers so that subjects could actually feel the emotion being imitated.
I think this is one of the reasons why The Walking Dead is so good at eliciting emotions: it frequently shows us the faces of the characters and lets us see all the work put into creating easily recognizable and convincing facial expressions. And so it’s not the zombies that elicit dread in us. Instead it’s things like the face that Kenny makes when Lee tells him to make a hard decision about his family. “We spend a ton of time on the facial animations for the characters in the game,” The Walking Dead’s Creative Lead Sean Vanaman said when I asked him about this. “After writing the first episode we start to make lists of the type of things characters are going to feel in the story and then start to generate isolated facial animations to convey those moods and emotions. Those are then used throughout the game.”