Stick and Stones May Break My Bones But Virtual Characters Can Somehow Hurt Me?

Have you ever spent countless hours vigorously playing a specific game only to reach the end and be blindsided by this strong emotional reaction?  Well this exact situation happened to be not too long ago while playing TellTale’s The Walking Dead.The-Walking-Dead-title

Being a huge fan of the show and the graphic novels of Robert Kirkman, I anxiously awaited the release of the game and even pre-order it to ensure I could get my hands on it. When I finally began to play the game, I was slightly taken back by it’s game play. The game is split up into five episodes and takes place in the same fictional world as the graphic novels, with events following the onset of the zombie apocalypse in Georgia. It centers around the experience of Lee Everett (pictured below), a university professor and convicted murderer and instead of being a point and click adventure game, the game focusses on story and character development.


Each game is a tailored experience, seeing as you are faced with different dialogue and physical choices and your actions and choices affect how your story plays out throughout the entire game.

here you can see an example of the four options you (Lee) has every time you have to make a decision.

On, the game is accurately described by one sentence: “Live with the profound and lasting consequences of the decisions that you make…”(1)

And they not joking…

The very first character you (Lee) encounter is Clementine and she is the one character that I ended up caring far too much about, and according to writer and creative lead behind the game, Sean Vanaman this was no coincidence.


In an interview posted on, Vanaman states that, “Lee and [Clementine] are the main characters, so I wanted to get them together as far as possible…The first character you meet is the one you’re going to care about, the first thing on your brain.” (2) Melissa Hutchison, the voice actress for Clementine adds to the importance of this character by saying, “ The whole backbone of the story is the relationship between Lee and Clementine, and the choices Lee makes in order to protect Clementine.”(2)


The creators of the game truly manipulated the physical and personality characteristics of this character in order to build a connection between the gamer and Clementine. Art Director Derek Sakai, stated that from the “beginning, the designer knew they wanted a character that would act as a moral compass for the main character as he progressed through the game…The designers envisioned a smart, honest and capable girl around eight years old.”(2)

As the game progresses, difficult decisions have to be made on the part of the gamer and the longer I played, the faster my emotional attachment for Clementine grew. I no longer was concerned about “beating” or finishing this game, I only cared about making the best decisions for Clementines ultimate survival.


But what compelled me and many others to feel this way over one specific character that our own (Lee’s) well being became secondary? Was it simply her physical demeanor and the designers ability to create a likable personality? Or could it all boil down to instincts?

According to a report published in the open-access journal PLos One, there seems to be a region of the human brain called the medial orbitofrontal cortex that rapidly responds to the faces of unfamiliar infants but not to the faces of unfamiliar adults. (3) It is located in the front of the brain, just over the eyeballs and is the key region of the emotional brain and it appears to monitor reward-related stimuli in the environment. Dr. Morten Kringelbach of Oxford’s Department of Psychiatry who was part of this research stated the following, “What we fond was that the medical orbitofrontal cortex shows high activity within a seventh of a second of a person seeing an infant face but not an adult one…These responses are almost certainly too fast to be consciously controlled and so are probably instinctive.”(3)

So is it in fact “instinct” that lets us recognize a child in need, even if she isn’t necessarily real? Or was it just a combination of writing, physical appearance, voice and personality that allowed people to create this bond with Clementine? Regardless of the definitive reason for why gamers seem to have real feelings for virtual people, it’s clear that there is a important and unavoidable emotional connection between the gamer and the game itself.

From the very moment Clementine entered the screen, I was pulled into her world and became protective and concerned for this virtual character which is a feeling I had never experienced when playing a game.  This feeling is ultimately significant proof of the importance of each character as an element in every game.  “If Clementine came off annoying, people would be trying to find the button that sends her straight into a herd of walkers.” said the woman who was the voice actress for Clementine, indicating the importance of character development and it’s impact on the gamer. (2)

Clementine undoubtedly became the star of the game and as we speak there is a hastag (#ForClementine) on Twitter (pictured below) where fans express “just how far they’d go for her” (2)


Vanaman commented on Clementines unexpected popularity by saying, “The fact that people care about Clementine is invaluable…I have seen people get downright pissed at other characters in the game if they try to put Clementine in dangerous situations. It is awesome to see how protective people have become of her.”(2)  And that I was, until the very end of the game as my decisions lead me (Lee) to have been bitten by a walker and painfully watch myself await my unavoidable fate, I attempted to inform Clementine of everything I could so she could survive successfully without me. The most overwhelming feeling was that I had let her down, I felt real guilt for my inability to protect this character and I felt remorse for putting her in the position I did. The game ended for me when Clementine realized what she had to do as my character slowly died, she raised her gun…


…and the screen went black as I sat there ,still contemplating where I went wrong.


sources used within this post: 1/2/3



  7 comments for “Stick and Stones May Break My Bones But Virtual Characters Can Somehow Hurt Me?

  1. February 12, 2013 at 3:38 pm

    I’ve never played “The Walking Dead,” or any horror-survival games (excluding “Eternal Darkness” and “Limbo”), but I can see how the relationship between Lee and Clementine enhances the gaming experience. From what I can tell, both characters are treated as people, not faceless protagonists or event flags. While giving Lee a personality may remove some of the self-insertion aspect of the story, here it motivates the player to be the best Lee they can be. Similarly, Clementine is meant to evoke pathos by being portrayed as a real child in a bleak world. Lee is made to interact with her, relate to her, and ultimately set a good example for her. In regards to the information provided in PLos One, I’m sure that the desire to protect children is biological, and extends even to the simplest videogames.

    In a way, this game reminded me of “One Chance.” Granted, “One Chance” is much more simplistic, but the relationship between the protagonist and his daughter ends up playing out the same way (depending on the ending). Ignoring the fact that the game basically tells you to spend time with your family, losing everything in-game made me genuinely want to save the daughter’s life. Even without the emotional connection, the player is expected to relate to the child.

    • Anthony Seippel
      February 13, 2013 at 12:48 am

      I wouldn’t say relate to the child as much as relate to the adult and want to care for the child, be it TWD or OC. Though I haven’t played TWD I kind of feel that OC created an even stronger connection as there was absolutely NO chance of survival as even if you DID find the cure, everything else, including the food, was dead so then you only saved yourself for as long as it would take to starve to death. So in the end, I felt that I had to give my child, yes, “my” child, one last bit of happiness before it all ended. Unlike how you try to give Clementine guidance so that she may survive. To me, that slight shimmer of hope is what puts it behind OC as nothing is more terrifying than the complete and total finality at the end of the world. False hope is still hope, but I guess that is why I took my daughter to the park at the end of OC instead of to work.

  2. Anthony Seippel
    February 13, 2013 at 12:42 am

    Though I haven’t played this game, I can understand the notion of having true feelings towards a game, even the none playable character of whom you only seem to affect. Personally, I felt this even in a game much more linear than this one proved to be; Gears of War 3. I, as well as many others, couldn’t help but feel the pangs of watching Dominic Santiago drive the fuel truck into a pillar to cause an explosion that would kill the lambant and locusts whilst the instrumental of the series unofficial them played int he background so that Marcus and the rest of Delta Squad could escape. This was not a game where your choices mattered. You could not save him. It was scripted. He was going to die. Yet I still felt that maybe if I had just killed a few more enemies before the cutscene I could have altered the outcome. I knew this wasn’t true. That was not a characteristic of the series. What happened happened because it was supposed too. But I wanted Dom back. I remember interviews for the first Gears of War had the developers saying that Dom, while representing a brother to Marcus, also represented the player as he would make statements regarding in game events that mirrored expected player emotions. Whilst Marcus had to maintain the rough tough seen it all before facade, Dom could say things that the player would feel appropriate in that situation. So when he died, I felt the true detachment of loosing a part of me. The very next level I felt just as cold and distant from everything as Marcus did, but in a different sense. I felt that I had died with Dom. This was, of course, intended as by the end Marcus has lost everyone he cares about and questions his future, making me realize that I, more than ever, had truly felt what it was like to be Marcus because I had lost Dom with him.

  3. Mamoru Fuun
    February 13, 2013 at 1:15 pm

    I think it’s really important for a game to have strong character development such as you’ve described between Lee and Clementine. I consider myself to be an avid J-RPG (Japanese role-playing game) gamer precisely because they tend to have engaging stories and emotionally provoking characters. If I start to get really into the game I may even place myself in the character’s shoes and feel what happens to them has also happened to me; I’ve even gone as far as calling the character I’m playing as myself.

    This moral dilemma of wanting the character’s to live happily becomes even more dramatized in some J-RPGs that include choices to be made in the storyline that determine how it ends. The alternative ending dilemma seems to be counter-intuitive to how we were taught to play games to win for the objective happy ending; for instance Mario beats Bowser rescuing Princess Peach. Now there are a plethora of different endings: happy ending, bad ending, subjectively happy, subjectively sad etc. A prominent example of this is Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor. In this game you play as a group of friends who are locked down in a city full of demons, with only 7 days to escape. Along the way you are presented with various choices to determine whether you escape the city, kill all the demons or even help the demons. Character’s thoughts and wishes are now stronger than ever because your choices now directly impact their happiness.

  4. Thomas Hughes
    February 13, 2013 at 4:41 pm

    I think that a strong connection to the characters in a game is the most important aspect a game can have, although it is perhaps the easiest to overlook. When a game has strong characters that the player actually cares about, it creates a unique connection with the player. I’ve never played The Walking Dead, but I can think of a few more games that feature strong character connections, such as the Mass Effect games. Even though the games have a good science fiction story, they wouldn’t be nearly as good without capitalizing on the players connection with the characters. When I was getting near the end of the third and final installment of Mass Effect, I wasn’t so much upset that the game was over as I was with the fact that I had to say goodbye to these personalities that became alive through my experiences over the course of five years. If these games didn’t have good characters, it wouldn’t have been anything special. Now that I know that The Walking Dead relies heavily on the connections with characters, maybe I’ll have to pick it up sometime.

  5. bharris
    February 14, 2013 at 1:28 am

    You make a great point, and your SPOILER RIDDEN post was great to read. The part that most interested me was the study about defensive impulses towards kids. It’s obvious that society (I’m not an anthropologist but I would assume most human societies as well) has, to a degree, agreed that children are worth protecting. We spend huge amounts of money on making sure that children are living healthy lives with as much opportunity as we feel it’s best to give them, so obviously we care. Games like Fallout 3 specifically make it so that children cannot be harmed and many (Possibly even most) games have little to no children because of the seriousness of the situation (It would seem off to see children in the frozen wastes of Hoth); children are generally only in “battle” zones if the designers are specifically trying to arouse an emotional response of despair and show you the impact on the “innocent”. Japanese horror films that have the greatest impact in America all focus on innocent children being fonts for evil. All of this pretty much supports what you said.

    But what I’m interested in is when people don’t feel defensive about kids. Like, what does the very existence of a child-killing mod in Fallouts 3 and New Vegas mean? Does this mean that the people that install those games are in some way defective, broken or insane? Does it make those people more likely to go out and actually kill children? Your post is all about children and the psychological connections we have to them, where designers put realistic children into games so we feel connected to them. Is that connection dependent on the developer’s designs, or is it innate in the child image itself? The article did also take alot of opportunities to state that having a kid that players would consider a little shit wouldn’t have the same impact, so it would seem to be a mix of the two (psychology/design). Those are just my thoughts. Anybody have any thoughts about this aspect?blink>

    • bharris
      February 14, 2013 at 1:29 am

      Man I was hoping for some blinking.

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