Empathy is a big subject in game design. Many discussions in game design forums is how to produce that empathy. Common examples given are to make a character multi-faceted where one facet affects the PC and the other influences the player (e.g. the PC is broken up by the loss of his home town, the player heartbroken about the loss of his free inn). Other ways can be borrowed from non-interactive media, and of course Brothers is lauded for its use of the control scheme to provoke empathy.
All of that is emotional empathy, new research suggests that emotional empathy simply isn’t that important when it comes to people’s thinking of justice. Justice is what a lot of games are about. What can be more heroic than the fight against injustice? What gives greater license than the fight against injustice?
This suggests that many ideas that people come up with in order to create that empathetic feeling might, for all their other flaws, not even work for that. The key ways to get the player involved in the righteous fight against the unjust emperor, or whatever, is to get the player invested enough that they care – that they won’t just laugh at it or rapidly press X – and have the character explain their problems.
Does the study of Decety and Yoder (2015) only apply to the subject of injustice? Probably not. Does it apply to everything? I’m inclined to say ‘no’. It is almost empirical fact that Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is effective. The diagnosis for why it is effective is believed to be the controls, but what feeling it tries to create aren’t the same as in most games. It made for a nice change of pace, but most recognised that its ‘gimmick’* works of it, but would not work for others.
I suggest that Decety and Yoder (2015) have solved that puzzle of what players have instinctively know. Just like players have instinctively shown scepticism of those other ideas mentioned in the first paragraph. On the subject of Good, Evil, and Injustice cognitive is king.
*Not meaning in a derogatory sense.