You may have heard about research into developing empathy through video games.
People who lack experience often do more harm than good.
There are a number of specific approaches, from the aforementioned games designed to teach children to be more empathetic to games that attempt to simulate the experiences of people with certain disabilities. These games were developed under the design philosophy that embodying experiences that are not your own can create newfound empathy for people with different life experiences. However, the backlash came to a head when developers thought it would be a good idea to simulate slavery.
What developers get wrong about empathy and games
These games have a few glaring problems. The first is that you can’t empathize with the experience of being disabled if all you have to do to stop being disabled is put down the controller. Even if a game could approximate the experience of being disabled through certain differences in life, it would never encapsulate the long-term suffering of existing in a world that’s hostile to disabled people. Disability is not a function of what a disease, disorder, or condition changes about how the body works, it is a matter of how society makes itself inaccessible to disabled people.
Games become vehicles for stories.
The second problem is the gamification of marginalization. Similar to the first point, gamification reduces the function of marginalization to a few game mechanics. With very few exceptions, game developers fail to encapsulate the full picture of what the experience is because they’re making a game. Press Y to get out of bed, hold X to overcome chronic fatigue and make coffee and rotate the analogue stick to wipe the sleep from your eyes for the 200th time in five minutes.
There’s nothing fun or engaging about performing routine tasks like trying to hold a spoon but the hand keeps shaking. Some experiences would be too graphic or cumbersome to try to implement into a game.
Games as stories
What are video games? They’re many things: puzzles, shooters, platformers, sidescrollers, etc. On top of these mechanical distinctions, games often tell a story or convey an idea, often using mechanics to further that idea. Games become vehicles for stories. Not just narrative or visual novel games like Dear Esther but roleplaying 3rd-person shooters like the highly celebrated Mass Effect trilogy.
How society communicates ideas about empathy, care, and compassion are important. Video games can teach us some of those, but perhaps a better way of doing so is less obvious than making a game that asks players to embody a disability. For example, the reboot Wolfenstein: The New Order is a fast-paced first-person shooter all about killing Nazis. Great! The setup interface tells a different story.
The difficulty settings ridicule players for wanting to play on easier settings and quitting the game refers to players as “wimp” for needing to set the game aside. Maybe game developers could rethink that?
THE STORIES ARE ALREADY THERE
There’s a story about a boy, his father, and his grandfather. The father carries the grandfather up a mountain. On the way, the boy asks, “Why are we taking grandfather up to the top of the mountain?” The father explains that the grandfather is old, frail, and difficult to care for. The boy is silent for a while and then says to the father, “It is good that you have taken me along, now I will know where to take you when you are too troublesome to care for.”
Games can’t encapsulate the suffering of living in a hostile world.
Make a game based on that story. Show what it looks like to build a community that cares for its elderly. Make a game where you must convince the father not to abandon the grandfather at the top of the mountain. Give the grandfather some agency by incorporating lore as an unlockable feature the grandfather passes on to his grandson as they travel up the mountain. There are so many stories that try to teach us how to be better members of our communities, how to live a good life, how to treat others, and all of these stories can be told in a game if someone has the creative drive to make it happen.
Invest in marginalized creators
Game developers who build empathy games might have good intentions, but people who lack both experience and analysis can easily do more harm than good. Developers could consult with disabled gamers to create industry standards for accessibility options. Instead of trying to embody or gamify the experiences of others, why not do what society has always done to help change modes of thinking? Tell subversive stories.
Finally, make games that challenge preconceived notions. It’s not always necessary to create new games that tell those stories or spend hundreds of hours researching an unfamiliar topic just to find something to say. Invest in indie developers who are speaking their truths. Mock the powerful, empower the marginalized. Not every game has to be an on-the-nose critique of everything that’s wrong with the world, sometimes it just means telling stories that rarely see the light of day.
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