Empathy is Not Enough, part 1

How empathy became a buzzword in the games industry

This is part I of a three-part series originally published in German by WASD, Lana Polansky explores the history and use of “empathy” in games since 2008. Part II considers empathy as a selling point for documentary-style “VR experiences,” and Part III will explore empathy’s role in early artists’ VR.  

It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment when “empathy” became a popular buzzword in the videogame marketing arsenal, but the topic seems to have ripened around 2014. Take, for instance, “In Gaming, A Shift From Enemies To Emotions” by Travis Larchuk, which appeared in NPR in January of that year. The piece provides important context for the industry’s sudden interest in more, supposedly emotionally mature and “empathetic” games. Larchuk writes,

Sony’s Nick Suttner says he has noticed a broader change recently. As part of his job, he frequently hears pitches from independent designers hoping to get their games on the PlayStation.

‘There was a really interesting shift away from mechanics to storytelling,’ he says. More frequently he's hearing pitches where a game is not just about ‘shooting something; it's about an experience the developer had and wanted to communicate that idea in their game, or about this moment of beauty or sympathy.’

Some call these ‘empathy games.’ They focus on engaging with the player on an emotional level.

The piece describes three games as examples of “empathy games,” Fullbright’s Gone Home, Lucas Pope’s Papers, Please and Ryan Green’s That Dragon, Cancer. Each of these games aimed to emotionally involve the player with a character who faces difficult scenarios and choices, and allwere resounding critical and market successes relative to their scope and content. In many ways, they reshaped public perception of what games could look like and the ideas they could convey. They also helped mainstream a taste for more “alternative” approaches to game design that could be boiled down into identifiable genres and brands: indie games, serious games, empathy games, auteur games, and so on. “Empathy games” began to catch the attention of industrial elites, government agencies, universities, NGOs, non-profits, and even banks, and are by now a well established niche genre.

Still image from That Dragon, Cancer (Numinous Games, 2016)

To understand the trajectory of “empathy games” as a movement, it’s helpful to peel back their history to the time of the “indie boom” around 6 years earlier. The reasons why the indie market evolved in the ways that it did are dismally material: in the wake of the 2008 recession,a number of development studios shuttered or downsized (Microsoft, for example, would lay off 5,000 game studio employees in 2009). While the industry used the spiralling economy as an excuse to justify layoffs and closures, a 2009 Slate piece by N. Van Zelfden argues that they may have just been the consequence of runaway spending for which workers shouldered the burden. The fact that routine closures and layoffs persist as an industry practice to this day lends credence to this thesis.

While independent creators had already been making their own games for a long time, suddenly there was a market for it, as the major oligopolies in the industry—in search of cheaply produced content to gamble on in the hope some games would be windfall successes—began buying up indie games or providing a digital platform to them in exchange for things like distribution fees and IP licensing. In many ways this phenomenon did provide new opportunities for heretofore unknown artists, and suddenly plenty of fringe work that might have otherwise languished in obscurity saw the light of day. This was a positive step that broadened the horizon of what was popularly acknowledged to constitute a videogame (not without some struggle), and was materially beneficial to at least a few artists working in indie spaces.

But these positives were also largely incidental, and were hardly the conscious intention of major (and mid-tier) companies who were ultimately only interested in inexpensive, high-volume content produced by workers that they would owe far less to than a traditional employee. Creativity, diversity and expanded emotional range were not necessarily sought-after outcomes by companies like Valve, Microsoft, or Oculus, but they did make for very nifty marketing instruments, and permitted development into niche markets with specific demographics. In this context, “empathy games” seem to have emerged as the proof of concept the videogame industry needed to show that, after all, games had emotional and therefore artistic value. These companies, as well as individuals figures like Jane McGonigal, wasted no time marketing “empathy” to educators, governments and intergovernmental organizations, journalists, academics, and of course, to investors in Silicon Valley.

As empathy increasingly became a buzzword in the wake of this apparent new breed of emotionally mature, high-brow games, artists with newfound fame were summarily painted with the label. Along with Papers, Please, the NPR piece cites Zoe Quinn’s Depression Quest and Anna Anthropy’s Dys4ia as examples of “empathetic” games, or games designed to elicit feelings of kinship and understanding, usually with a marginalized or oppressed group (i.e. people suffering with severe depression, migrants, transwomen). But not everyone who got roped into this designation eagerly embraced it. A 2015 Motherboard piece entitled, “Why Video Games Can't Teach You Empathy” by Cecilia D’Anastasio strongly suggests that the proposition that games can imbue players with lasting, true understanding and compassion for another’s plight is a kind of magical thinking. The piece asks whether empathy games, “despite their hype, even exist at all?”

D’Anastasio quotes Anthropy on feeling discomfort with using games as a tool to “understand” the feelings of dysphoria associated with transitioning. Dys4ia is an autobiographical series of 8-bit vignettes exploring different experiences and emotions the creator went through at various points during her transition, but was never intended as a way for cis allies to empathize with trans people, or to persuade anybody of the worthiness of compassion for trans people. Nor does Anthropy believe it’s possible to monolithically convey “what it’s like” to be trans using games as a conduit.

“If you’ve played a 10-minute game about being a transwoman… don’t pat yourself on the back for feeling like you understand a marginalized experience,” she told D’Anastasio.

D’Anastasio goes on to describe two kinds of empathy: the intellectual variety, relating to an understanding of someone’s behaviour and ability to predict their actions that requires no emotional component, and the emotional variety, that describes being able to feel what someone else is feeling in a particular context. Most proponents of “empathy games” seem to want to induce the latter type, supposedly because this is the thing that demonstrates the humanity of the medium, and enshrines it as culturally important not just for artistic purposes, but for scientific, political and social purposes as well.

The desire for artistic prestige usually conferred on older media like film and literature, as well as the desire for a vindication of games as socially beneficial, are deeply connected to insecurity about the level of violent content in the most popular games. The lingering effects of Jack Thompson’s and Tipper Gore’s crusades against violent videogames manifested in a general anxiety about gaming’s capacity to inspire violence and aggression in young people. D’Anastasio cites a widely circulated study from 2011, entitled “This is your brain on violent video games: Neural desensitization to violence predicts increased aggression following violent video game exposure”, that gave scientific rigour to the idea that there was a link between consistently playing violent games and a blasé reaction to violence. (A recent study out of Germany showed no conclusive link between playing violent games and a “blunting” of empathic responses in players; it’s also not clear that the aggression spikes documented by fMRI while subjects played competitive games was long-term or categorically different from the spikes seen while playing sports.)

It’s fair to speculate that the ways in which violence is depicted in media, games included, have an effect on how people interpret violence. The discussion around the time “empathy games” hit the scene, however, was less about the nuances of violence and ideology in art and more a blanket condemnation (or defense) of violence in games. Those with a stake in the production of games were quick to pick up on the utility of studies that showed their potential benefits to young minds: if games were exceptional for their negative effects on players, all the better if they could be framed as exceptional for their positive effects. If emotions like empathy and compassion can accurately be measured, then “emotional maturity” becomes a special feature of videogames that can be sold as a product.

As far as legitimacy for the medium and the potential for money-making and power-brokering with political elites goes, it’s clear why “empathy” entered the popular lexicon in games by way of the indie boom. Digging even further into the past reveals a preoccupation with games and “empathy” in academia, particularly in fields like psychology and sociology. In 2011, before the rise of empathy games, the medium garnered special attention for its potential applications in therapy. In that year, game developer Jane McGonigal released her book Reality is Broken, a self-help style book that argues games can be used for therapeutic and educational purposes, to “boost happiness” and even maybe “change the world.” Together with her TED Talks (like 2010’s “Gaming can make a better world”), Reality is Broken solidified her as a leading evangelist for the healing potential of games. Around the same time, a slew of articles and studies began to delve into the question of gaming as a potentially “prosocial” educational and therapeutic tool, which if properly applied could help people deal with things like depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, relationship issues, and even broad socioeconomic problems like racism and sexism. A 2011 post on Psychology Today by Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D, specifically proposes that games can be useful for teaching people “empathy” and other “prosocial” behaviours.

The relationship between games, learning, and socialization is far from unheard of, and has precedent in the work of sociologist Roger Caillois and child psychologist Jean Piaget, as well as philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and cultural theorist Johan Huizinga. For people versed in the academic underpinnings of games as cultural and social objects, this is all well-trod territory. Educators have also known for years of the value of play in learning, and educational games (both digital and analog) are a regular part of many teachers’ lesson plans. None of that inherently warrants suspicion. What does, however, warrant some suspicion are the potentially reckless claims made by evangelists like McGonigal, who posit that gaming can actually replace traditional forms of therapy.

Related trends from around this period, like the “gamification of learning” schtick popular among the Social and Emotional Learning (or “SEL”) crowd arguably formed part of the same pattern wherein valid inquiry about the nature and uses of play became sweeping declarations useful for branding and marketing strategies. New hustles, in the form of SEL gurus, self-help style programs and various non-profits started to crop up to capitalize on this conception of games as tools for learning and awareness-building. Even Trip Hawkins, the founder of EA, got in on the action, raising $6.5 million for his startup, If You Can. This venture went on to publish the game IF, a “social and emotional learning” game that promised to teach kids empathy through play—though this claim remains ambiguous.

Games really were no longer just the purview of the antisocial male loner—now they were prosocial, therapeutic, empathy-inducing, a cure-all for any problem be it psychological, moral, or even political. Instead of just rallying promotion around “fun”—escapism, competition, play aggression, frivolity—marketers could also present games as “empathetic”, and therefore respectable (a 2014 Forbes piece on the subject is literally entitled “Is there a market for empathy?”). These games, D’Anastasio writes, are “not meant to be fun.”

The period between 2011-2015 rapidly generated plenty of enthusiasm and opportunism—and a little bit of cautious criticism—for these empathetic, emotionally mature games. As of 2017, “empathy games” as a genre seems to have mostly faded from popular memory (with the exception of a couple of cutting-edge CBC posts from this past year, one of which remarks on UNESCO’s commissioning of a Toronto-based researcher to study games’ capacity to elicit compassion in players). But “empathy” as both a justification for playing games and a marketing gimmick with which to sell them seems to have stuck around, in slightly different form.

This shift in the marketing language around games was foreshadowed in Minority Media founder Vander Caballero’s 2014 GDC talk, Empathetic Games Are Here to Stay! What’s Next?—essentially a 20-minute promotional event for an anti-bullying game that was eventually released for iOS as Spirits of Spring—lays out the framework for the “empathy game” as a specific genre with its own stylistic and mechanical conventions and design approaches. He describes a process by which Minority Media developers would try to elicit particular emotional responses by matching them to different mechanics at different “beats” in a game, not dissimilar to how artists try to convey mood, tone or symbolic imagery in any other medium. But for games, and especially empathy games, this was contextualized as something novel and extraordinary. He confesses his desire to use game mechanics to convey metaphor, and to express a sense of dramatic closure rather than a strict win or loss condition by the end of the game.

It’s worth noting that nothing Caballero describes is especially new to artistic production, even within games. By 2014 there was already an enormous volume of art games, both published on major platforms and abundant in alternative DIY spaces, that engaged with digital space and play on consciously expressive and conceptual terms. (This isn’t even counting the systems-based art, computer art and participatory art that captured the interest of artists for over half of the 20th century.) But, at GDC, a multi-million dollar conference primarily predicated on networking and business talk, it’s not surprising that this history would be elided in the interest of promoting not just a particular empathy game, but empathy in general, as the hot new thing.

Caballero made another interesting statement during the Q&A session of the talk. At around the 18 minute mark, in response to a question asking Caballero to elaborate on his ideas about “closure,” Caballero criticizes the industry for providing “really good entertainment” that was nonetheless not helping people “grow.” He then claims that “we are not being politically active in...most of our games.” By “politically active” I assume Caballero meant “politically conscious”, in that while games are inevitably political and ideological, they may not always explicitly acknowledge this, and tend to encourage intellectually passive consumption. By contrast, empathetic games could address “real” issues, fundamentally challenging the ethics of people who play them.

This view of empathy games as inherently more political than other kinds of games is worth deconstructing, because proponents of “empathy” in games still generally avoid discussing things like ideology, history, or the fundamental underlying systems that support the existence of their work. The assumption here is that such games are inherently emotionally honest, or even comparable in their assessment of real-life events and experiences to hard-nosed journalism. To this day, nowhere is that notion more alive than in the virtual reality scene.

Lana Polansky is a Montreal-based writer, artist, independent game-maker and dirtbag gamer communist. Her work has been featured in Vice, Rhizome, Kill Screen, Paste and elsewhere. You can find her on Twitter @mechapoetic and support her on Patreon.

Top: Promotional image from Spirits of the Spring (Minority Media, 2014).