Part III: The Fuzzy Science and Art of Empathy

In this three part series, Lana Polansky explores the history and use of “empathy” in games, from its application in science and tech, to its appeal to marketers and business elites, to its function in the arts, and takes a critical look at the forcesthe scientists, critics, artists and entrepreneursthat helped develop empathy into a lucrative marketing gimmick. Part 1 discusses the history of the concept’s popularization in games, while Part 2 dives into the moneyed world of VR machines and the significance of empathetic games to wealthy elites. Part 3 examines whether empathy is necessarily always a desirable or beneficial reaction to seek in players, and considers alternative approaches to creating emotionally compelling games.


In a few short years, “empathy” went from being an academic hobbyhorse, to marketing gimmick, to an almost evangelical design ethic in games. The wave of empathetic games that reached its height in the early half of the 2010s broke in the latter half, giving way to a generalized use of empathy as a tool for both promotion and self-justification in the tech industry. Nonetheless, this history is barely ever articulated and is in some cases actively denied—prominent VR creators like Chris Milk and Nonny De la Peña don’t seem to consider themselves game designers, despite constant use of loaded terms like “immersive” and “empathetic” in their public statements. 

This strategic denial seems to derive from the same impetus behind the rise of empathy discourse. VR designers like Milk and De la Peña have more in common with game designers like EA founder Trip Hawkins and Minority Media CEO Vander Caballero than perhaps they’d like to admit: in both we see the same desire for cultural prestige and industrial influence, along with a genuine belief in the social benefit of their own productive output.

In the second part of this series, I quoted Robert Yang on the question of games and VR as “empathy machines.” Yang deftly and passionately rejects these works as “appropriation machines,” often treating their subjects as tokens for the ego-stroking of the powerful. As genuine as the aforementioned self-belief may be, it also conveniently skirts accountability to these subjects, and dodges any reckoning with how operationalizing something as abstract as empathy can realistically affect an audience. Yang’s criticism can be extended to basically any piece of interactive digital media made for the stated purpose of “inspiring empathy” in players toward a disenfranchised community, such as those promoted by non-profit Games For Change. A 2016 Yale University study took one such game, called SPENT, to task. Researchers tested SPENT to see if it lived up to its claims about promoting empathetic feelings toward the poor by putting players in the shoes of a person living paycheck-to-paycheck.  

McKinney, SPENT (2011–ongoing). Screenshot of browser-based game. 


The game challenges players to manage a budget for 30 days, with the goal of reaching the end of the month with money left over. In two separate studies—one involving Mechanical Turk employees paid just over $1 for their time and another involving Ivy League students paid the same amount and offered a course credit—the game actually fared worse than the control in terms of inspiring positive feelings toward poor people, especially among richer participants. In the first study, which contained both a control (a game called Garbage Dreams) and an observation group who merely watched SPENT being played by someone else, the SPENT players surveyed similarly to the control group while the observation group reported much more positive attitudes to the poor overall. In the second study, it became clear that SPENT was not inspiring what it labeled “empathetic concern” for the poor, much less support for anti-poverty programs or a more positive perception of poor people. Once again, however, the second group was composed of Ivy League students while the first was Mechanical Turk workers. 

Toward the end of the study, the authors speculate on a few reasons for these outcomes. They note that part of the problem is that the game is structured to promote the agency and choices of the player, putting the onus on them to survive the month even if the odds are considerably stacked against them. But the most important factor arises from what players actually believed before playing the game, and how they were affected afterwards. For instance, players with lower incomes tended to express more empathetic concern and more positive feelings for the poor than higher income players, which is obvious but necessary as evidence that ideology is largely formed by one’s material conditions. Players who were richer tended to not be positively affected by having played SPENT. Any increase in empathetic concern these participants reported did not correspond to compassion or a desire to provide state assistance. 

“We found that conservatism, age, gender, and income significantly predicted one or more dependent measures,” write the authors of the study.

What this shows us is that the emphasis on empathy in games is not only demonstrably insincere, it’s also profoundly limited. It’s fair to argue that this particular game is merely one bad example, and that future games trying to accomplish the same thing should just be more mindful of how information and choice are presented to the player. On the other hand, there’s no proof that playing a game is any more likely to make a player empathetic to someone else’s experience than watching a film or reading a book about the same subject (or even just knowing someone in that particular predicament), and depending on how the subject matter is framed it can have the exact opposite effect. It’s not enough to merely “walk in the shoes” of a poor individual if the systems that contextualize that person’s situation are not only obscured and highly mediated, but rendered as ultimately controllable by the player.  

Empathy rhetoric also rarely specifies who is meant to do the empathizing, or why it matters if they do. Who is meant to play these games, and for whose benefit? What good does it do to have Ivy League students play a game about poverty, when poverty itself is not only entirely alien to most of them, but necessarily exists as a feature of the very system that grants a disproportionate number of them access to Ivy League schools? If the son of a banker plays a game about poverty and feels slightly more empathetic concern for the poor, only to himself become a banker, then his empathy didn’t actually translate into genuine solidarity with the poor and was never going to. (Or even more likely, according to the study, if he were to play SPENT, he may actually come away feeling less positively toward the poor, regardless of his level of empathetic concern.) 

Another question worth asking is: Which world events are considered worthy of our empathy? In part 2, I noted that there are two VR documentaries about the conflict in Syria, as well as a role-playing game that was just recently released, but none exist about the genocidal war Saudi Arabia is waging in Yemen. Would the UN approve of such a project, given that Saudi ambassador Faisal bin Hassan Trad was selected as chair of the UN Human Rights Council panel five years ago?

If they, or some other deep-pocketed institution, produced such a game, whose perspective of the conflict would we see? Would this thing reveal some truth more important than what we can already gather from comparing news reports and eyewitness testimony, or from reading up on the history of the region or the conflict? Must we empathize with children dying of cholera in a fake plastic box to understand the urgency of the crisis? What about the absurd injustice that many of these powerful private and state figures, who are supposedly so “affected” with empathy as VR designer Chris Milk contends, are nonetheless quite comfortable selling arms to the country (in Canada’s case, $15 billion) carrying out the genocide? 

Empathy, as it’s deployed in games, is a form of self-gratification that absolves everyone involved of their complicity with the forces that produce the suffering exploited for these projects. It’s a feel-good salve that serves the most powerful people in the industry. The obsession with empathy, rather than a focus on building solidarity, erases the importance of history, class relations, and ideology from the equation of social change. Instead, all things resolve into a focus on individual interactions and private moral character, and it is exactly this that neoliberalism seeks to have us do as a way to divert us from the overwhelming structures governing our lives, and from the mass action necessary to put pressure on them. In the context of gaming, this works to not only repackage games as “socially beneficial” commodities and help shake off some of their negative reputation, it also serves to keep people from asking too many questions about the internal practices of the tech world. Unions, after all, aren’t “disruptive” in the techie sense, and if you don’t agree you probably just lack the necessary quantity of empathy to cooperate with management.

Empathy, at least as it exists in games and more broadly in bourgeois society, is both marketing and a deeply manipulative tool of soft power. It is, at worst, a weapon in the arsenal of humanitarian imperialism, at best, a way to scam rich institutions out of their money. It is a word that’s used not to inspire any commitment, or to recognize the humanity of the other, but to assuage the consciences of those who will only ever bear witness to suffering in the form of a hacky simulation, or in news reports, or on TV. This fits hand-in-glove with the interests of multinational corporations, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and various influence peddlers who would like to be able to sell empathy as an experience to people with disposable income and a guilt complex. More generally, it’s an easy nerve to hit in a morally idealistic society where many of us seek absolution for our complicity in empire, without ever having to take responsibility for dismantling it. 

It still is, as it has always been, possible to create digital interactive media that’s artistically compelling and emotionally rich. But, for this reality to fully bloom, this media must be protected from market forces that convert normal human emotions like empathy into machine outputs. It’s likewise possible for games to be used, like any other form of media, for education, social bonding, and engagement with complicated ideas. Of course media can arouse empathy in people; there’s nothing special or innovative about this. When singled out and reduced to a commodity, however, empathy becomes a kind of fetish object, and empathy games serve a far more insidious purpose than anything the VR porn world could ever conjure. 

In his A MAZE. 2017 talk, “Stranger Playthings: Remaking a VR counterculture,” game designer Paolo Pedercini likens “empathy machines” like Clouds Over Sidra to “voyeurism and poverty tourism.” Specifically talking about virtual reality, Pedercini provides ample evidence that mass consumer VR is probably not happening—nonetheless, VR entrepreneurs continue to have the ear of corporations and state institutions. It would seem like wanting to experiment with VR without the involvement of such influences is a dead end on every level. 

On the other hand, he recovers the art history of virtual reality, from immersive theater to the “Sensorama,” and discusses the forgotten work of experimental artists like Jaron Lanier, who is widely regarded as one of the “founding fathers” of virtual reality and has since become a vocal opponent of the corporatization of the internet. Similarly to how empathy games were plucked from a rich, niche subculture of experimental digital art, VR’s earliest applications were also for distinctly artistic purposes. Like many of the artists who created their own little oddball games that retroactively got shoehorned into the empathy category, the original VR artists were making use of these new technologies to explore things like perception and embodiment without necessitating any market incentive to do so. But, like many game-makers, these figures were to be replaced by personalities like Palmer Luckey of Oculus Rift and Elon Musk as these technologies were eventually captured by Silicon Valley business elites.

Pedercini seems hopeful that young, pioneering artists might recover the lost art of VR. Yang seems less certain that VR is extricable from the clutches of empire and capital. Still, in an addendum to his piece, he responds to the query, “What would an ethical ‘empathy machine’ look like?”: 

“It would be made by the empathized community, to benefit the empathized community. Which probably means it can't be on VR, because currently anything made for VR mainly benefits the VR industry. This is not a technological problem nor a design problem, it is a cultural and political problem. VR is currently an expensive tech dude toy, and it will take a long time for VR culture to change, if ever. Don't use the suffering of others to force that culture change, because anyway, it won't even work.” 

Empathy is not an inherently bad reaction to want to elicit in players, but treating emotional responses to any work of art as though they are necessarily discrete, predictable, and measurable outcomes fundamentally misapprehends what makes art resonate with people. This strategy approaches people like computers into which the right amount of empathy can be plugged to make the world a better place, and maybe a neat profit can be made on the side. This misapprehension derives from a capitalist and technocratic mode of thinking extremely common in the tech world, which frequently ignores material conditions, historical power dynamics, and ideological differences in favor of mechanistic, operational solutions to these delicately complex problems. These illusions persist because they can be used to justify money-losing ventures like VR, paper over widespread worker exploitation, and whitewash collaboration with the state, police, and defense contractors that comprises so much of the tech industry. Forget other emotions: you’re allowed to feel empathy, or you’re allowed to have fun. Step into the simulation, where everything is beautiful and nothing can possibly hurt. 


Featured image: McKinney, SPENT (2011–ongoing). Screenshot of browser-based game.