Game developer of many hats. MFA Thesis student. Part-time vocal synthesis guru.

Thesis Blog

Warning: not all blogging is directly related to thesis, although most of it is.

Empathy: Talk about Buzzwords

Empathy is a total buzzword when it comes to games, I’ll admit it. Even so, it’s an important concept—if a poorly-quantified one in many cases. Let’s talk a little bit about empathy, how it relates to video games, and what it might look like to make an empathy-driven video game.

First and foremost, there are two distinct types of empathy which I’ll be dealing with here: cognitive empathy, and affective empathy.

Cognitive empathy is the conscious act of putting yourself into another person’s shoes and trying to see their perspective, and thus understand their feelings. Cognitive empathy is a skill, one which people develop at different rates, and it is something people must choose to engage in. In trying to create empathy, cognitive empathy is a state that be induced and encouraged through the art of creating a “mindful play” experience. I can’t simply expect people to inherently engage in cognitive empathy behaviors simply because I tell them to do so, or because I say that “the character is you”, but these things can help push people toward engaging empathetically with the work.

Affective empathy is sometimes called “emotional empathy”, but I find that term a bit redundant, as all empathy is to some extent emotional in nature. Affective empathy is a response to stimulus; when we see someone suffer, we experience some part of their suffering in turn, and as they say, smiles are infectious. This is a fairly normal human response to seeing other people—people we like and identify with, mind you—experiencing emotions. Affective empathy seems simple and easy, because it is a fairly normal and expected response to seeing emotion on a screen, but it’s not as simple as that. People don’t always experience affective empathy; sometimes, they experience other emotions, like pity for one’s sadness, or amusement at their suffering (schadenfreude), or jealousy at their happiness and excitement. It’s important to try to direct people to feel empathetic and understanding toward the emotions shown by characters on screen; merely expecting them to feel such by way of showing them emotions is unrealistic.

Both of these types of empathy are crucial to creating a lasting impact on the player. A presentation I saw at GDC by Heidi McDonald about empathy in game narratives really struck this point home for me by calling the combination of the two the “empathy power zone”, and I rather like and thus will borrow that term. (If you’re curious about that presentation, I totally encourage you to check out the slides here at the GDC vault!) In order to truly create empathy in games, we need to hit the empathy power zone, focusing both on affective and cognitive empathy, not only one or the other. For instance, affective empathy will be difficult to create with an “avatar” character, even if it makes perspective-taking cognitive empathy easy. The characters should all be real, fleshed-out people in their own rights, who the players can relate to without necessarily impressing themself into that image.

Thus, I don’t need to make a game focused only on perspective-taking, nor one focused only on showing emotion on the screen. It must do both of these things, and so, so much more; once more, Heidi’s presentation did a great job to me of pointing out some of these other things that games need to focus on in order to be empathetic and create empathy.

So, thankfully, there’s a better research basis for empathy in game design than I had originally feared. Now, my thesis begins to approach the specific, rather than the general: that is, if these are the features of empathy, and someone’s already created a design toolkit for how to talk about empathy in games, then how do I take those concepts and bring them to face mental illness in specific? What does it really mean to have a mental illness, and how do I show someone that experience?

“The universal is personal and the personal, universal.” Following this amazing quote Heidi used in her presentation, I’ll be pulling from my own experience and that of the people I’m close to in order to create the narrative and experience of mental illness in a game.

There will be a number of difficult choices and balances to strike in the course of my design, many of which I already have thought through, but perhaps this post is long enough already, and I can dig into those as I get into some of the more design-focused blog posts. Namely, the usage of a non-avatar main character (and with it, a third-person perspective in both camera and narrative), the presence of interactions between characters, the active presence of stigma in my narrative, my choices of metaphors… there’s a bit more to get into, but I’m getting there bit by bit!

(This is also a pretty cool presentation about empathy games, but it’s totally tangential.)

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