An increasing number of developers is creating games with a focus on empathy. Is this the birth of a new genre?
A new generation of games is confronting players with real human issues. Things like depression, alcoholism, bullying, terminal illness or suicide. Often very personal stories that have touched and shaped the life of the designer. Some have labeled these games -or experiences- ‘empathy games’. Maybe for lack of a better classification, or maybe because that’s exactly what they are.
Empathy is the experience of understanding another person’s condition from their perspective. You place yourself in their shoes and feel what they are feeling. Now it might be impossible for you to fully understand and feel what it means to lose a child to an illness that’s beyond your control, but you sure can imagine the pain and heartbreak that parents go through when it happens.
“I think it makes a difference if there’s a piece of the creator’s heart encoded in the game for you to discover.” – Ryan Green
Ryan Green is the creator of That Dragon, Cancer, a game about a young boy suffering from terminal cancer. The boy, Joel, is Green’s son. He was 1 year old when he was diagnosed. News that obviously had a huge impact on the family. Joel was in and out the hospital on a regular basis for treatment. It was around that time that Ryan Green started development on That Dragon, Cancer as a way to cope with the situation. ‘A game of hope in the face of death’, it reads on the website. A couple of months ago, after three years of fighting that dragon, cancer, Joel died.
Green now sees his game as a way of actively mourn the death of his son. “This project has become a gift to me”, he says. “Remembering him well has become my occupation. It is painful but he changed my world and he’s worth memorializing. I get to look at him and listen to his voice and remember what it was like to hold him on my lap and to make him laugh, or comfort him when he didn’t feel well. It is important to remember that we started this project in the midst of the fight. At the time, the end of Joel’s story hadn’t been written. Now, the game has become a way to encode pieces of who Joel was and to examine our family’s hope that remains in the shadow of death.”
When That Dragon, Cancer is finished it will go on to comfort those who are in the same situation as the Greens were, to give them reassurance that they are not alone in their struggle. But it will also reach a much larger audience that has never experienced this. “I find the title ‘Empathy Games’ to be very descriptive and appropriate for what we’re doing”, says Green. “I believe we can benefit as humans by taking time to ‘sit in the ashes’ with someone. Often people just need love. They need you to sit, to be quiet, to give them a hug and to listen to them and to cry with them. I think empathy games can offer the opportunity to practice this kind of care.”
“The phrase ‘indie games’ puts games like Flappy Bird and Papo & Yo under the same label, though they couldn’t be more different from one another.” – Vander Caballero
Vander Caballero is the creator of Papo & Yo, a story about a young boy and his monster. They get along fine most of the times until the monster eats poisonous frogs. He then becomes hostile and goes after the boy. The game is a metaphor for Caballero’s real-life experience as a survivor of an alcoholic father. During an emotional talk at GDC 2013 several members of the audience came up and thanked him for making a game that so closely resonated with their own experiences.
Caballero knows why Papo & Yo was so relatable to so many people. “We do that by making our characters vulnerable. By creating vulnerable, relatable characters, instead of superhuman ones, we set a different kind of expectation. When you are vulnerable, the first step to a problem’s solution is to empathize.” The game designer feels a responsibility for a younger generation. “I want games to become tools that can help us cope with human tragedy, like good books and films can, because younger people spend more time playing video games than reading books.”
That’s why Vander Caballero embraces the term Empathy Games. According to him it helps people to identify what kind of game they are about to play. “What we need now, is the recognition of empathy games as a game genre. The phrase ‘indie games’ puts games like Flappy Bird and Papo & Yo under the same label, though they couldn’t be more different from one another. Our games inspire other developers to take risks by exploring topics that were unthinkable to cover in games five years ago. Today, many other games like Papers, Please and Gone Home are part of a growing movement towards empathy games.”
His reward comes in personal encounters with people finding closure by playing his games. “We receive beautiful encouraging letters from these fans, and our Twitter and Facebook accounts show many testimonials about how our games touch people on an emotional level. This is the kind of thing that is hard to come by when you work at bigger companies.”
“We treat empathy as a ‘skill’ of the player. I think this is the one skill that is most important for the overall experience.” – Kacper Kwiatkowski
In Warsaw, Poland, indie developer 11Bit Studios is working on a war game very different to the many militaristic shooters that top the charts during the holidays. The tagline of the game is In War Not Everyone is a Soldier. In This War of Mine gamers get to play survivors in a city torn by a raging conflict. Cut off from the outside world they have no other option than to make the best of the situation by keeping their heads down and try to stay alive any way they can. That means trading items for food or medicine and keeping out of harm’s way of gangs looting houses and roaming the streets at night.
Kacper Kwiatkowski, designer and writer on This War of Mine feels strongly about the subject matter of the game. “Fortunately no one on the team has ever been in a war situation, however we believe war is something that concerns us all as human beings.” He says that the whole team feels the importance of the project and the responsibility that comes with it. “When you spend your days researching survivor’s horrifying stories and think of ways of telling these stories in your game, you can’t just switch off in the evening.” He pauses for a moment, then adds: “This is the most important thing I have ever been involved in. Definitely going beyond just doing my job.”
In order to understand what it means to survive a hostile world where resources are scarce and danger lurks behind every corner, the team at 11Bit Studios has done extensive research by reading personal accounts and talking to survivors and veterans alike. They have captured the despair and urgency of such a dire situation in a tough game, which they call ‘not fun’. But not all games have to be fun. “So far the thematic spectrum of the games is still much narrower than in other modern media, such as film or even comics. But I’m glad to see that it’s changing, I think partially due to the literal maturation of the audience. The interactivity of the games is a potent tool for telling serious stories in ways unavailable to other media.”
Kwiatkowski says that This War of Mine may be considered an Empathy Game and he’s fine with that, although he doesn’t consider empathy a genre, rather a ‘player skill’. “Where other games require, for instance, quick reflexes, good spatial perception or high precision, we encourage you to understand the characters and make adequate decisions on their behalf”, he says. “Among other skills we rely on, I think empathy is the one that is most important for the overall experience. Recently more and more games are using it as the principal part of the experience. I really hope that it is a movement indeed, and a movement that will only gain importance.”
“I don’t really like the codification of the term Empathy Games. I believe it acts as a scapegoat for mainstream games.” – Mattie Brice
Game critic and developer Mattie Brice feels strongly against the label ‘Empathy Games’ although most of her work is cast in that category. “I believe it acts as a scapegoat for mainstream games to not have to worry about its own problems with human connection and shove it all into a tiny, underserved, under supported corner. I think all games are an exercise in empathy, so ‘empathy games’ is kind of redundant. Rather, most games don’t really give meaningful contexts for players to empathize with. I think we should be skeptical of how the term is being used, especially when we consider this sort of work has a more diverse representation of people than mainstream design.”
In her game Mainichi you get to play a character that takes abuse from the outside world no matter how she presents herself. In the end it’s all about the choice of facing discrimination or avoid all human contact by secluding yourself. Mainichi is based on Brice’s personal experiences. “I wanted for people to leave with a new perspective, and a better understanding of how to live life balancing a whole bunch of different perspectives that aren’t your own. I think play has the power to create new contexts for players that allow them to work through real life issues. Games aren’t just about fun!”
So that brings us to the question whether empathy is a genre or rather a game mechanic. There is no easy answer to this one. As long as the creators don’t agree on this, it’s at least a classification on what to expect of these personal games. Vander Caballero describes empathy games like this: “In my opinion, an empathy game is simple to define: it’s a game in which conflict resolution is not achieved through power-up mechanics.”
He found a group of like-minded people that share his passion to create ‘meaningful games’. “The folks at Minority understand the power and influence of video games on society and, as a result, they care about the kind of experiences they create. In return for the responsibility they take on, they are rewarded with the deeply emotional appreciation of fans worldwide.”
Kacper Kwiatkowski of 11Bit Studios believes in the power of games to tell personal, touching stories. “I think we are maturing. And we’ve just started to understand the power of what we have at our disposal. Games are capable of so much more than they’re mostly used for and I’m sure that there are some great things coming from the sheer realization of that fact.”
Ryan Green agrees that games are a powerful storytelling tool. “Players who grew up speaking the language of video games now desire to use that language to tell their own stories. Games have been waiting for us to grow up into them. But now we’re faced with having to develop new words for new experiences, and I think that will be messy. The elegance of storytelling and mechanics and context and richness will come as more voices learn and contribute their own words to the language.”
He feels empathy to be a feature more than a genre. “Video games offer the ability to inhabit another person’s perspective. It makes a difference to know that the character you inhabit as a player has a real story, a real struggle, just like you. I think it makes a difference if there’s a piece of the creator’s heart encoded in the game for you to discover.” •