Why Empathy is the Next Big Thing in Video Games

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In an interview conducted by CBC Radio host Nora Young, professor Ian Bogost spoke on the emergence of empathy games—a newly defined genre of games that seek to foster a sense of empathy with a character.

Empathy-driven games simulate an experience constrained by rules in which the player is not empowered, and they may offer commentary on experiences ranging from childhood bullying to the morality choices inherent in expanding a fast food empire. Games like RIOT, which simulates riots that have occured in places like Egypt and Italy, are eliciting empathy in a manner that differs in significant way from experiencing narratives through film or novels.

"You’re not just watching something; you’re making choices, you’re enacting actions inside of the experience. Something is different about that kind of empathy. It’s a subtle distinction, but an important one," said Ian Bogost. "Instead of the empathy being a matter of affective feeling that’s emanating from your head and your heart towards the screen or pages of a book, it’s about the decisions you can make and what if feels like to be inside the logic of that other individual’s life. What kinds of choices are available? Which ones aren’t? What does it feel like to operate the machinery of their world?"

Bogost, whose research interest lies in "serious games," or those that have a primary purpose other than entertainment, notes that bridging the cerebral and emotional aspects of an experience is a tension that has been shifting over time. Empathy games, in which the player is embodied in or presented with an inidividual character, weight the emotional aspects more heavily than their systems-oriented counterparts.

"The delightful and beneficial feature of games, which can also be seen as their flaw, is that they’re very logical apparatuses; they’re computer software. You have resources you manage, you make choices, and you build thing," said Bogost. "[...] games like Civilization and Sim City... you’re at a remove, building stuff, and things are happening below you but you’re in charge and making calculated decisions."

As a video game designer and researcher in the Digital Media program in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at Georgia Tech, Bogost spoke on the use of different philosophies used both by different creators and in different game genres. He notes Paolo Pedercini and Vander Caballero as designers with contrasting approaches to empathy games, comparing the systems-oriented approach to The McDonald's Game with the personal narrative of Papa y Yo, as well as speaking on where he falls on the spectrum.

"For me, as a designer who’s interested in systems-oriented gameplay and the empathy of felling what it’s like to be subjected to a circumstance or scenario that’s different from the one you occupy rather than a specific individual…you look at the world and find these systems," said Bogost. "How does it behave? What is the part of it that you find interesting and appealing? I’m really fascinated with mundane, repetitive, and laborious work, especially work in particular: the kind of menial labor of working in restaurants or copy shops."

While empathy games may be on the rise, Bogost notes that the genre's segmentation out from other games may provide a rehtorical function in and of itself.

"You don’t turn on the television and go to the empathy channel so you can watch the empathy shows. It’s just assumed that empathy is baked in to these media. Good works would provide empathy, and bad works would fail to. We’re trying so hard to respond to this trivialization of games that perhaps we’re overcorrecting in a way."

Bogost concludes the interview by speaking on the importance of providing alternative gameplay alongside larger commercial games, noting that the inclusion of empathy games like Papa y Yo in online marketplaces adjacent to games like Bejewled is an affordance in the game industry that not only increase the diversity of experiences represented, but also validates all of these forms of gameplay.

Listen to the full interview...

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Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts, School of Literature, Media, and Communication

Student and Faculty
bogost, cbc, Digital Media, Games, interview, LMC, press, radio
  • Created By: Beth Godfrey
  • Workflow Status: Published
  • Created On: May 27, 2015 - 6:23am
  • Last Updated: Oct 7, 2016 - 10:27pm