Empathy games tread thin line between 'edutainment' and virtual voyeurism

In an era marked by ubiquitous technology, the idea of teaching empathy through video games holds a certain appeal. But can gaming really improve understanding?

Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters
A gamer wears virtual reality (VR) goggles at the world's largest computer games fair, Gamescom, in Cologne, Germany, August 23, 2017.

“Dys4ia” isn’t your typical video game. There are no bosses to defeat or weapons to soup up. On their face, the challenges are even more simple than the game’s pixelated graphics: Try to squeeze into an ill-fitting shirt; Find an empty stall in the women’s restroom. And unlike most games, “Dys4ia” cannot really be won. That’s because “Dys4ia” is more than a game. It’s an autobiographical depiction of a transgender woman’s journey through hormone replacement therapy.

Since its release in 2012, “Dys4ia” has received critical acclaim for its gameplay, but more so for its politics. Through deeply personal vignettes, it appeared to communicate the unseen struggles of an already underrepresented community. It came to be known as an “empathy game,” because it allowed players to “walk a mile in the shoes” of a trans woman. This was the promise that so many hung on “Dys4ia” and other games like it.

But many creators of so-called empathy games have grown to resent the term. Anna Anthropy, creator of “Dys4ia”, was shocked to find that classrooms and conferences were using her game to teach people “what it’s like to be a trans woman.” For one thing, she never intended for “Dys4ia” to be representative of any collective “trans experience.” It is simply a window into her individual experience. And while it offers a glimpse of how one trans woman views her world, it is unlikely to generate the same level of mutual understanding that comes from actually interacting with people.

“As creators – especially those of us who deal with things like trauma, disability, mental illness or the experience of being a member of a marginalized community – we want to express these things,” says Karl Hohn, a member of the New York-based art and indie game collective Babycastles. “But you start running the risk of emotional tourism when your work is understood as, ‘listen to this song, play this game, go see this play, watch the film and you’ll understand.’ ”

The promise of empathy games

In an era marked by ubiquitous technology, the idea of teaching empathy through video games holds a certain appeal. And there’s considerable precedent for the illustration of other perspectives through play and storytelling.

“Humans learn empathy through interaction and imitation and play,” Mr. Hohn says. “That’s how children learn empathy. And a lot of studies do suggest that immersing yourself in another person’s state of mind is beneficial to empathy.”

Games like “Dys4ia” can offer an intial step toward understanding the experiences of marginalized communities, but the work of developing true empathy needs to be ongoing and should include both active engagement with people from those communties and a certain amount of self-reflection, says Anthropy.

The label “empathy game” gives players implicit permission to excuse themselves from doing the “ongoing, conscious work of addressing their privilege,” Anthropy says. Once players believe they have sufficiently empathized with the subject of the game, they can parachute out of the experience without actually applying that empathy to their lives.

“Empathy games rarely address how a privileged audience is complicit in the suffering they're dipping their toes into,” Anthropy says, “and ultimately the whole process is a congratulatory pat on the back rather than something that leads into actionable behavior.”

Anthropy responded with an art installation called “Empathy Game,” which debuted at Babycastles gallery in 2015. She invited players to strap on a pair of her old boots (fitted with a pedometer) and travel along a winding path. Walking a mile in Anthropy’s shoes, literally, would win you a single point – but that’s all. The game offered some competitive satisfaction, but ultimately taught players nothing about her actual experience. The point, Anthropy says, was to highlight “hollow notions” of empathy and allyship won in a few minutes of gameplay.

The term “empathy game,” by design, treats empathy as a goal to be achieved. So when a player completes the game, the subtext is that they have suddenly “become empathetic” to the experience of a person or group. But empathy is a process of ongoing education and self-reflection, Hohn suggests, not just a state of being.

“I think, at best, these games could open the door for you to start the self-examination and emotional labor that is required to achieve empathy,” he adds.

Virtual voyeurism?

In recent years, virtual reality has emerged as the latest vehicle for empathy-driven storytelling. When director Chris Milk brought his “Clouds Over Sidra” to the United Nations in 2015, the virtual reality documentary, which follows a young Syrian girl in a refugee camp, opened to praise. Sidra’s plight, it seemed, was especially poignant in 360 degrees.

The following year, UNESCO published a report claiming that digital games could support peace education and conflict resolution. Mr. Milk, in a TED Talk that has since garnered over a million views online, called VR headsets “empathy machines. 

But critics question the impact of such machines, and who actually benefits from them.

Robert Yang, a game developer and assistant professor at New York University’s Game Center, is skeptical that the “refugee simulators” popularized by Milk can express profound suffering and difficult political situations in a five-minute run time. Moreover, he argues that VR films simply can’t replace the most powerful type of empathy, the kind you get from talking face-to-face with a real person.

“There’s a weird voyeurism involved,” Mr. Yang says. “Supposedly you’re there when you put on these VR headsets, but you’re not really there. You’re no one. No one acknowledges you [in the virtual space]. There is no relationship there, and I think it’s really hard to develop empathy when there’s no relationship.”

Yang says part of the problem might be how new the technology is; that people are so dazzled by the spectacle of VR that they don’t stop to think critically about it. And when the goggles come off, that momentary reaction of empathy ends.

“Immersion comes from world building and character development,” says Hohn of Babycastles. “We are so invested in the idea that digital technology can help our empathy, that we’re losing track of how older forms really succeeded there.”

Taking a page from literature

That’s not to say that VR can’t embody “better” empathy. Subtlety, Hohn says, is one lesson that interactive storytellers could learn from novels and plays.

“You need to sort of bake the empathy in without putting it right on the front,” Hohn says. Literature and theater do this by highlighting the struggles of marginalized groups through nuanced character development, rather than taking an instructional tone.

“[Empathy machines] almost sound like emotional edutainment games,” he says. “It’s like ‘Reader Rabbit’ for how to feel. And most edutainment games aren’t very good at being a game, and they aren’t very good at education. The ones that are successful are the ones where the educational goal is secondary to the gameplay and the narrative and the world that’s been built for the game.”

A better empathy machine might also support complexity. Social and political realities are often messy and morally ambiguous. By asking players to navigate those complexities, interactive storytellers may be able to evoke a more lasting empathy.

“1979 Revolution: Black Friday” is often characterized as an empathy game, though its creators would argue there’s more to it. The game follows Reza, a young photojournalist who returns to Iran amid revolution, and whose choices inform a number of possible endings. Players are encouraged to consider how their own agency relates to other people and events. Empathy, says executive producer Vassiliki Khonsari, is at the core of the experience.

“I think if we did have an overarching message, the message was to complicate history,” Ms. Khonsari says. “The message was to show how good people end up doing bad things, and how bad people end up doing possibly good things. Once you start unpacking that and becoming cognizant of the consequences of your agency and the decisions you make, you can see how those are really the threads that have created the fabric of history....”

Interactive art can communicate powerful messages, Khonsari says, as long they ask us to reflect dynamically on our values, morals, and interactions with the world.

“What’s unique about video games is [what] they ask of you,” Khonsari remarks. “You have to be an active participant. Through that interactivity, you are giving of yourself and creating a sort of emotional and cognitive investment in the consequences of your actions. That allows you to exercise empathy, because you’re trying to understand what that position is and what the consequences of that position are.”

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