Videogames and Empathy

Towards a Post-Normative Ludic Century

Steve Wilcox is editor-in-chief of First Person Scholar. He is a PhD candidate at the University of Waterloo, where he studies the intersection between ludology and intersubjectivity.


Videogames and empathy—you could hardly be blamed for thinking that these two things have very little in common. Just last week Polygon published an opinion essay titled “No skin thick enough: The daily harassment of women in the game industry.” In the essay the author, Brianna Wu, details the abuse directed at women involved with videogames. It’s a demoralizing read, one that had me reflecting on the notion that we are entering a ‘ludic century’ (Zimmerman), in which our culture will be defined by systems, games, and play. If that’s true, then we need to seriously consider what Heather Chaplin calls the ‘dark side of the ludic century’—an age in which we become better at analyzing systems and detecting patterns, and less capable of sympathy and empathy. From this perspective, the trouble with games and empathy may have only just begun as the ludic century could be a period of prolonged detachment and disengagement from one another.

But I’m going to take things in a different direction by arguing that games are inherently about developing empathy towards one another. This begins by thinking of games in the same way that others have thought about art in general: as a means of training the imagination to create new contexts in which to discover new knowledge. This is how the Italian scholar Giambattista Vico approached education, for instance, telling his students to immerse themselves in public discourse and art. He believed that in doing so students could train their imaginations to create contexts in which the ideas, beliefs, and values of various members of the community would become apparent and meaningful in a way that no literal description or definition could.

As I argue below, games excel at creating these contexts in which new knowledge can be discovered. In fact, I push this even further by suggesting that the ludic century could fully realize the potential Vico saw for art to foster a greater sense of community. For he saw that potential in an age of the printing press, and we are now entering an age abundant with artistic media that are connected to a vast global distribution network. Together they allow for the creation and circulation of games on a grand scale. It follows that if art really does train our imaginations to create new contexts and discover new knowledges and games excel at this process, then a ludic century could become a century of unparalleled understanding, one in which we embrace the need for active engagement and collaboration in understanding systems and our places within them. If such a scenario were to come to pass, we could be looking at a post-normative age, one in which cultural norms and tropes would be an outdated means of understanding one another, replaced by an ever-growing number of games that forge connections between cultures and communities. Obviously such an argument is beyond the scope of this article, but I want to show how we could be moving towards such a state.

Empathy, Context, and Games

The argument here is simple one: art can train us to be more empathetic and understanding. But from the outset here I want to clarify that my approach to empathy differs from the idea that it is a given innate quality that certain people fail to exercise. Furthermore, I will not be arguing that games allow us to be more understanding because we have now experienced what it is like to be another person (Merritt Kopas has lampooned this idea rather well with her “Empathy Machine”). Instead, I suggest that empathy is a skill and that videogames can and do train that skill.

That ‘skill’ I am referring to is the capacity to imagine or speculate about the various contexts in which people are situated, meaning that empathy is that which prevents us from de-contextualizing or re-contextualizing the experiences and knowledges of other people. What I will argue below is that games, and especially videogames, train us to create new contexts, and so they fulfill this requirement of empathy. This, in turn, provides the gamer with a greater capacity to contextualize the experiences and knowledges of various people, allowing him or her to ‘discover’ knowledge in the context in which it is most meaningful.

Pawns on The Wire

Games allow us to create contexts in which players can locate themselves and other people. This can be seen in a number of ways, but here I’ll draw my example from a popular television show, The Wire. If you’ve seen The Wire, you might recall one particular episode in which D’Angelo Barksdale, a somewhat reluctant drug dealer, sees his two fellow dealers playing a game of chess. Or at least, they’re playing with the chess pieces, as it’s clear that they have no concept of the rules. Barksdale proceeds to explain how the game works but in doing so he not-so-subtly establishes that they too are playing a game in selling drugs. And just like pawns dying for their king, they are expected to sacrifice their own lives for those higher up the chain of command. But rather than accepting this bleak but likely outcome, the two younger dealers identify with the faint hope that a pawn, having reached the end of the board, can become a queen.

In this scenario Barksdale uses the game of chess to create a context in which the two young dealers can locate themselves. And his intention appears to be to have them discover the knowledge that such a role is not worth the sacrifice—they will be used and likely discarded in a game that they will never really win. Instead, they embrace the metaphor in which they overcome the odds and escape their social standing within the organization, like the few pawns that become queens. It’s a nice little moment in which a game is used to critique the rules of a system by training its players to recognize themselves as participants. In fact, they are participants with ascribed roles that provide them with a slim but nevertheless enticing chance of success.

More generally speaking, what the chess metaphor demonstrates is the capacity for games to allow players to think through complex systems by creating contexts in which they can locate themselves (in this case, as pawns), and other people (in this case, the king, queen, bishops, and rooks stand in for those higher up in the gang). This communicates a rather sophisticated set of relationships in a remarkably straightforward way. But what this example doesn’t do quite as well is establish the ability for games to allow us to imagine distinct contexts. In order make this point, I turn now to a game that makes this point very explicit.

Equality Street

I was at a talk last week in which Amanda Phillips presented Equality Street, a videogame created by her students in one of her recent classes. The game, inspired by the arcade classic Frogger, has the player guiding various characters across a busy street. The twist is that in Equality Street the characters are treated differently based on race and gender. On her blog Phillips offers the following summary:

The game has four levels, each starring a different roommate: one white male, one white female, one nonwhite male, and one nonwhite female. Each avatar has not only a different difficulty level, but faces different obstacles in the journey home: for example, women dodge stalkers on the street, and nonwhite characters must contend with patrolling police who will arrest them for jaywalking – a charge, the students noted, that is particularly absurd.

Here it could be said that the game itself trains players to perceive that a system can produce distinct contexts depending on one’s position within that system. For instance, the context in which the white male character exists is one defined by a freedom of movement, and a greater chance of success. This would lead the player to have one kind of experience and to form one kind of knowledge based on that experience. Namely, that the game is easy. In contrast, by playing the game as a non-white character or as a female character, the player realizes distinct contexts, from which different experiences and knowledges emerge. Out of this play the player learns how to move knowledge between distinct positions in such a way that it remains in context in respect to a particular individual.

Situated Knowledges

What Equality Street indicates is that experience, knowledge, and context cannot be separated from one another, as the game cannot be said to be objectively easy or difficult without addressing for whom that is true. Donna Haraway addresses this peculiarity about knowledge in her concept of ‘situated knowledges.’ For Haraway, knowledge is objective when it is correlated with a particular perspective from which it appears to be true. Equality Street represents this quite clearly as the knowledge that the game is difficult must be correlated with a particular character in order for that statement to be accurate. On the other hand, to describe the entire game as easy is to make a universal claim, one that denies the relevance of context. In contrast to the definition of empathy above, this suggests that apathy could be defined as the inability to contextualize the experiences and knowledges of other people. This would, for instance, prevent an individual from understanding a statement that is true but that doesn’t directly relate to his or her context. Put differently, if you’ve only played the game on easy, you will likely struggle to understand why others find it so difficult.

I’ve already suggested that art, and more specifically games, train us to create new contexts and therefore to overcome this sense of apathy. What Haraway’s concept of situated knowledges adds here is that it suggests that empathy relies on “the ability partially to translate knowledges among very different—and power-differentiated—communities” (Haraway “Situated Knowledges”). By merging Vico’s theory of art with Haraway’s theory of knowledge, it’s possible to see that games train the player’s ability to translate knowledge between communities by creating contexts or situations in which that knowledge is most meaningful and persuasive. Equality Street, for instance, allows the white male player to partially translate knowledge of discrimination. It is only partial because the knowledge is not his experience but he can appreciate that it is nevertheless true by situating it in the context where the rules apply differently to different characters.

Taken altogether, games offer training in translating knowledges across communities through contexts. In this respect it is worth noting that Equality Street seems targeted specifically at white males and facilitating their capacity to translate knowledges. This is distinct from mainstream videogames in which the context of the white male is often the only one represented. This establishes a kind of confirmation bias in which the white male gamer only ‘sees’ the world form one perspective, suggesting that it is the only perspective. Such a scenario establishes a game culture in which players fundamentally cannot recognize contexts other than their own. And so this approach described here should be considered highly critical of any culture that is homogenous and exclusionary, as this could potentially enforce a kind of apathy, and inhibit empathy and understanding.

A Post-Normative Ludic Century

What the ludic century might offer is a counter-balancing of this bias as those historically marginalized by the largely masculine industry continue to create and proliferate videogames. And not just any kind of videogames, but those that move past the white, masculine, and heteronormative tropes that have come to dominate the medium. In fact, a shift of this nature was outlined by Anna Anthropy in her Rise of the Videogame Zinesters. In this respect, games such as Dys4ria, Gone Home, Mainichi, Lim, Depression Quest, Howling Dogs, and many more, offer a potential glimpse into the future of videogames that is far more empathetic than apathetic.

All of this converges in a potentially promising century, one in which an art form that is ideally suited to fostering understanding rises to cultural prominence at the same time that it begins to more accurately reflect the various communities that make up our culture. This suggests to me that the ludic century has the potential to realize a post-normative state, one in which cultural and social norms no longer serve their regulatory function, as the ever-expanding library of games that produce new contexts, and afford the discovery of new knowledges, begin to obsolesce the very idea of a norm. Such a state arises out of a gaming culture that increasingly relies on active collaboration and community engagement, rather than outdated norms and tropes, as its members continue to understand how systems—be them social, political, cultural, or ludic— impact all persons.

Works Cited

Chaplin, Heather. “The Ludic Century: Exploring The Manifesto.” Kotaku. 9 Sept. 2013. Web. 28 July 2014.

Haraway, Donna. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.” Feminist Studies, 14.3 (1988): 575-599. Print.

Phillips, Amanda. “Crossing Paths with Colorblindness: Equality Street.” Amanda Phillips. 19 Nov. 2013. Web. 28 July 2014.

Wu, Brianna. “No skin thick enough: The daily harassment of women in the game industry.” Polygon. 22 July 2014. Web. 28 July 2014.

Zimmerman, Eric. “Manifesto: The 21st Century Will Be Defined By Games.” Kotaku. 9 Sept. 2013. Web. 28 July 2014.



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