Fellow Travellers on a Journey

Design for Empathy

By Liam B.

For a young man addled by undiagnosed ADHD and OCD, it's hardly a surprise the role that video games played for me. They were an accessible source of adrenaline that stimulated and focused a wild mind.

As I grew older, the OCD caused long periods of severe paranoia and obsession about everything from disease to home invasions to super volcanoes. Eventually, I started asking that terrible little question: Why bother? When you are racked by your fear of both life and death, death can paradoxically become a more comforting prospect.

There is something to be said for muddling through; there is something to be said for finding a reason to keep living, day after day.

Whenever I was suffocating, I would find a reason to keep going by thinking of the upcoming video games I just had to play. Yep, the much-maligned hype cycle that drives some gamers to manic fits drove me to wake up every morning.

But video games were more than just a bandage. As I was eking by, I believe video games helped change me for the better. Games hold unique potential, able to take advantage of the murky line between real and construction. And what a powerful moment it is when the boundaries between fact and fiction peel away, a moment that can be the impetus of change. Video games use this to make more than entertainment. It can communicate – and even lead players through – lived experiences.

This is what they did for me. By pulling my focus away from the boundaries of reality, they helped me see outside myself, and gain empathy.

One example, Journey, a critical darling in which you control hooded figures traveling through a ruined world of sand and snow, has a multiplayer that stays true to the larger themes of the game – anonymous players dip in and out to travel with you. They look as undistinguished as you, and they can’t significantly help or hurt you. You are one of many travelers taking this journey. The game treats your journey as both insignificant, one spoke in a wheel, and significant, important because everyone is important in this world. And this produced a different sort of multiplayer experience. If you look back on tales of the game's multiplayer, they were largely ones of shared struggle and small kindnesses.

On one occasion, I played the game almost the entire way through with one stranger. At the nadir of the story, my scarf, which allows you to fly and grows as you collect shining runes, was torn apart during one of the game’s few enemy encounters. It was a small frustration on a bad day; I left my avatar on the ground where he landed, to sulk in the snow. The player I was with, who could have easily continued onward to no penalty or effect, came to stand by me and chirp – the only way of communicating in the game. It was so innocuous, so simple, but I still remember it vividly years later.

It is easy to take for granted the occasional anonymous acts of goodwill in games, especially when the game encourages it with points or requires it for progress. In my case, my partner had no reason to do this other than compassion for the sake of compassion. That was all it was: a simple act of empathy between two tenuously connected people, produced by this miraculous game.

Is it preposterous to give video games that power? Maybe, but the revolutionary power of art is as old as art itself. This may seem insubstantial, a platitude disguised as a life lesson. Understand though, I was a lonely young man prone to dangerous obsession, and my worst obsession was with my own misery. I can see an alternate version of myself who gestated in resentment until I lashed out at anyone who felt threatening to my way of life. And my hope for video games is this – a powerful tool for emotional intelligence.

Video games today often encourage that insularity that I described as a dangerous force in my life. Multiplayer games encourage you to crush your opposition, to be the best, and most single-player games cast you as the solitary thing that can save the day. Video games, as a rule, are fiercely individualistic and hierarchical.

But video games and the culture surrounding them are deceptively diverse, and even games guilty of the worst impulses are complicated, lengthy works, with so much content from which to derive meaning. Something in that cluster of meaning helped save me from me, even in spite of itself.

The games that proved pivotal for me questioned the player’s place – the use of systems in service of the player’s triumph. A more emotionally intelligent artform must first question the dominant style of power fantasy.

Combat-centric AAA games have proven capable of asking better questions. In the zombie apocalypse game The Last of Us, a lot of players found Joel’s actions reprehensible, and they were infuriated by their lack of agency, especially being required to kill characters that they might have agreed with as players. Though the story may sound overwrought, the quiet moments of relationship-building through the game fiercely endeared me to Ellie. By the end, I was reflexively on the war path with Joel, and when I opened the door and saw a threat to Ellie, I shot him without a second thought.

The people who took issue with Joel are correct. He's little more than a selfish murderer, from one angle. But this tension between player and character was inspired. These players were feeling an uncomfortable disconnect in a medium that often at least provides an illusion of choice during morally questionable moments. It challenged the right of the player to have such control. For me, it provided a different tension. I felt a sense of culpability in Joel’s actions. The ease of which I acted against my own values was discomforting. It was just a game, but in fleeting moments of high emotion, should we dismiss our feelings because of the medium that evoked them?

The stakes felt real. Ellie felt real. So was my choice not meaningful?

At one point, I started playing as a female character in a role playing game. Despite the formulaic Hero's Journey narrative, I was still interacting with people as a female avatar, an avatar that I felt was both me and not me, in a decently well-realized world. When male NPCs condescended to my avatar, I felt anger, tasting just a bit of the reality women live with. I believe existing in an artificial world as a female helped build the foundation of a more complicated, intelligent empathy. Maybe that’s more of a testament to the deeply ingrained sexism of our culture than the power of games, but it gave me what I may not have had otherwise.

Other games have different approaches. Games like Gone Home and The Beginner’s Guide imagine the player as a sort of voyeur, with minimal agency but an ability to experience a different type of story in the 3D space. Actual Sunlight and Depression Quest give players control, but move the barriers of that control to an unusual place – instead of being confined by just the arbitrary limits of the developer, you are confined by the nature of a mental disorder, limited by the stuff of everyday life. A recent game, Senua’s Sacrifice, is also about mental illness, but it forcefully imagines a narrative and spatial structure controlled by the disease. It asks players to fulfill the traditional player role in an untraditional, even unusually hostile, play space.

These are all examples of how games can challenge the player’s assumptions in a more visceral and direct way than other mediums are capable of. But even more traditional games can still widen a player’s world. The disempowering design of survival horror can be an opportunity to explore different forms of power and disempowerment, and the genre has a long history of tackling mental illness, to good and bad effect. Strategy games like Solaris and Europa Universalis encourage players to engage with systems with real-world equivalent, including systemizing discrimination and oppressions. These games normally present such things as just another option in societal control; envisioning a game that nudges a player to pause and consider is not difficult.

Some may see this as grossly political, but a game industry more considerate of the way it tells stories is not one that laces every game with easy progressive talking points. That would be painfully transparent and ineffective. It is, however, one that embraces the self-evident need for diversity. By creating a space for diversity of experience, voice, and technique, you diversify not just the types of stories told and the audience, but the ways games relate to the player as well.

This is an inherent problem for all market-driven art, but it's difficult to conceive of a medium that could benefit as much as video games. Perhaps even more benefited by games that both soothe and expand the mind would be the young men and women struggling like I was – kids who can’t see beyond their own problems, and kids with problems that prevent them from experiencing the diversity of the world outside their bubbles.

The game industry would certainly like to further tap into the "power of games" – but to what end? As we improve technical complexity and sophistication in storytelling, the industry does not often leave much space to ask how it should use the new tools, defaulting to the normal style. A game industry primarily concerned with its own moral integrity is utopic, a game industry with greater creative diversity is not.

For now the games capable of guiding players' empathy are not the easiest to find, and not the ones most people play, but they are out there. Hopefully time and generational shifts will help diversify the workforce, as well as management and their expectations for audiences, but progress is never a given. Gamers should take it on themselves to push for a larger space, both in the independent and AAA market, for the more diverse experiences that already exist on the fringes. We should do this not just because it will produce better products, but because it will make gaming not just an amoral product but a more deliberate force for good.

Mine is far from what I would call a hopeful story. At a different angle, it is pitiful, and video games might have kept me in that sickening status quo, enforcing my reluctance to get help by keeping me just above water. But even while I might have thought I was merely treading water, games trained me to look outside myself, and in that I see hope.


This is an incredible piece. Densely written, but not abstruse.


Admittedly, I wrote "obtuse" first instead of "abstruse" and had to do a quick search to figure out the proper word. "Obtuse" would be way out of place here as there's nothing simple minded about this.

So much of it echoes my own thoughts, feeling and life experiences. Admittedly, however, games rarely moved me the way they moved you, my emotional connection is more to books and music. Can't say they helped me see and feel things through other's point of view. Mostly they reinforced my POV, though that view may be clouded by my own obsession with myself.

The piece loses me a bit with the "grossly political" portion because I can't help but see and feel the overt politicking, even if I agree with the overall sentiment.

The end wrapped things up nicely, however. Sometimes treading water is all we can do until something shocks us into awareness and motivation.