Need A Little Empathy: Empathy games give players an opportunity to see a marginalized perspective

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"We Are Chicago" by Culture Shock Games.

Many small game development studios have begun to popularize a new genre game known as “empathy games.” The goal of this new genre is to present the players with new perspectives and situations that help them to understand the struggles of other people. 

“A Normal Lost Phone” is one such empathy game. The entire game is played through interaction with a lost smartphone. The player progresses through the story by peering into information found within the phone and chatting with the phone owner’s (Sam’s) tinder-esque profile matches, one male and one female. 

Through interactions with the phone, the player discovers that Sam is transgender, and struggling with coming out to friends and family. 

“There is something to take away from the game, but it’s not about the interface or the mechanics — those felt wrong from the beginning. It’s about the experience,” co-founder of Accidental Queens Diane Landais said in a press release. “Because the bonds that are created, the chance to understand, the space for introspection — those, hopefully, felt right.” 

Accidental Queens, the studio behind “A Normal Lost Phone,” is an indie studio based in France that pursues more inclusive narratives. “A Normal Lost Phone” has received “Best Indie Game” from the 2016 Game Connection Awards in Europe.

“All of this was done with a specific goal in mind: creating empathy, showing Sam’s story through a new perspective,” Landais said. “The player isn’t a spectator, nor an actor; they see the story unfold as a witness.” 

Landais continued to say that this game exposes players to the minute details in the character's life — explaining that a simple, even trivial text message can have a deep impact on the character, and player interaction with the phone drives that point home. 

“A Normal Lost Phone” is not the only game to encourage players to adopt a new perspective on people and situations. Many games such as “We Are Chicago,” “That Dragon, Cancer,” “Papa & Yo” put players in situations dealing with alcoholism, cancer, poverty and more. 

Through interactions with the phone, the player discovers that Sam is transgender, and struggling with coming out to friends and family.

“‘We Are Chicago’ is our first adventure in making compelling narratives about real stories through videogames,” reads the game’s about page. “We are presenting the stories of people living in financial poverty and who live amidst escalating violence on Chicago’s west and South Side. These stories are the experiences of normal people trying to live normal lives while dealing with gangs, drugs, and socioeconomic problems that are prevalent on the South Side and West Side of Chicago.” 

“We Are Chicago” was created by Culture Shock Games, a small-scale game studio based out of Chicago, Illinois. Founder of the studio Michael Block decided to pursue the game after volunteering at a soup kitchen in an all-black neighborhood. 

To tell a story that was truthful and compelling, Block hired writer Tony Thornton who was a longtime resident of Englewood, a neighborhood that inspired much of “We Are Chicago’s” setting, to ensure that the game was as authentic as possible. 

“We were brainstorming a story with agency and player choice,” Block told Venturebeat. “We were also volunteering on the South Side of Chicago. We heard people dealing with getting mugged on the way to the train and having a gun pointed at them. These were crazy things they had to deal with on a regular basis.”

“We had to think about the violence they experience in their lives,” Block continued. “It was an important story, a true story. That was the start.” 

Alongside Thorton’s input, “We Are Chicago’s” narrative was fueled by multiple first-person interviews. Material from the interviews, as well as Thorton’s own life experiences, made it directly into the game, according to Venturebeat. 

Empathy games are being created with a myriad of themes that explore all corners of the human experience. Many games with LGBT themes help straight, cisgender players step into the shoes of an LGBT character and see the world through their eyes — their struggles become your own. These mechanics are true of bringing attention to any marginalized group or situations. 

“I find the Title ‘Empathy Games’ to be very descriptive and appropriate for what we are doing,” Ryan Green, director of “That Dragon, Cancer” said. “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, be quiet, to give them a hug and to listen to them and cry with them. I think empathy games can offer the opportunity to practice this kind of care.” 

Green’s game comes from his own experience with his son Joel’s battle with brain cancer. According to gaming news site Wired, Joel used the game to deal with his son’s illness — his son was too young to voice his reactions to treatment and his feelings, and Joel translated these frustrations into “That Dragon, Cancer.” 

Game developer Vander Caballero created “Papa & Yo,” a game and metaphor for Caballero’s youth spent with an alcoholic father. He recognized that the world is filled with vulnerability that people don’t want to talk about or acknowledge. By making a game that focuses on what it is like to be vulnerable, to feel helpless, he aims to encourage players to recognize that there is always an opportunity to empathize with those who need it the most. 

“By creating vulnerable, relatable characters, instead of superhuman ones, we set a different kind of expectation,” Caballero said in a press release. “When you are vulnerable, the first step to a problem’s solution is to emphasize. 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.” 

“Our games inspire other developers to take risks by exploring topics that we unthinkable to cover in games five years ago,” Caballero continued. “Today, many other games like ‘Papers, Please’ and ‘Gone Home’ are part of a growing movement towards empathy games.” 


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