Trending Toward Empathy

The games industry is evolving, and more people are experimenting with ways to tell their stories within its unique, interactive parameters. Most people making games now grew up with them and they’re simply part of their self-expression. Caballero says this is only the beginning. “The next five years are going to be really fruitful because the dam has been broken and more people are going to want to create and create ­amazing ­journeys.” 

Games have evolved so much, but the medium is still in its infancy. In just 40 years we’ve gone from two ping-pong paddles to games with full-blown storytelling and vast worlds. Not only is what developers can do with games changing and expanding, but the people who’ve been playing them all these years are maturing as well.

 This is part of why Pope thinks we’re ready for these deeper experiences and sees the shift towards these types of games as just a natural outgrowth of maturing games. He uses himself as an example of someone who played games his whole life, and thinks video games are such a large part of this generation. “It’s a common way to experience things and naturally it’s evolved past the idea that it has to be a game where you jump on heads and save the Mushroom Kingdom,” he says. “I think we expect more and we’re more open to different kinds of games, so it’s just natural that we get games that...have deeper messages that people are using to express something about ­their ­life.”

The big publishers will continue to deliver triple-A titles, but the evolving medium will continue to become more inclusive of different experiences and people. Games that are just about fun like Mario aren’t going to be displaced by these types of games. When we sit down to play, we often want different things – which is why we have so many different options for not only games, but their respective genres. O’Neill agrees, and thinks games that tackle real subject matter have their own place in the industry. “We’re going to have art-house stuff,” he says. “We’re going to have stuff that is not hugely possessed of a commercial potential, but which will have small groups of people that are passionately devoted to it. I think you’re going to see more and more growth of that kind of scene…we’re not going to ding into Grand Theft Auto V or Call of Duty. It’s going to be two separate things. I don’t think that the two are against each other.”

The Trend Continues: War as a Survivor

For years, games have explored the topic of war, but This War of Mine is set to shake things up. You’re placed in the role of a civilian as war breaks out and must survive by scavenging supplies, maintaining shelter, and finding food.

The studios knows this game is different than anything they’ve done before. “With this one we’re creating something we really believe is art,” says senior writer Pawel Miechowski. “It’s something more than entertainment. A regular game is supposed to deliver entertainment and fun, but with this one we’re delivering a message.”

The message won’t be spoon fed to you with heavy dialogue; instead, 11 Bit Studios wants to take advantage of a video game platform. “The experience itself is the message, because it’s going to be your experience,” Miechowski says. “So, you’re going to look at yourself and how you behave when the war breaks out. It’s going to be you making good or bad moral decisions.”

Miechowski believes the format works by letting people experience the situation at hand. “Games are perfect to talk about important things because you’re going to be in the middle of the experience…you’re [not] a spectator,” he says. “If someone stops and thinks after playing This War of Mine, that would be really great for us as creators of the message.”

Questions For The Future

The burgeoning scene of games that tackle real-world issues is a positive development, but can they actually teach empathy? After all, there has to be a reason so many people are referring to them as “empathy games.” However, the research isn’t there yet and empathy is difficult to gauge, so it’s hard to know exactly what these games are causing. “It’s great to set empathy as a goal, but we do have to be wary of claims for empathy,” says Mary Flanagan, director of Tiltfactor Lab, a serious game research center at Dart mouth College. “Because a game that claims empathy, if it’s not tested and evidence is not gathered, can easily be some kind of other relationship…We do have to be careful about what we’re claiming our games do because most of the time we don’t really know.”

But feeling empathy from a game isn’t completely off the table. Flanagan says some studies in other media might be applicable to games. “There’s some great evidence about fiction and being able to lose yourself in fiction and possibly being able to really get into the mindset of someone else in terms of an empathetic situation,” she says. Flanagan spoke about movies that let you take on first- person points of view in narratives that “increases this idea of experience taking” and “can lead to notions of empathy.” Unfortunately, this has yet to be evaluated with video games. “We don’t have great studies about empathy in games,” Flanagan says. “Part of it is that it’s very difficult to measure, and we don’t have a lot of experimental research in games in general.” 

Flanagan hopes that we see more research emerge on if these games are actually promoting pro-social behavior. “We know very little about what games are doing [or] how we can use them well,” she says. “We know them as an art form. We know when people are moved. We know when people are horrified. But I don’t think we know very much about what games are doing and what their potential is, and that’s why it’s an interesting field right now. It really is a frontier, and I hope we have rigorous researchers who can come along and let us know and some of this stuff may be stuff we don’t want ­to ­hear.”

Art often imitates life, and we often create what we know. Video games are no exception. Hopefully, these types of games will grow past the arbitrary title of “empathy game,” and just be accepted as another type of genre like drama movies or autobiographical books. Time will tell where it leads, but it’s hard to deny this is an interesting new direction that’s only bound to build more momentum.