Empathy Engines: Introduction


Before we get into the meat of this book, let’s get to know each other. My name’s Elizabeth, I’m a game designer, and I grew up living in a big house a mile north of town in rural Montana. My parents weren’t around much, so I mostly just played video games. Those long nights playing games might be why I’m a game designer today; the fact that I was the only person home might be why I focus so intensely on the idea of games as a way to foster genuine connections between people.

If I want, I can tell you in detail about growing up alone in a giant, empty house. If I’m a good storyteller, you’ll be able to picture it in your head. And if I’m an excellent storyteller, you’ll try to imagine what it was like for me, and I’ll help you imagine, and at the end of my story you’ll feel sympathy for me and some kind of understanding of my experience, no matter how limited that understanding may be.

People put themselves at a distance from whatever stories we hear, unless extraordinary measures are taken by the storyteller. Our inabilities to conjure the emotional and physical enormities within a news story is a defense mechanism, and one we sorely need: it would be difficult to function if we could picture every sick child in an article about disease, or every dead body in a report about war.

Our brains sanitize the input they receive to shield us from this emotional transference. This distance can be injurious in less obvious ways: the more ways in which someone’s life differs from ours, the harder it can be to fully relate when we are faced with that person’s reality. We often hear and mentally acknowledge a person’s story without ever quite fully understanding their circumstances.

My story isn’t me, and your story isn’t you. People are not nouns; we’re verbs.

Getting back to my childhood for a moment: the house, the dirt road and the isolation aren’t actually what made me who I am. So what if we get rid of that stuff? What if we pare down the set dressing and we get to the heart of the story— being alone and uncertain in an isolated place— and I put you there. If I dropped you in a giant, empty house on a hill, if there were no other people around, and all you had was your computer— if you spent your days in a middle school where you had no friends, and your evening making friends with Commander Keen and King Graham— what would you do? How would you feel?

By placing you in this circumstance instead of describing my own feelings, you’ll have feelings of your own. And at the end, you won’t feel sympathy— you’ll feel empathy, because you have a small taste of what it’s really like. That’s the power of systems.

One of the most surprising things about game design is how few people realize the ways in which their personalities, histories, and unconscious biases affect the worlds and systems they create. Everyone exists under a unique intersection of systems and constraints, and those systems and constraints are the things that create our worldview. Often, these constraints are invisible to us because they’re just the way the world is. At least, the way the world is for us.

But what if we’re able to start critically examining ourselves and our world?

I was the content designer for a browser-based simulation game called Matriarchy. It was based on a semi-legendary ancient Chinese society run by women; you were the ruler, and you had to make choices about a large number of problems facing your nation. You had advisors who would think about those problems and give you suggestions, and depending on your choices, your nation would love or hate you.

I was brought on early in the development cycle, but the creator of the game had already made a lot of example problems, advisor suggestions, and related outcomes. I read what was already there, and then I asked the designer some important questions: generally speaking, what kinds of things make the nation’s subjects happy? What kinds of actions upset them? What about the neighboring countries the player interacts with— what are their overarching agendas?

The designer had never thought about those questions before I asked them. He told me he had “just been going with the logical outcomes.”

I’m sure that if he had remained the only designer creating content for the game, that the behavior of the advisors and the nation’s subjects would have remained consistent and compelling without those questions ever having been answered. That said, the fact that we took a step back as a team to really explore those questions allowed us to make sure that every writer on the game used the same logic. It also allowed us to really look at our own biases and assumptions: what was “logical” in that world? Were we putting our patriarchal, modern-day sensibilities into the mouths and actions of another culture? If we look at the suggestions the advisors make beyond “logic,” can we make those characters feel more alive and vital?

The goal of Matriarchy, from a design perspective, was to create a vibrant and compelling world full of difficult choices, and a system that could show the player the results of her actions on large and small scales. By looking at the invisible assumptions that lay at the foundation of the game, we became aware that we were making statements about the wants and needs of a nation, about what we believed lead to prosperity or despair. And by becoming aware of what we were really saying in the game, we were able to pick our statements far more carefully than we otherwise would have.

And that’s the first and most fundamental skill this book will teach you.

We’re going to talk about learning to ask the right questions, finding and examining systems that exist in the real world, abstracting those systems into game mechanics, and manipulating those systems for emotional impact. This book will also discuss some games that do these things well: these often aren’t blockbuster hits, but instead exemplify new and innovative thinking about games, often coming from marginalized people.

The most prominent examples of personal, autobiographical, or “empathy” games come from people who are marginalized by society and mainstream media. This is perhaps due to a confluence of factors. Representation of characters and experiences beyond those of cis, straight, able-bodied white men (and to a lesser degree, cis, straight, able-bodied white women) are difficult to find; and when the systems and constraints a person lives under create systemic inequality, those systems are easier for people living under them to consciously discover, name, and emulate or criticize. That said, while these systems and constraints absolutely belong to the people who experience them, the idea of creating personal games intentionally based on the designer’s experiences and thoughts belongs to everyone.

If you only have a single takeaway from this book, I hope it’s this: no one else has your exact lived experience, and when you bring your lived experience into a game in a real and intimate way, you create a game that no one else could make.

Games are powerful. Making other people submit to systems and choosing how those systems will affect the people under them is one of the most direct and deep ways you can ever affect another person— it’s essentially mind control. So think about the ways in which you choose to wield those systems. Yes, you make yourself vulnerable when creating personally-relevant systems, but when players choose to engage with those systems, they make themselves vulnerable too. Ultimately, as much as you have a responsibility to your subject, you have a responsibility to your players as well. Treat them with respect and acknowledge their vulnerability, and your players will trust you enough to see your game through to the end.

Earlier in this introduction I asserted that games aren’t a story, and they’re not. Ultimately, if anything, a game is a dialogue— players speak to you in the breaths and pauses between the constraints you’ve created. This collaboration is precisely how something incredibly personal can become resonant and universal; the only way to truly reach out to others is through yourself.

Games are the ultimate expression of immersive empathy, because systems are the purest way to transfer feelings and mindsets between one person and another. Be intentional with your systems, honest with yourself and true to your experiences, and I promise you— you will make games that your players will never forget.