Stop Expecting Games to Build Empathy
What do games do for us—and what do we owe them for that? It's an odd question, but it seems to come up, in one form or another, whenever a gaming controversy hits the news. Gaming is no longer a young medium, but it's still somewhat opaque from the outside, which makes games an easy target for crusades from those wont to crusade: most recently, with local-news insistences that Fortnite is rotting your children's brains.
It's not. (Probably.) But every question about gaming's value is met, within the world of videogaming, with a chorus insisting that games are good for you, games are your friend, and—perhaps most concretely—games actually make you more empathetic. It's this assumption that buoys the Games for Change Festival, the 15th edition of which begins today in New York, as well as a dozen other games advocacy groups. It has become a talking point in all levels of the industry, and with empathy as the TED Talk-anointed foundation of game-adjacent VR "experiences," it informs one of that technology's busiest content categories.
Games, the thinking goes, can make you a better person. But can they? Do they?
The argument goes like this: by exposing you to experiences outside of your own, in an interactive fashion, games foster empathy. They are the literalization of "walking a mile in someone else's shoes." So games can, for instance, let you embody the life of a budding lesbian coming of age in Washington State, or allow you to experience the turmoil and terror of a Syrian refugee. By doing this, advocates argue, games can influence and improve our behavior outside of the "magic circle," that digitized realm where events take on new, outsized significance.
Unfortunately, it's not really that simple, and presenting it as such does a disservice—to games, and even to empathy as a concept. For starters, the science on the topic is inconclusive at best. Earlier this year, Holly Green at Paste rounded up and digested a swath of relevant research on the topic, and the results are far muddier than empathy game proponents would want them to be. Games, if anything, seem to confirm the moral activation or disengagement of the person playing, offering them a chance to live out who they are, or at least a version of them shaped by the morals offered by the game world.
And what of the much-touted empathy VR experiences, which strip the player of agency, instead embodying them in experiences unlike their own (be they violent or traumatic or tragic)? To be perfectly frank: they're good publicity for whoever's making them, and not a whole lot more. Even if games and first-person experiences can increase the player's emotional activation, empathy is more complicated than that. Empathy is active: it involves both mental acuity and changes to behavior. Understanding without change isn't empathy. Emotion without action to help others isn't empathy.
Games are imaginative spaces, and imagination is fodder for empathy—picturing another person as being as wholly human as yourself, with struggles that matter, is an important part of becoming empathetic. But games can't teach, or even develop, that. An empathy game can make you cry, but it can't make you care. That's up to you.
What the insistence on empathy in games amounts to, in a lot of cases, is a sort of exceptionalist persecution complex. Because games are often attacked by outside forces that seem powerful—lawmakers, media advocacy groups, sensationalist publications—those of us in the gaming world have an impulse to defend games as being special in a way that other media aren't. To argue that games, apart from film or music or theatre, can do things that other mediums can't. That games aren't just an art form—they're the art form. We say: Games aren't just fun or interesting. They make you better people.
But that persecution complex is both inaccurate and unrealistic. Videogames are, in fact, incredibly powerful, bringing in a massive influx of revenue every year. They are, in fact, one of the most ubiquitous forms of entertainment in the world, crossing demographic lines across the planet. Games don't benefit from our defensiveness. It's not necessary to legitimize games with flimsy arguments about empathy. It's not necessary to legitimize them at all.
Don't get me wrong: games are really cool! They're imagination and philosophy engines, ways of exploring ideas and experiences outside of our normal lives. That's incredible—but it's the same type of incredible as any other form of art. Games, like any other type of art, can make life more interesting and more tolerable. But they can't make you a better person, no matter how many sad games you play or how many VR experiences you walk around in. Games can't make you better. That's your job.