ACHIEVING EMPATHY AND UNDERSTANDING THROUGH VIDEO GAMES

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As video games continue to grow towards the comfortable position of “legitimate” artistic medium, we’ll continue to see them expand on what they can accomplish. From simple fun, to distractions, to telling enthralling stories, games today have reached a respectable range in capability. This mirrors how most any media grows.

There is one aspect of games that sets it apart from other media, however. That is, of course, the interactive nature of the experience. Introducing this element to the various artistic tools provided by mixing together other styles of media has provided an interesting opportunity for video games to accomplish something that most other media may not fully be capable of: teaching empathy and understanding towards people with different lives than oneself.

Over the last few years, I have played games that have let me experience the follow: sexuality, cancer, bullying, domestic abuse, transgender issues, identity issues, mental illness, suicide, national tragedy, religious and racial tension, social anxieties,  sexual assault, homelessness, and various familial struggles.

That’s pretty impressive for a medium that still has the stigma of “for children” stuck to it in some people’s minds.

But what is it about video games that make it an effective tool for artists to express these kinds of topics? How do these games give us a better understanding of the people who experience these things in their day-to-day life? To better get a feel for what I mean, let’s take a look at a few recent examples.

The first one I want to talk about holds a personal importance to me. I, like many people across all walks of life, deal with depression every day. It’s always been a part of my life. It’s interfered with everything from work to relationships, and there are days it prevents me from getting just about anything done. However, depression and mental illness are still today one of the most misunderstood parts of human nature to those who don’t live with it.

That’s why the recently Steam Greenlit “Depression Quest” registered with me. It’s a relatively simple text-based game that puts you in the position of someone handling depression. Putting you through familiar daily tasks with the added weight of mental illness. It allows not only for those that suffer from depression to relate, but also for those that haven’t been in that position to see how things like depression can muddle up even the most mundane, basic things.

DQ ScreencapI’ve talked to many people who have experienced it, some who are depressed themselves, some who live with or know loved ones with depression, and some that simply wanted to better understand what it’s like to be in the mind of someone held down by these things. The response has been almost universally the same, which is impressive if you consider the different kinds of people that have gone into it.

Because of this, I personally feel comfortable using this game as a tool for anyone asking me what it’s like to live with depression as a means to let them get a better understanding. I don’t know if I could honestly say that about any other media on the topic. The interactive nature simply makes it more effective and helpful.

A lot of these games come from people who are currently dealing with the topic themselves. Using these games as a means not only to help people get a better understanding of their situation and let people in similar situations know they‘re not alone, but also to express the feelings they themselves deal with. That release is common among any art, but being able to also feel like you’re less alone  in the process is an added bonus.

One of the more touching games I have seen recently is That Dragon, Cancer, an upcoming Ouya-exclusive game that is described as a reflective poem on the developer and his wife’s experience raising a child with cancer. Not only does it put you in a difficult, emotionally trying situation, but it also seeks to establish a sense of hope and love as well.

Providing insight into something that I myself will likely never experience is something I can’t respect or admire enough. The strength to make something beautiful and impactful out of something so difficult allows a level of empathy and comfort I can’t even begin to fathom. Giving outsiders such an intimate, personal look into something that words alone can’t necessarily fully capture has a profound sense of togetherness that is hard to establish in such difficult moments. To realize that the creator of this game is personally experiencing these things gives such a weight to any artistic piece. I hope that upon release, this game allows people to understand what the Green family is going through on a level that provides comfort for them, and for anyone handling such a hard fight.

That-Dragon-Cancer-early-in-game1While the first two examples approach the situation in a very literal, direct way, there are other games that allow for experience through more abstract means. Which brings me to the games created by Minority Media Inc., developers behind Papo & Yo and the upcoming Silent Enemy, which represent domestic violence/substance abuse and bullying respectively.

In Papo & Yo, the concept of substance abuse leading to violence is represented quite literally by a monster. Monster has an addiction to poisonous frogs which lead to violent reactions which put everyone, including the player, at risk. It’s this metaphorical presentation that allows for a more accessible, albeit still powerful statement to be made about the fear and pressure of living with, or caring for, someone with drug addiction. It allows the game to still be a traditional-feeling game, while tackling a very tough issue and presenting it in a way the player can understand.

By creating a relationship between Monster and the player-character, Quico, we’re given a reasonable representation of what it is like to have someone close to you lose control. The fear and desire to help them escape, as well as the damage it can cause to anyone around them regardless of established relationships.

With their upcoming Silent Enemy, the developers at Minority Media are now turning their attention to their experiences with bullying. Since the game is early in development, there is only basic concept descriptions to go on, but the main story revolves around a boy trying to escape the harshness of his home to seek out a spoken-of land of peace. On the way, he will encounter crows which will “bully” the player and attempt to hinder progress towards the peaceful land you seek. This is a fairly literal way of stating that bullies prevent a person from reaching peace and happiness, attaching a tangible representation of the emotional struggle of being picked on.

Papo ScreengrabPresenting very personal, yet widespread, experiences through traditional game elements and more accessible design is just another way games can help bridge the gap between those that live through these situations and those that don’t. It also allows those that do experience things such a bullying to get a sense of hope that these are just obstacles that can be overcome with endurance and the aid of those that understand. By taking part in a very literal journey through hardship, these games can present a means for empathy and comfort, as well as a sense of encouragement.

These are only a few of the games that are delivering access to such real, raw experiences. And they are doing so in a variety of different ways and presentation styles. From providing literal stories, to poetic metaphor, these games, as well as others, are allowing for people to walk a mile in the shoes of someone else. They are also giving a space for those that are currently in these situations to find peace, hope, and understanding. A sense they’re not alone.

As games continue to grow as a medium, so too will the experiences games will be able to realize. Allowing for these representations of real life struggles to be produced and “played”, we’re opening up whole new paths to better connect with different people. And the interactive nature of the medium only makes these bonds easier to craft, giving us a real sense of the decision making, the pressures, the emotional impact, of various real situations.

I urge everyone to try a few games like these, if only to experience something you otherwise couldn’t. These experiences may not fully resonate with everyone, but they may very well provide a unique new look into the myriad of different lifestyles and worlds human nature tackles every day. And if you feel as though you have a story to tell, to better help someone understand certain situations or struggles, perhaps the game medium is a way to present that message?

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