Empathy Engines: Design Games That are Personal, Political, and Profound by Elizabeth Sampat explores the power of the storyteller in a book that calls for video games to be used as a method of exploring the lives of the marginalized. The book opens as a call to all game designers to create authentic pieces of work based on their own positions in life. Sampat attempts to explore empathy within videogames as a means to achieve some kind of social justice through the argument that everyone is constrained by their own biases due to the lack of self-reflection.
Sampat opens up her argument with the idea that everyone has their own unconscious biases. This bias is what constrains creators when they mean to create a system within the world of video games. While Sampat does not define what a system is, she uses it quite a bit throughout her book detailing what should be done in order to construct a solid system. From outside sources it is gathered that a system is a network of constraints created by the author in order to limit and put rules upon the created world. This is where Sampat states: “Everyone exists under a unique intersection of systems and constraints… that create our world view” (8).
Sampat means to argue that we all exist within certain networks that allow us to be in certain ways or inhibit us to be in certain ways. When video game designers create games, they are generally creating a reflection of the system that they understand themselves to be in. SimCity, an example used by Sampat, is a game that allows users to build a city from scratch. However, the game has been criticized for its lean towards conservative politics, as the game is designed to function better under right-wing economic policy by its creators. This is Sampat’s example of a game where the creators failed to look outside their own constructed realities. This is where the book takes a look at the neutral game. Within the text there is the argument that there is “no such thing as a “neutral” game” (18).
In chapter two she tackles this idea of neutrality in more detail through her understanding of psychology. She argues that people believe that what they think is what the majority thinks and that anyone who disagrees with them is in the minority. For Sampat, this proves that there is no such thing as neutrality. And while I tend to agree with her, she does not seem to take into consideration her own biases. There is an air of having to agree with her that is questionable. Does she believe in neutrality? Or is she simply saying one side is wrong and they need to think the way that she does? It seems that this false consensus effect that she has established is essential for creating empathy, which is interesting to explore. However, Sampat does not seem take time to unpack what this means and instead simply jumps onto ideas. It would be more useful if she took the time to look at the aspects of empathy in this context. However, she quickly moves on to the idea of minimalism.
Chapter three explores the game LIM that is a game with no exact meaning. In its minimalism, the player assigns meaning to the game. But is that really empathy? Or just projection? Something I take issue with in this chapter was the idea of the “educating other.” This idea that the other should be educating the oppressor seems to shine through here, as if it is the others’ job to educator the majority through video games. Is the other experience really an authentic experience if it is one that is forced? I believe that Sampat needs to reevaluate her stances or at least explore them in more detail for clarity sake.
The most interesting part of Sampat’s paper is the distinguishing between two different types of empathy though she does not seem to see them through. Cognitive empathy is the navigation of social waters, it is something that is taught. Emotional empathy is the feeling in the gut of how other people are feeling. After these two simplistic definitions are given, Sampat delves into mental illnesses and neuroatypical behavior and symptoms. The connection is forced through the unclear definitions of the different types of empathy and the use of other as some sort of bait.
Sampat uses the ties to mental illness and neuroatypical behavior in order to lead into real-world emulations. There is a thin difference, she argues, in real world systems and the systems constructed through game constraints and mechanics. Which is interesting, but again, Sampat seems to plow through these ideas rather quickly which leaves the audience a bit breathless in their attempt to make connections that are not clearly made by Sampat herself.
Gamification, as explained by Sampat, is using simple game mechanics to motivate people within the real world to take desired actions. Creators of games must take into consideration the reasons behind the behavior of a real life system in order to have any hope of changing it. Corrective design, in the eyes of Sampat, is a way to change individual thoughts and feelings. She argues that a game cannot change the world alone, but rather it changes individuals who then go on to change the world and systems around them.
Sampat then leads into the levels of defense that people have to inhibit empathy from occurring. The attitude of “it’s just a game” bars empathy from occurring. She begins to think about misery tourism, an idea that someone would sympathize only to see pain without actually empathizing and feeling that pain. She puts that into terms of the video game world and how a video game allows for persons in power to explore and tour through the misery of others. This needs to be overcome through the power of empathy, using empathy instead of misery tourism is necessary in order to establish a strong system within the video game world.
Sampat raises interesting points, but I feel that this is a call for minorities to use their positions and experiences in order to serve some greater purpose in video games. Which is great if that is what they want to do, however I do not believe that it is necessary for minorities to write about their experiences in order to create strong video games. This position seems to be Sampat’s main stance, however, I would argue that there is some value in what Sampat has written for video game designers.However, there is no responsibility of minority groups to use video games to create empathy for their existence. Empathy for minorities should be inherent, not constructed, as minorities exist as real people in real life. And while video games are powerful, we need to remember (both as players and designers) that there is no responsibility to create about the self.