A Critical Look at Empathy Engines

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.

Empathy Engines Review

EmpathyEnginesEmpathy 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. “Everyone exists under a unique intersection of systems and constraints… that create our world view” (8). This message seems to get convoluted over time, however, as the message jumps back and forth between minority groups and every game designer. It attempts to explore empathy in games as a means to achieve some kind of social justice through the argument that everyone is constrained by their own worldview and that we need to break that worldview in order to create something that is wonderful powerful.

Chapter One: Systems Make Statements
Everyone has unconscious biases, we are taught this throughout our social studies classes and humanities classes, and we are told again by Sampat. She argues that created systems are powerful and reveal a lot about the creators themselves. Particularly, Sampat takes into consideration SimCity, a game about constructing a city that received some criticism for leaning to the right economically. To avoid the political angle that this game suffers from, the creator must ask philosophical and political questions that exist within their own created world as there is “no such thing as a “neutral” game” (18). She makes powerful connections to writers and theorist by does not seem to be exploring in any depth her own bias when it comes to creating games as a whole.

Chapter Two: Extinguishing Neutrality
Sampat opens up with the idea that everyone thinks that everyone thinks the way they do and that anyone that disagrees is a minority. And the perceived minority is judged harshly. For Sampat this proves that there is no such thing as neutrality. Overcoming the false consensus effect is essential for creating empathy, which is really interesting in exploring the avenues of empathy. Of course, Sampat does not wallow in complexity here but rather continues to go into how games are systems with certain constraints that are created by the creator.

Chapter Three: Minimalism and Autobiography
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 disliked about this chapter was the idea of “educating other”. As if the other is suppose to educator the majority through video games. Is this really an authentic experience then?

Chapter Four: Cognitive and Emotional Empathy
Sampat distinguishes between two types of empathy, emotional and cognitive. 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. Then suddenly Sampat delves into mental illness and neuroatypical behavior. And frankly, I do not think it was necessary and felt somewhat forced.

Chapter 5: Real-World Emulation
I honestly don’t know what Sampat’s point was in this section other than to bring up some interesting games that are played in the real world. Sampat argues here that there is a thin difference between real world systems and game constraints and mechanics.

Chapter 6: Games are Broken; Reality’s Just Fine
Gamification, as explained by Sampat, is using simple game mechanics to motivate clients to take desired actions. They must take into account reasons behind the behavior a system has in order to change it. Corrective design is something that games cannot do, the work of games is to change individuals and not the world.

Chapter 7: Designing for Cognitive Empathy
There was nothing of interest within this chapter or that was particularly noteworthy.

Chapter Eight: The Problem with Winnability or “It’s Just a Game”
Sampat argues that there are levels of defense that people have to inhibit empathy from occurring. The attitude of “it’s just a game” bars empathy from occurring. Sampat begins to think about misery tourism a bit and explores its difference from empathy, but only slightly before moving on to the idea of changing the win condition.

Final Thoughts
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 feel as if it is necessary for Sampat to write a whole book trying to justify a position that is a bit shoddy to begin with. There is no responsibility of minority groups to use video games to create empathy for their existence.

Video Games, Flow, and Empathy

Like many of you, I get up in arms when someone says that video games influence in real life violence. Its seems like a stretch to assume that people are so easily influenced by the media that they consume, and in some cases it is even more than a stretch. However, I think it’s important to look at how empathy is constructed within video games themselves in order to get a better understanding on how the player is meant to react within the world that they are in.

There are many techniques that video game creators use in order to make the audience feel as if they are actually there. These techniques include lighting, interactiveness, point of view of the main character, graphics, etc. So the player is immersed in the world, what then? I would argue that a game that has any sort of seriousness when it comes to plot and emotionally moving a player must take steps in order to construct human empathy within their world.

There are two types of games when it comes to empathy: those that want you to feel compassion and empathy, and those that rely on you not to feel empathy. Let me explain, something like Skyrim asks us to empathize with characters. The players are put into positions of power that require them to choose a path, to make a moral judgement, and then they are punished for their failings or rewarded for their choices, and even sometimes they receive both a punishment and reward. This creates emotional flow. Flow is defined as a heightened sense of very rewarding human action. Gamers would call this the zone. So emotional flow is like the emotional zone, the players continues to play because they are emotionally invested in the characters they interact with. They feel for them, save them, heal them. Games like Skyrim rely heavily on the interactions of the players and the feelings of the players. If a player is emotionless than the plot becomes something without depth. Empathy is created through these interactions that will punish a player for doing something less than noble.

Meanwhile, there are games such as Call of Duty that reward players for not having empathy towards other players. The versus mode puts the player into the flow, requiring them to kill other players with no remorse for more rewards. And here is the biggest difference between the game that empathizes and the game that does not. Empathy must be taught by the game, as humanity is taught to empathize from a young age. Games that aim to be emotionally impactful to their audience must also create a reward system that rewards empathetic behavior to some extent.

This is all seems very 18th century novel-esque, where the bad guy always gets punished and the good guy emerges victorious, always. But that’s not exactly where I’m getting at either. Games do not have to be morally good in order to invoke empathy, they must simply mimic our conceptions of empathy enough that we feel pain towards the characters who are hurt and those who do right but are wronged in the end, and so forth. The reward systems in games must pull the audience into emotional flow, they must be moved and constantly moved in order to experience empathy on the grand scale all throughout the game.

This is not to say that every game should have empathy as its main goals, or that every game should be particularly moving in the emotional sense. What I am trying to say is that people who create video games who are interested in making a heart-pulling plot must take into consideration the human dynamics of empathy and how people identify with others (those others being NPCs or even the bad guys). And this is a complex thought that goes beyond what I have written here. Empathy comes with relatable and understandable characters, a realistic reward system for certain actions taken within the game, as well as many other things. This short essay only aims to look at flow and how it is emotionally affected within some games.

(Video Game Review) Void and Meddler EP. 1

voidandmeddler
Image courtesy of Void and Meddler

Void and Meddler is a visually pleasing point and click adventure that would fall under the aesthetics of cyberpunk and futuristic sci-fi dystopia. Its colors are beautiful, the music is harsh on the ears but that only adds to the immersion of the game itself.Throughout the game rain is falling, and its pixelated world is distorted only slightly for it. The game is, undoubtedly, beautiful and the art style is surprising and original for its simple pixel style.

The main character, Fyn, is introduced in a bit of a rough way. I honestly didn’t know what to make with the information given to me at the beginning of the game. Something happens, we’re not sure what at this point in the game, and Fyn’s memories which were stored in souvenirs were… taken? Or something? Not even Fyn knows, but she feels in her gut that today is the day to go find out what happened to her memories in order to make her life whole again. I was confused, and I would like to say its because the game world-builds fast and inconsistently. There is no slow entrance to the world, but a lot of science fiction does this, and I can’t blame the game too heavily there. So like many texts in this genre, I pressed on.

She stumbles upon an old punk man and decides he’s the one to target. Not sure why she decides its gotta be him, but I roll with it. Its at this point that a series of puzzles begin. Which kind of make no sense, but can be really fun.

And yes, there are queer couples within the game. Supposedly, the idea is to make species and genders blur together. Which is an interesting concept, but I don’t see much of it at play in the first episode of the game.

A little thing I found in the game is that you can make Fyn actually shower. Which I find endearing and even cute. I mean, besides the fact that Fyn is addicted to drugs and is a punk, that is.

Overall, I would give Void and Meddler a 3/5.

Privileged Feminism’s Trivialization of Experience

nicwecvx
Photo Courtesy: Lena Dunham

TW for: q* slur, racism

As a writer and a person who wants to grow through experience, I can understand a desire to know what it is like to go through an experience. We wish that we could empathize, that we could walk in another person’s shoes so that we could understand them. However, this is not who Lena Dunham is.

Dunham has inspired this entry about how a person of privilege uses feminism as a space for superiority rather than a space that would help every woman through intersectionality. There is a trivialization of experience that goes on in the case of Dunham and many other white feminists. This is not just about Dunham’s insensitive comment about wanting an abortion, or Tilda Swinton totally missing the point that Margaret Cho was trying to make concerning Asian Americans. This is about white feminism as a whole.

The feminist movement has always been flawed, it has always been and continues to be exclusionary. White women seem to only focus on furthering their own goals at the cost of other women and people of color (PoC). And this is not to say that I’m anti-feminist, but I am critical of feminism as it stands in popular media and fandom right now. It is absolutely important to take a step back and examine where the movement is being pulled by the most dominant voices in the culture.

Dunham and Swinton come from a place of privilege. They are both women who have access to whiteness and wealth, and this puts them already in a more strategic and powerful place than the poor woman or the woman of color (WoC). They, however, do not use this power to put intersectionality at the forefront of their feminism. They use their feminist card as a free pass to do what they please and not take responsibility for screwing over other women.

This leads to the trivialization of experience that was mentioned earlier. Dunham trivializes the experiences of women who have had abortions, as if it is some coming to womanhood to have one. Dunham did not think about how an abortion affects the real lives of real women, instead, she just wanted that under her belt so she could say that has done it and fight for the right as a member and not an ally. This is how Dunham also feels about the queer community. She has stated that she wants to be into women. This rhetoric is exhausting because it strips women from having a voice for themselves and instead allyship seems to be a free pass to do as they please.

Feminism is not a free pass. It is not a go ahead to do as they please at the expense of the people they ally themselves with.

As feminists, we need to sit back and think about what our position is as allies of WoC, PoC, and the queer community. Its our job to educate ourselves about the communities we are not a part of. 

(Movie Review) Star Wars: Rogue One

rogueone
Image courtesy of Star Wars

First off, I would like to say that I have always enjoyed movies about rebellions and revolutions. I’m a sucker for justice, seeing the good guys win, and the bad guys getting punished. I also love the movies that are realistic, where its hard to tell the difference between good and bad, and who belongs where; I love these movies that make me think about hope and strength even in the face of death, even at death’s door step. Rogue One delivers these powerful messages, and more.

I found myself in love with the characters who were constructed throughout the film. I’ve seen many complaints that the characters weren’t personable enough, that you couldn’t relate to them, and that Jyn herself was just a sexy lamp post. And here is where I disagree with those reviewers. Jyn is so much more than a sexy lamp post. She rejected a revolution because it was what killed her family and her future. And now she’s forced back into joining this rebellion in order to free herself, but she is never free. The idea that Jyn is just a sexy lamp post is obnoxious to me because it made me feel like we didn’t watch the same movie. Jyn is hope, Jyn is identity, Jyn is the weight of the past.

Jyn’s character is interesting when we look at what she means to the rebellion. Clearly, the information she had could have been given to anyone. But it wasn’t. And this is how things work within a rebellion anyway. Its not always optimal who gets what and how.

Moving on from Jyn, the other main characters were all people of color (PoC). Which is super interesting and thought-provoking as it is a dedication to all revolutions that happen within our world today. Its something that gives hope to those who are fighting against fascism, right now. The political commentary in Rogue One is ripe, thoughtful, and necessary. Its a direct reflection of the political climate in the United States right now, and for many other countries around the world that face the threat of fascism.

Within the movie the themes of marginalization and power come into play. Marginalized groups, such as the group known as Rogue One, can make a difference but only when they work together and follow what they believe in. One quote that stuck with me was when Jyn said: “I haven’t had the luxury of political opinions”, or something around those lines. And Cassian is there to remind her that opting out of political opinions is to come from a position of power where it is possible to leave them behind because they do not affect you. And he knows that she does have them, but chooses not to pursue them, as many marginalized people do.

Overall, if you’re looking for a good war movie that is fantasy based, this is the movie for you! It may have been a little slow in some parts, but its plot-line and characters are sure to keep you entertained.
I would recommend that everyone watch this movie!

(Book Review) Labyrinth Lost

27969081Title: Labyrinth Lost
Author:
 Zoraida Cordova
Rating: 4/5 – Recommended
Genre: YA fiction, urban fantasy
Buy Here: Amazon | Amazon Kindle | Book Depository | Barnes & Noble

Labyrinth Lost creates a world where Brujx are sprinkled throughout the world, this particular novel series focuses on the Brujas of Brooklyn starting off with our protagonist Alejandra (Alex). On top of being a Bruja, being bisexual, and having a crush on her closest friend, Alex becomes what is known in the story as an Encantrix, the highest blessing of the Deos. But Alex doesn’t want that, she doesn’t want the gift and yearns to give it back to the Deos during her Death Day (think a Brujx’s Quinceanera). Of course, this lands her into some very big trouble where she has to save her family from the Devourer in a distant plane of existence.

What was so very eye catching about this book was that it was about Latinx Brujx and not just termed witches. It was done so in a way that was identifiable and relatable to people in Alex’s position. It was nice to see the protagonist consistently corrected in her use of “witches” in a way that was identifiable to any person who came from a Latinx background would be corrected on their Spanish and the way they use certain phrases that distance themselves from their heritage. Alex had tried to shun her culture and her heritage and it landed her in hot water. This type of identity crisis, I believe, happens to us all at Alex’s age.

The relatability of Alex is something that plays an even larger role when the reader discovers her bisexuality. And to be honest, that was what first drew me to this series to begin with. Like every queer person, I was trying to find a book that was relatable to me without it being exclusively about a single part of me. And I found that here in Labyrinth Lost. I found myself reminiscing of the time that I was Alex’s age and just really had my first girlfriend, Rishi being Alex’s first girlfriend by the end of the novel.

So why do I only score this novel a 4/5  if I had seemed to love it so much? Well, the majority of Alex’s growth came from her dependency on Nova’s own character. The only major growth we see in her is a reflection of how Nova treats her. And he’s the supposed antagonist, or at least only in it for selfish reasons. Meanwhile, Rishi is constantly pushed to the background. Made to be a side character over and over again despite her interesting relationship with many of the magical creatures in the novel.

I can see, however, Rishi becoming a more and more important part of the story throughout the series and I hope that is where Cordova decides to take her novel. I would like to see this female pairing last and for Alex’s bisexuality to end in a healthy, loving relationship. I, unlike a few reviewers I have known, see Rishi as the best choice for our protagonist. The reader should be more wary of Nova than they tend to be and, again, its because we see the majority of Alex’s character growth through interactions with Nova.

Overall, this book was excellent! And I would recommend it to any reader of any age. It was enjoyable and made an amazing plot that I haven’t see before. Alex stands out as a main character who isn’t all good or isn’t forced into anything. She’s a YA fiction hero that stands out from the rest as both interesting and frustrating. Her selfishness, her life, her interests, her growth, make her memorable past the ends of the page. And I am looking forward to the rest of the series.

A Reclaiming of Quiet

quiet1Image Courtesy of: Konami

The interesting thing about Quiet is that she’s being the center of some controversy in the past. Many people have claimed that she’s simply the masturbation material for male audiences of the this Metal Gear game, and many others use her illness as an explanation (and by extension, an excuse) for her skimpy outfit. I feel as though these explanations for Quiet’s outfit and demeanor is a bit… too simplified.

Quiet herself was created by a storyteller who told us we would be sorry when we found out why she was dressed the way she was. And I want to give Kojima the benefit of the doubt here, and I would not normally do this for a content creator, but he is a master storyteller and somehow I trust him with his female characters.

So let’s go a little deeper than just the appearance of Quiet, right? I mean, it’s pretty obvious that the gaming community wants to be treated as literature, and I want to do just that. Quiet’s outfit is the putting of a victim on display.

When women are told that their pain is not real, that their pain needs to be performed in order to be valid, we have women like Quiet. Who need to act out, be caged up and studied. The audience of the performance needs to not only validate her pain but also test her loyalty and trustworthiness.

Quiet, before everything else, is a survivor and a victim. Her pain is constantly put on display throughout the game. We hardly ever see a woman’s pain in this way in mainstream media. Generally, we see women’s pain as destructive; a woman in pain suddenly becomes the villain herself. Or we see the woman develop a persona of weakness, the trauma as a constant burden on her that can only be eased by a certain man. Quiet is neither of these. Her trauma is her own, her trauma belongs to her. She is put into a skimpy outfit, put into a cage, and told she is not trustworthy; but she owns her own being, she is who she is. And so despite everything, she still goes to protect herself from pain. She has triggers, she has feeling, and yet none of this is whats spoken about. The audience boils her down to her outfit, they boil her down to her illness, they boil her down to pieces rather than the whole woman she is. This is a parallel drawn between Quiet and victimhood. She is dismantled, both by the community who claims to protect women like her and the community that wants to own her.

This is the greatest failing of the community of gamers. They’re looking at Quiet in pieces and saying that she is either a sex object or her illness. Maybe Quiet is just Quiet. And it’s time to let her be both a victim and a woman, a fighter and a survivor, her illness and her being.