Feeling Through Computers: Videogames and the Bleeding Edge of Empathy

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Ian here—

What follows is an invited talk I gave last month at a university that will remain unnamed. Here, things get a little awkward: the talk in question was actually a job talk, and I am technically still waiting to hear back on the school’s final decision. Hence, the location of the talk remaining unnamed.

Originally, I was going to wait to post this talk until I had heard official word back on the status of the position (whether that news was good, or bad). I’ve decided to post it now, though, mostly because I attended an excellent panel at SCMS 2017, “Video Games and Queer Affect,” chaired by Bonnie Ruberg (an old compatriot of mine from Bard College) with papers by Whitney Pow (with whom I co-organized this conference) and Diana Pozo. Bonnie and Diana’s papers, especially, shared considerable overlap with the trends outlined here, down to including some of same case studies. It seems, then, that this material is very “of the moment,” and I didn’t want to let the opportunity to make is publicly available pass. I’m planning on moving this material forward into an article in the coming months. It’s exciting to be part of a community of peers who finds it as interesting as I do, and I’m definitely going to alter the direction and focus of aspects of this piece in response to the work I saw happening on the panel.

You can follow along with the visual presentation for this talk here.

Part one: How are you feeling?

Certainly, I will shock no one if I begin this talk by pointing out that art and entertainment can cause emotional responses. No one would deny this. And yet, 1,700 years after Aristotle, there are still rich disagreements on how, exactly, these emotional responses come about. On the large, global side of things, there are disagreements as to how it is we feel for fictional characters—erupting in the 1970s through the 1990s in analytical philosophy, and today transferred over to debates about the role of mirror neurons in cognitive psychology and neuroscience. Then there are more local questions. How does one medium affect us emotionally, as opposed to another medium? What emotional responses can a musical composer dabble in that a novelist might find inaccessible, and vice-versa? (We could even stretch this outside of the realm of fiction, towards the mass communication media through which we connect to the world: what is it, for example, that makes news accessed through our social media feed so much more likely to make our blood boil than news gained by thumbing through a physical newspaper?)

Today, I will be looking specifically at the medium of the videogame. In recent years, both game developers and academic theorists have turned to the question of what sort of emotional responses might be unique to videogame play. What can an interactive medium make its players feel, that another medium perhaps cannot?

In 2009, philosopher Grant Tavinor laid out a few possibilities in his book The Art of Videogames. “The player of a videogame,” Tavinor writes, “feels angry at their inability to overcome the massive fiery spider, frustrated by the difficulty of completing the platform-jumping task, fearful of possible loss, or elated at defeating the hordes of mutants and crazed chimpanzees.”[i] Now, certainly, anger, frustration, fear, and elation are things that someone could feel reading a novel, or watching a play. But Tavinor stresses that there is an extra, potent twist on our involvement in the fictional worlds of games. When we fail to overcome an enemy, we feel angry at our own failure. Likewise, frustration is based around our own inability, as players, to adapt to the challenges at hand. Fear is not just fear for a fictional character, but fear that we might lose our progress, and have to start over. Elation is not just celebration of the accomplishments of characters, enjoyed vicariously, but rather a celebration of our own overcoming of obstacles.

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More recently, Katherine Isbister has put a finer point on this difference. In games, Isbister writes, “I feel a sense of mastery or failure depending on whether I successfully execute the actions in the ways I intended. My emotions ebb and flow as I make these choices and see what happens as a result. I feel a sense of consequence and responsibility for my choices. In the end, I am to blame for the outcomes, because they arise from my own actions.”[ii]

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These twin pillars of action and consequence are especially important to keep in mind. Designers, critics, and theorists have posited that games can do more than simply make us feel the same emotions other media can. It is possible that they actually expand the palette of emotions available to art. Isbister quotes Will Wright, the designer of The Sims, making the observation, “I never felt pride, or guilt, watching a movie.”[iii] The implicit premise here is that pride and guilt are emotions that depend on surveying the consequences of one’s own actions, and taking responsibility for them. If that aspect of action-taking, of choice-making, is absent—as it is in non-interactive media—there can be no guilt, no pride.

Part Two: Empathy Machines

So far, I have been emphasizing the ways in which games don’t have to psychologically moor their players to a fictional character to engender emotion, but can instead create emotional consequences of the player’s own actions. But there are other threads in current discussions around the emotional possibilities of games. Prominent among them: the issue of empathy.

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Now, you may have noticed that “empathy” is one of the biggest buzzwords of our contemporary moment. It is, apparently, the cure for what ails us—even if no one’s quite sure which direction it should be pointed. In the run-up to the election, there were numerous calls by journalists and pundits for coastal liberals to exercise “empathy” for Trump voters.[iv] After the election’s unexpected results, some opinion-peddlers flipped the script. Vox contributor Baratunde Thurston, for instance, angrily noted that any empathy he extends towards Trump voters needs to be matched by empathy on the part of White midwesterners to the plight of black, Muslim, and indigenous peoples. But Thurston doesn’t condemn the calls for empathy—far from it. “So, yes, more empathy for the people who lashed out.,” he writes. “That’s never a bad thing.”[v] There is, apparently, no problem that the judicious application of empathy cannot fix.

Despite the confusion as to where it should be directed, everyone, it seems, is on board with the idea that empathy is the solution. Another thing that everyone seems to be on board with? The idea that new and emerging electronic media provide the ticket to achieving it.

Over the past decade, videogames have been near the center of this discussion of technologically-aided empathy. Scholar, critic, and game designer Ian Bogost has been a key figure here. In 2003, Bogost co-founded Persuasive Games, a game development firm devoted to political advertisement games, such as Howard Dean for Iowa. Subsequent scholarly work such as his book Newsgames have promoted the efficacy of games not only for advertising and advocacy, but also for journalism.

One of Bogost’s central contributions to videogame scholarship has been the concept of procedural rhetoric—the idea that the unique interaction of player behavior and machine response in games provides new ways of persuading people. Intertwined with this idea is Bogost’s strong belief in games’ empathetic potentials. “One of the unique properties of videogames,” Bogost writes, “is their ability to put us in someone else’s shoes.”[vi] That is: as an interactive medium, which allows players to make choices and experience the consequences of them, games foster a particular type of role-play in their players.

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Bogost advocates expanding games’ role-play possibilities beyond the power fantasies the mainstream game industry typically offers. Games, he claims, can give us unique insights into the lives of the politically powerless. One of Bogost’s favorite examples here is the browser-based game Darfur Is Dying, developed in 2006 by Susana Ruiz. Darfur Is Dying was created to increase awareness of Sudanese genocide. The game includes a portal for players to read more about the crisis to educate themselves, to donate to humanitarian aid, to divest, even to contact the US Government with a single in-browser click. Before presenting these options to its players, however, it offers a simple emotional appeal. It puts players in the position of a Darfuri refugee child, scavenging for water. The desert is vast, cover is sparse, and the patrol routes of Janjaweed militiamen are erratic. For a few moments, Darfur Is Dying extends an offer for players to share the fear and anxiety of a refugee, from the relative comfort of an internet browser. “Feeble characters,” Bogost acknowledges, “do not wear shoes anyone wants to wear.”[vii] But this just makes games such as Darfur Is Dying all the more necessary. “When it comes to the world we inhabit today,” Bogost insists, “it is the vulnerable … who deserve our empathy.”[viii]

Before long, this core idea that games could help expand our empathy branched out from the starting point of political advocacy games, and began being applied as a critical rubric in the reception of a broad swath of independently-produced games. In recent years, various platforms have emerged to make game development both cheaper and more approachable to those who lack extensive coding skills. The Unity game engine requires some amount of programming expertise, but its modular design and free price tag has made it a go-to choice for newcomers in game development. The pre-made assets available for 2D engines such as RPG maker allow low-budget game designers to skip the labor-intensive process of creating visual art, and jump directly into authoring their story and designing their rules. And the user-friendly graphical interface of hypertext platform Twine has removed the usual coding-related barriers from the creation of interactive fiction and text adventure games.

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The result has been an explosion of newcomers to the game creation scene, with a corresponding explosion in the types of subject material being tackled. Since 2011, we have seen the release of Cart Life (2011), Richard Hofmeier’s game about working in food service while living on a precarious financial edge, Dys4ia (2012), Anna Anthropy’s autobiographical game about her own gender transition process, LIM (2012), merritt kopas’ abstract parable about bullying, conformism, and the agony of queer passing, Depression Quest (2013), Zoë Quinn’s text game about overcoming depression, Female Experience Simulator (2013), Alyson MacDonald’s game about street harassment, Auti-Sim (2013), Taylan Kay’s attempt to simulate sensory overload resulting from hypersensitivity, and That Dragon, Cancer (2016), Ryan and Amy Green’s game about losing their son at the age of five.

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Popular videogame critics, seeing these the emergence of these games as a sign of the (belated) maturation of their medium, have been quick to wave the “empathy” flag to convince skeptics of the unique possibilities of games. “Empathy games are striving to make powerful emotional connections,” critic Colin Campbell wrote in Polygon in May 2013, celebrating gaming’s “new frontier” of “cancer, depression, suicide.”[ix] Conner Dougherty of the Wall Street Journal likewise praised “empathy games” for moving into the waters of “alcoholism, depression and cancer.”[x] As did Chloi Rad, writing for Indie Statik.[xi] Clearly, the era had arrived of using videogames to walk a mile in another person’s shoe’s.

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Little did these authors know it, writing in 2013, but a new technology was on the horizon, and the empathetic torch was about to be passed. In March 2014, based on the strength of its first development kit, the DK1, Facebook purchased the Oculus Rift for $2 billion. The message was clear: if a technology company as savvy as Facebook was putting this much money down, than this must not be just another false start: virtual reality must finally be ready to arrive. And what is more empathetic than virtually walking a mile in another’s shoes? Why, literally seeing through another’s eyes!

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Since Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus in 2014, and the subsequent release of the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and PlayStation VR as commercial hardware in 2016, VR users have been awash in projects promising to give them access to the bleeding edge of empathy. A decade ago, Bogost was excited about the possibility of regular old 2D “newsgames” to allow players to empathize with the people behind the headlines. But today, “immersive journalism” such as Project Syria (Emblematic Group, 2013) or Clouds Over Sidra (Gabo Arora and Barry Pousman, 2015) can fully transport participants into a warzone, meaning that, as Motherboard author Christopher Malmo puts it, our “empathetic response to what takes place is much stronger.”[xii]

And then there’s the Machine to Be Another project. This project exploits the well-documented “Rubber Hand” illusion, first explored by psychologists Matthew Botvinick and Jonathan Cohen in 1998. Botvinick and Cohen found that, when confronted with a rubber hand positioned in such a way as to be easily mistaken from their own, participants reported being fooled into “feeling” actions performed on this inanimate hand.

Rather than rubber hands, the Machine to Be Another enacts this same illusion with flesh-and-blood human bodies. Two users don VR headsets, equipped with cameras that feed what would normally be their own visual experience to their respective partner. One of the projects most well-known setups has involved two participants with opposite birth sexes visually exploring the experience of inhabiting each others’ body. This has been held up as a way to undermine everything from implicit racial bias, to sexism, to transphobia.[xiii]

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From Wired to TED, the message is being delivered, loud and clear: Virtual reality is the “ultimate empathy machine.” “It connects humans to other humans in a profound way that I’ve never seen before in any other form of media,” says VR documentarian Chris Milk.[xiv] Clearly, the impetus on all of us is to upgrade, lest we get caught feeling the obsolete old feelings allowed by previous modes of human expression.

Part Three: Conversion Rates

In case it hasn’t been clear throughout this talk, there is reason to be skeptical of these pronouncements.

If videogames really were “empathy machines,” then we would expect the people who play games frequently would be among the most empathetic, caring, and conscientious people on this planet. In fact, however, so-called “gamer culture” is widely recognized as a hotbed for toxic behavior. Harassment, especially toward women gamers, is endemic. This culture of harassment has been visible for years in online gaming (as chronicled by the contributors to Fat, Ugly or Slutty), and in 2014 metastasized into the movement known as Gamergate, a conspiracy theory perpetuated by internet trolls as a pretense for harassing female game designers, games journalists, and cultural critics out of their respective industries. Yes, the medium gave us Darfur Is Dying. But it also game us Beat Up Anita Sarkeesian, in which players are entreated to repeatedly punch the face of the feminist media critic Anita Sarkeesian for having the temerity to broach the subject of games.

Likewise, if VR is an even newer and better “empathy machine,” one should be able to measure its impact in some way. But despite the emphatic claims of proponents such as Milk, the moral and political potentials of VR seem limited, if not outright tainted. Access to “immersive journalism” and “empathy tourism” such as Project Syria and Clouds Over Sidra do not seem to correlate with a commitment to improving the lives of refugees. However much emotional engagement these projects might have offered individuals who can afford a VR headset, the fact remains that Palmer Lucky, the creator of the Oculus Rift, is one of the few well-known Trump supporters in the tech world, having funded trolls to circulate pro-Trump memes online.

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There is, ultimately, an underlying lack of evidence for this technocratic assumption that humans’ moral failings are an engineering problem, one that can be corrected through the judicious application of technology. A distinct strand of naïve techno-futurism is especially visible in the rhetoric of some of VR’s most wide-eyed proponents. Is it really the case that we need machines to emote correctly? Is empathy really a problem that we are only now able to solve, through the technological accomplishment of literally allowing someone to see through another’s eyes? Doesn’t this neglect, say … the entire history of art? As merritt kopas reminds us in her parodic hypertext game Empathy Machine (2016), “earlier iterations of the empathy were imperfect. i mean, really. they were just books.”

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That kopas would design a game to puncture the inflated rhetoric of VR disciples is fitting. Several game designers whose work has been lumped under the designation “empathy game”—especially trans women designers, including kopas, Anna Anthrophy, and Mattie Brice—have taken stances over the past couple years against simplistic and unexamined celebrations of “empathy.” Applied incautiously, there is a certain political presumptuousness to claims of “empathy”—even danger. Hyperbolic pronouncements about the empathetic potentials of a player spending five or ten minutes with a short game made by a marginalized individual can, in fact, actively disrupt deeper political engagement.

Anthropy puts this in strong terms, lamenting the “farce” of “using a game as a substitute for education, as a way to claim allyship.” Against those who would claim that her game Dys4ia is a gateway to political awakening, she has offered the following rejoinder:

“Being an ally takes work, it requires you to examine your own behavior, it is an ongoing process with no end point. That people are eager to use games as a shortcut to that, and way to feel like they’ve done the work and excuse themselves from further educating themselves, angers and disgusts me. You don’t know what it’s like to be me.[xv]

Brice, meanwhile, sees a fetishization of “sad stories” running through the various critical appraisals of “empathy games.” Critics and players, it seems, are happy to hear about the lives of queer individuals, as long as these stories allow non-queer players to wistfully reflect on the injustices of our current social order: a self-contained moment of emotional catharsis standing in for sustained political engagement, or genuine desire to learn about the lives of others:

“My game Mainichi is commonly used as an example of how to teach cisgender people about the trans experience, yet its design, critical engagement with other games, and my future work that isn’t about painful experiences are completely sidelined.”[xvi]

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At the risk of being perverse by applying the language of commercial game monetization to these small, personal, political projects, I want to propose here that the problem Anthropy and Brice are describing is one of conversion rate. Currently, the game industry’s economically dominant model of monetization is free-to-play. For instance, Super Mario Run (2016), which launched last December and represents the first foray of Nintendo’s iconic plumber onto smartphones, is free for interested players to download. At a certain point, however, they will run out of levels, and will be asked to make an in-app purchase to continue playing the game. The percent of players who agree to pay for the additional levels after initially downloading the free version of the game represent Nintendo’s conversion rate. (Currently, it is standing at around 5%.)

Other free-to-play games handle in-app purchases slightly differently. Candy Crush Saga (2012), for instance, doesn’t charge players for levels, but instead allows them to purchase additional moves to finish a puzzle they are stuck on. This is a slightly different monetization scheme, but it has been almost inconceivably successful: Candy Crush Saga earned $1.3 billion in 2014.

Now, I don’t want to suggest that Anthropy and Brice should study the monetization strategies of free-to-play games: clearly, their goals as artists are different from the commercial imperatives of Nintendo or King Digital Entertainment. Instead, I suggest we use the concept of conversion rate as a metaphor. Nintendo is currently struggling to get the number of people who download, play, and then go on to pay for their game above 5%. They are looking to draw players in, and to get them to make a financial commitment. Anthropy and Brice, by contrast, are trying to get players to make a political commitment. It’s not that they are frustrated that players are playing their games and then not following through with paying for them. (Both makers have released a large number of games for free.) They are, rather, frustrated that players are playing their games and not following through with a commitment to further self-education, to allyship, to political action. Much like players who put Super Mario Run down after its free levels, players whose empathetic solidarity with trans women begins and ends with five minutes of playing Dys4ia are effectively saying, “pass.”

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Part Four: Worlds We Want to Be-in

One might consider the problems that Anthropy and Brice are grappling with to be problems of audience. They are frustrated with players taking a few minutes out of the day to feel good about themselves for feeling bad about others (as it were), while backing out of the responsibility to further educate themselves. They are frustrated with critics who have elevated their games as a political solution, rather than as a small (and limited) political tool, and in so doing giving audiences a cheap and easy way out of true solidarity.

But I don’t think the issues that Anthropy and Brice are dealing with are entirely problems of audiences. I think they are also problems inherent to the videogame medium, as it has historically developed.

To offer some crucial clarification here: I do not want to deny that videogames can promote empathy. They can. While the term’s use in effervescent journalism has sometimes been sloppy, there has been good psychological research by figures such as Mary Flanagan and Jonathan Belman on this subject. But it is simultaneously important to acknowledge that the possibilities of the medium arrive with corresponding limitations. And these limitations primarily have to do with pleasure.

Pleasure is an enormously studied aspect of games. In the offices of casual game behemoth King Digital Entertainment, makers of Candy Crush Saga, there are undoubtedly psychologists meeting with game designers right this very moment, tweaking their games’ Skinner-box system—that is, the way in which they use unpredictably-scheduled rewards to condition players to continually perform actions, with the end goal of extracting as much money from them as possible. In my opinion, though, one of the most compelling descriptions of the pleasure of videogames has come not from anyone espousing behaviorist psychology, but from James Paul Gee, a researcher in the fields of psycholinguistics, pedagogy, and literacy. Over the past fifteen years, Gee has established himself as one of the major proponents of using games as a model for pedagogy. Along the way, he has written several books carefully detailing his own experiences being drawn into gaming as an adult, turning a keen eye toward how they enrapture us.

And how do they enrapture us? Basically, by presenting us with a world that makes sense. Videogames give us goals, and they ensure that we have the necessary means to accomplish those goals. If a game presents a problem, players can be rest assured that said problem can be fixed. Gee puts it this way:

“When we … sense … a match between our way of seeing the world, at a particular time and place, and our action goals, and have the skills to carry these actions out, then we fell great power and satisfaction. Things click, the world looks like it was made for us.”[xvii]

“Unfortunately,” Gee continues, “this happens, for many people, more often in video games than it does in real life.”[xviii] I would revise Gee here, and say that this happens for most people more often in videogames than in real life—if not all. A world that makes sense is comforting. But, for most of us, the world does not make sense, an alarming percentage of the time. The world is complex. It is messy. It is difficult to imagine solutions to global problems that affect us all. For many of us, it is even difficult to envision our own future. Assumptions about standards of living, and the key landmarks on our road maps to “adulthood,” are rapidly changing. Around the world, people’s ability to find meaning through their careers is on the wane, as employment becomes more precarious. Whether we are knowledge workers or factory workers, many of us in 2017 are asking ourselves if our skills will have any place in our world’s economic future. And this is scary.

Videogames present a salve for these worries. One of the stereotypes about games is that they are power fantasies, allowing us to save the world, or save the girl. But not all games are about space marines. Let us not forget FarmVille. Or Candy Crush. Or Diner Dash. These games don’t offer you a chance to be an epic hero, as in Halo. But they do offer up solvable problems to their players. They offer up a space of action, with rules that are understandable, inviolable, and immutable. They endow their players with the requisite skills to succeed at the necessary actions. They present obstacles that can be overcome. They give us a chance to be of use. Even when they’re not about the fantasy of saving the world, they are about making sense of the world—something that, for many, feels more and more like a fantasy every day.

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Although he doesn’t explicitly acknowledge this particular influence, there is a strong Heideggerian streak in Gee’s description of the pleasures of games. One of the things games can do, Gee puts forward, is put us in the shoes of what he calls “authentic professionals”: people who “do what they do because they are committed to an identity in which their skills and knowledge that generates them are seen as valuable and significant.”[xix] This particular description of the possible pleasures of games resonates with Heidegger’s descriptions of work, of equipment, and of authenticity. For Heidegger, we are most able to take a stand on our own being when we are in the midst of work, when everything around us—table, chairs, lectern, chalk, chalkboard—finds its place in a network of involvements. In our classrooms or in our workshops, we are surrounded by equipment, and undertake projects. It is our embeddedness within a specific socio-historical community that gives meaning to both the stuff that surrounds us, and the goals we set for ourselves.

Of course, Heidegger’s workshop—that human-scaled space in which everything is in its right place, where the equipment that surrounds us gives meaning to our actions and grounds us within a specific community—has been, since its conception, a halcyon imagining. Already by the early twentieth century, when Heidegger was writing Being and Time, industrial mechanization, scientific management, and Fordism had begun to change the nature of work. In our current era of rapidly increasing automation and leaps in machine learning and AI, the workshop in which equipment disappears into its usefulness, into its readiness-to-hand, and we can lose ourselves in a meaningful project, seems ever-more distant … and, as a result, ever-more alluring.

So, yes: There are games that place players in the role of a highly-trained assassin, to whom the world is a playground of murder. But there are also games about being a surgeon. And games about being a farmer. And games about being a truck driver. And games about being a mom, cooking for your family. These games don’t rely on power fantasies. But they do, as Gee points out, rely on the fantasy of inhabiting a world that makes sense, of possessing the necessary skill set to carry out well-defined goals. There is something elementally satisfying in knowing our way around things, of being given tasks we know we can succeed at, if we are diligent enough.

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So here we have arrived at the central limitations of videogames, as set up by the pleasures they have historically been associated with. Yes, videogames allow us to walk a mile in another’s shoes. Yes, the ways in which they harness action and consequence allows them to traffic in a rich array of emotional responses. But players often arrive at games with the expectation that there will be set solutions to the problems it offers, that the obstacles it provides will be ones the player will be able to overcome, with persistence. Players will willingly walk a mile in the shoes of many types of characters, as long as their paths make sense, as long as we have a sense of our own responsibilities, our place in the grand scheme of things.

Because of player expectations, games have not proven to be a particularly good medium for expressions of ambiguity. While there can be a dazzling array of numbers being crunched beneath the hood, at the end of the day enterprising and sufficiently left-brained players can do the math and reverse-engineer these numbers, optimizing their strategies accordingly. There is always a solution, and some solutions are objectively better than others. This applies whether one is calculating the maximum damage-per-second achievable in an MMO, or shaving frames off of a speedrun of Super Mario Brothers. This focus on solvability in gamer culture, this faith in the unerring promise of engineering, makes it difficult to design games in which our empathy is directed toward someone to whom there are no solutions, to someone who does not possess the skills to overcome a rigid set of obstacles. Gee characterizes the central satisfaction that games offer as being that moment when “the world looks like it was made for us.” But there are some people who the world was not made for.

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Having broached the subject of Heidegger in my description of the pleasures of games, it is worth pointing out that some of the weaknesses of games as they have developed as a medium overlap with the oversights of Heideggerian phenomenology. As feminist philosopher Dorothy Leland has pointed out, however good Heidegger might be at describing the way in which our actions gain meaning based on the network of shared social practices that we are embedded in, his keenest observations rest on the assumption of a monolithic, homogenous culture. In the cultural-historical realities in which most of us live, this is not the case. Cultures are in conflict, pregnant with pockets of oppositional values. While some may have the privilege of conformity to the shared social goals of the dominant culture, others are denied the opportunity to make sense of their lives and their projects in this way. A fuller recognition of the possibilities of being-in-the-world must abandon this model of “a monolithic cultural totality,” Leland points out, and recognize the reality of “multiple overlapping histories and practices,” that leave room for “competing moral maps, competing stories and interpretations.”[xx]

Indeed, we could say: that leave room for people to be left out. Because there are those who are left out of the world that the dominant culture navigates with ease. As Sara Ahmed reminds us, when phenomenologists such as Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty may have based their idea of the self around the phrase “I can,” they overlook those for whom the phrase “I cannot” is more appropriate. Ahmed gestures toward the unspoken element of race that hovers over these twentieth-century phenomenologists: “some bodies,” she writes, “will be more at home in a world that is orientated around whiteness.”[xxi] Not everyone enjoys a world that is easily navigable, in which things disappear into their usefulness. Race, gender identity, sexual orientation, and disability can all disrupt the feeling of readiness-to-hand. Smoothly navigating the world is a privilege reserved for those who can conform to the dominant culture. This thread of conformism in Heidegger’s thought has an especially dark undercurrent when we remember his profound and inexcusable moral failings, which crystallized when he aligned himself with the Nazi Party.

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So, let’s recap: It is true that videogames can engender empathy. They have a suite of resources for modulating a player’s emotional responses. But “empathy games” about political powerlessness are tough to pull off in a way that encourages continued engagement, rather than a quick burst of simplistic catharsis. One reason for this is that games are associated with a particular suite of pleasures, one that doesn’t mesh well with the political aims of figures such as Brice or Anthropy. Games are about conforming to a certain set of rules, with the trade off of inhabiting a curated world, in which things make sense, and our actions have meanings. It can be tricky, then, to set the correct balance. Create a game with problems that are too easily solvable, and you run the risk of making something too fun, too satisfying, and too at odds with your message. Create a game that accurately depicts the lack of agency of marginalized individuals, however, and you’ve created a little “sad story” vignette, one that many will undoubtedly laud as “important,” but not one that necessarily lead players to further action—and, furthermore, one that doesn’t accurately reflect your own experience.

I won’t pretend that there is a pat solution to this quandary. Rather, I want to elucidate it in order to better examine how individual artists navigate it. The remainder of my talk will narrow in on a few specific case studies: Mainichi, released in 2012 by Mattie Brice and hailed as one of the key entries in the “empathy game” movement, and two subsequent and more critical pieces—one created by Brice, and one by her fellow game designer Anna Anthropy.

Part Five: Rituals of Resistance

Mainichi shares some broad similarity with the stealth genre of videogames, in which players try to avoid the gaze of others. Usually such games are power fantasies, placing their players in the role of expert spies, assassins, and thieves, charged without outwitting enemy guards. Mainichi, by contrast, puts players in the role of a trans woman of color—a version of Brice herself—and tasks them with avoiding potential street harassment.

The bulk of player agency takes the form of binary choices that they make in the game’s first half, as Brice awakens in her apartment and prepares to go out. Broadly put, these decisions have to do with balancing rituals of self-presentation, versus whatever meager means of self-care Brice has at her disposal. What do you do before you go out in the afternoon, to meet a friend for coffee? Do you engage in a lengthy regimen of bathing, shaving your legs, putting on makeup, and dressing elegantly? Or do you take some time for yourself—grabbing a quick bite to eat, for instance, or sitting down for a few minutes to play some videogames—and skimp a bit on your self-presentation? For many people, choosing to skimp on self-presentation might result only in some mild social embarrassment. For a trans woman like Brice, however, it can be the difference between people on the street treating you respectfully, or mis-gendering you.

Once at the coffee shop, Brice’s conversation with her friend forms the game’s multiple “endings.” If players have suffered through street harassment and being mis-gendered, Brice’s character will come across as resigned: “It’s hard to feel happy sometimes.” If, on the other hand, Brice has had a relatively good day, she will optimistically talk about the possibility of a date with a barista, but her friend will respond with worry that Brice might “get hurt.” Even the game’s “good” ending is tempered with caution and concern.

And then, the game abruptly starts over. There are no end credits. The game doesn’t ask you if you want to escape, or play again. It just starts over, without asking you for permission. You’re dumped, again, at the beginning of Brice’s day, hearing, once again, as ever, her suggestion to herself that she should “try being more positive.”

Traditional, mainstream videogames have conditioned their players to expect plenty of feedback. If we’ve done something well, we proceed to the next level; if we’ve performed poorly, our hit points go down, and we die. This is part of games’ seductive clarity. But Mainichi yanks this feedback away. When the game resets to Brice’s bedroom, a player’s response is likely to be: Wait, did I finish it? Was that it? Did I miss something? Is this perhaps a new day, one that starts identically, only to eventually present a diverging story?

Prezi_Screenshot-feeling_through_computers_18.jpg

A player’s assumptions about the “solvability” of games will provide incentive to play again, to find the optimal path through this day. The game’s refusal to acknowledge that it has ended and re-started cannily exploits this impulse. The lack of a clear ending reinforces the expectation of further content—more paths to explore, more (and better) endings to see. But none of the outcomes of this day are that different, or that great. No matter what they do, the player is always going to encounter some amount of pain. There are certain things that never change, because this is Mattie Brice’s life, and this is what she must deal with every day. (Mainichi is, in fact, Japanese for “everyday.”) There is not some secret formula she can use to ensure that no one will ever mis-gender her, no matter how much time players spend in the bathroom gussying her up. And, upon playing them over and over and over again, the game’s meager palette of emotional self-care—microwaving a meal, playing videogames, taking a nap because you feel strangely tired—begin to seem less like moments of “me time,” and more like signs of depression. Sooner or later, it will be up to the player to do what Brice cannot do: to force quit the software, and get out of this loop.

Mainichi is a powerful short vignette, and it was celebrated upon its release in 2012 as one of the key examples of the “empathy games” movement. Whatever the game’s successes, however—and I believe they are numerous—the game’s reception as a sort of “pedagogical sad story” has transformed it into something of an unwelcome lodestone for Brice. In fact, some of her subsequent work can be read as a parody of the effusive (but too often unexamined) rhetoric that Mainichi has attracted.

This “first as tragedy, then as farce” two-step is not unique to Brice. Anthropy, whose autobiographical Dys4ia is another critically-lauded trans narrative, found herself so sick of players claiming that they had figuratively walked a mile in her shoes that she decided to literalize the compliment. Her 2015 gallery piece Empathy Game consisted of an old pair of her boots with a pedometer attached. Visitors were encouraged to slip the boots on (as much as they could fit on their feet), walk around the room, take stock of their “score” on the pedometer, and self-report it on a large chalkboard. Cheating was allowed, and even encouraged, making the piece more game-like by allowing players to game the system. Responding to the charge of cynicism, Anthropy states, “I respect games too much to see them relegated to a way for the privileged to opt out of their responsibilities, to allow them to become the trendy new format for afterschool specials.”[xxii]

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If Empathy Game is Anthropy’s satirically biting re-working of Dys4ia, then 2013’s EAT is Brice’s vicious re-working of Mainichi. Mainichi is a digital game that takes about five minutes to play. EAT is a mixed-media game that takes … well, it just might take the rest of the player’s life. EAT consists of some printed sheets for tallying expenses, a digital calendar (which can be added to the player’s own personal calendar via Google Calendar or Apple’s iCal), and a set of rules, posted on Brice’s personal webpage. Billed as a way for curious and empathetically-minded players to“emulate a part of my life, and maybe gain some sort of understanding,” EAT contains among its rules:

  • You must spend 1 Bath & Beauty (B&B) point in order to leave your (real life) house. 48 points cost $200.
  • Any food, mode of transportation, or other expenses must come out of this budget and cannot be carried over from before play
  • The budget can only be supplemented by work centered around writing and editing skills, and donations
  • If you cannot pay your cellphone bill, you can’t use your phone. If you can’t pay your loans or eat once for the day, you can’t leave your house until you do. You must move out of your house if you can’t pay rent

We could consider EAT as a form of live-action role play. We could consider EAT as a form of transmedia storytelling. But most of all, I think we should consider EAT as representing the breaking point of “games as empathy.” If Mainichi is a sly commentary on game’s fetishization of solvability, of a simple match between skill and outcome, then EAT is a complete rebuke of this tendency. There is precious little abstraction of real-world problems here, and absolutely no attempt to create the sense of a “world made for us.” Instead, we are faced with a stern reminder of the limits of our empathy. In the end, we do not know what it is like to live as another—no matter how many videogames we play.

Earlier, I invoked the metaphor of “conversion rates” to address the disconnect between people who play “empathy games” and feel better about themselves, versus people who use “empathy games” as a springboard to a greater commitment to social justice. I am sure that not many people who play EAT change their minds about anything. In truth, EAT is not a game that is designed to be played, at all. It is, rather, a game that is designed to be unplayable, to be as inhospitable to those who try to take it up as our social climate is to marginalized artists such as Brice.

And, to be clear, sometimes what we need is unplayable games. Sometimes we need a thorough rejection of the usual pleasures that games offer, of their promises of a world that makes sense. Sometimes we need to stop feeling through computers.

[i] Grant Tavinor, The Art of Videogames (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 145.

[ii] Katherine Isbister, How Games Move Us: Emotion by Design (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2016), 3.

[iii] Quoted in ibid., 1.

[iv] Anand Giridharadas, A Letter to All Who Have Lost in This Era (TED: Ideas Worth Spreading, 2016); Colby Itkowitz, “What Is This Election Missing? Empathy for Trump Voters,” The Washington Post, November 2, 2016.

[v] Baratunde Thurston, “Empathy Isn’t a Favor I Owe White Trump Voters. It Has to Go Both Ways.,” Vox, November 17, 2016.

[vi] Ian Bogost, How to Do Things with Videogames (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2012), 18.

[vii] Ibid., 23.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Colin Campbell, “Gaming’s New Frontier: Cancer, Depression, Suicide,” Polygon, May 9, 2013.

[x] Conor Dougherty, “Videogames About Alcoholism, Depression and Cancer,” The Wall Street Journal, August 15, 2013.

[xi] Chloi Rad, “19 Games About Empathy, Understanding and the Self,” Indie Statik, November 11, 2013, archived here.

[xii] Christopher Malmo, “A New Virtual Reality Tool Brings the Daily Trauma of the Syrian War to Life,” Motherboard, August 23, 2014.

[xiii] Ben Kuchera, “Being Someone Else: How Virtual Reality Is Allowing Men and Women to Swap Bodies,” Polygon, March 4, 2014.

[xiv] Chris Milk, How Virtual Reality Can Create the Ultimate Empathy Machine (TED: Ideas Worth Spreading, 2015).

[xv] Anna Anthropy, “Empathy Game,” 2015.

[xvi] Mattie Brice, “Empathy Machine,” Mattie Brice: Alternate Ending, July 1, 2016.

[xvii] James Paul Gee, Why Video Games Are Good for Your Soul: Pleasure and Learning (Champaign, IL: Common Ground, 2005), 56.

[xviii] Ibid.

[xix] Ibid., 51.

[xx] Dorothy Leland, “Conflictual Culture and Authenticity: Deepening Heidegger’s Account of the Social,” in Feminist Interpretations of Martin Heidegger, ed. Nancy J. Holland and Patricia Huntington (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001), 123.

[xxi] Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006), 138.

[xxii] Anna Anthropy, “Empathy Game,” 2015.

 

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