“Empathy” Games

Teddy Pozo, “Queer Games After Empathy: Feminism and Haptic Game Design Aesthetics from Consent to Cuteness to the Radically Soft,” in Games Studies (2018)

Bonnie Ruberg, “Empathy and Its Alternatives: Deconstructing the Rhetoric of ‘Empathy’ in Video Games,” in Communication, Culture & Critique (2020)

Both of these articles are filled with decontextualized citations and poorly defined terminology in a way that’s become fairly standard for academic writing in Media Studies, and I have to admit that I found the writing difficult to read. If I understand the authors correctly, this is what I think they’re arguing:

(a) It’s not cool for corporations to commodify queer experiences branded as “empathy,”
(b) it’s not the job of indie game designers to sell their personal work as educational content, and
(c) we shouldn’t assume that the default identity of a “gamer” is a straight cisgender male anyway.

In order to protest being discursively commodified for an audience of straight men, a small handful of super-indie game developers have created “games” that push back against the idea that their job is to teach a mainstream audience how to empathize with minorities. I’m putting “games” in scare quotes here because these most of these works are deliberately inaccessible, while some only exist in the form of gallery performance art.

This is my take on the conversation:

I read a lot of anthologies of queer, transgender, and nonbinary comics, as well as full-length graphic novels and serialized webcomics by queer, transgender, and nonbinary creators. There are two general commonalities that stand out to me: (1) how much people love and are inspired by queer anime and manga, and (2) how much people love and are inspired by queer video games.

I understand that some queer people are aware of their gender and sexuality from a very early age, and that’s great, but I think a lot of us need to see ourselves reflected in a metaphorical mirror before we begin to understand our identity. Because every individual is different, and because relatable stories can speak louder than pure truth, these metaphorical mirrors don’t need to be perfect. They just need to exist.

So I think that, by being ironic about their work and bitter about how it’s reached a larger audience than an intended in-group of people who all attend the same expensive academic conferences and Bay Area gallery art shows, these queer indie developers and the academics who praise them aren’t being particularly kind to all the kids who maybe didn’t know they were queer until they played a “mainstream” game like Gone Home or Life Is Strange.

It’s also worth mentioning that most of the people involved in this conversation are white. Based on what I’ve read in digital gaming magazines and seen on social media, I get the feeling that there are a lot of BIPOC indie game devs, as well as game devs from non-Western countries, who desperately want people to learn about and empathize with their experiences, and I think it’s important to listen to what they have to say.

Still, I understand the resistance to the commodification of queer discursive spaces, and I appreciate the idea that people don’t need to be able to empathize with difference in order to respect it. For what it’s worth, I’ve started to see more developers use the term “story game” instead of “empathy game” during the past two or three years, and I think that makes much more sense in terms of marketing and finding an audience.

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