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Gaming to Gain Empathy

Google the terms “design” and “empathy”; Top results are articles from IDEO, Google’s design team, and one article titled “Empathy, the UX Holy Grail”. Empathy, and human-centered design are increasingly important but empathy is not always easy to achieve. An imperative distinction for designers to make is that in order to really have empathy (not just sympathy) one has to have the ability to experience and understand the emotions another is going through.

Designers get to experience certain situations by studying others, at times this can mean simple research and other times this can be through physical acts like hindering the use of a hand for a day, wearing a blindfold, or many other situations designers can recreate. Looking at the market of human centered design, this type of research and mock-experience is effective in making informed products, but if we go back to the definition of empathy, there is a gap in designer’s ability to empathize with situations they cannot easily recreate or fully comprehend. There are some nuances to other people’s lives that designers cannot empathize with through traditional ways of research and acting out.

During my thesis, I had often talked about my inability to fully understand Autism no matter how much research I did, I could not help but feel like someone barely looking through the window of what Autism must feel like. In conversations with my advisor I likened this to my experience of having OCD and feeling as though people who do not have a mental illness could not understand the every day life of someone who does. When asked how I could get laypeople to understand, the best solution I could think of was to have people play a game and experience life under the rules OCD sets.

There is a subset of experiences that no amount of research can reach. Take for instance, the loss of a child. At 25 and self-described as married to my work, I would say I am in no danger of having a kid much less going through the pain of losing them. This year at PAX Prime gamers were able to feel even a modicum of what that may be like.  Ryan Green created That Dragon, Cancer, a heart-wrenching game based on his experience of losing his son to cancer. PAX Co-Organizer Mike Krahulik quoted from his blog in a Wired article about the game says,  “[Green] has encoded the experience, his actual experience, of being a father to a son doctors tell you will not and cannot live.” People were seen leaving the booth at PAX wiping away tears. Through the game, players were able to live and experience similar emotions to that of Ryan Green’s.

By nature, the immersion of video games can be a gateway for designers to feel deeper empathy. If you are someone who has played a difficult side-scroller and gotten so frustrated you needed to take a lap or if you are like me and couldn’t stop crying 10 minutes in to playing Ori and the Blind Forest, you know what it is to be affected by a game. This is something we as designers can harness, especially with the growing trend of immersive games through the use of storytelling, Virtual Reality (VR), and 360° experiences.

So let’s venture back to what it might be like to play a game with an objective to get ready in the morning through the lens of OCD.

You the player are tasked with getting ready for work. You awake in your room, you get dressed, and it is time to grab a pair of socks. The game tells you that you must pick the correct pair of socks and get to work on time or suffer dire consequences. You’re shown a photo of you in a car crash, of your friend getting denied their promotion; you can solve this by simply picking out the right pair of socks. You dig through your sock drawer, you click every pair over and over again, but no choice you made is correct and time is up.

You won’t emerge from game play knowing all the ins and outs of OCD but you will emerge frustrated, you feel like there is no way to win this game, it must be broken; In this moment an important connection happens. The same connection that happens when designers are sitting in a wheel chair straining to do something as simple as flicking a light switch. This is where designers slide from sympathetic to empathetic. Ideally, one would walk away from that game able to make the connection of how frustrated they felt while playing and what it must be like to live that game play as reality every day, every hour, every minute.

If Green’s That Dragon, Cancer, can have people leaving with tears in their eyes feeling like they could relate to Green’s emotions and defeat, how else can designers learn from this type of game play? There are many ways to empathize, but gaming can reach areas of empathy once closed off to those of us who do not and cannot understand some aspects of life; Immersive experiences more games like That Dragon, Cancer can help us be better designers.