The Empathy Game

Carolyn Petit looks at three games that strive to give you an understanding of some often-unpleasant real-world experiences.


Cart Life

One of the most noble things an artistic work can do is deepen our sense of empathy with those who have had struggles or experiences that we have not. Historically speaking, this isn't something that games have concerned themselves with much. But the last few years have seen the emergence of a new trend: small, personal games that are less concerned with being fun and more concerned with communicating a particular experience in a way that fosters empathy and understanding.

When I first heard about David Gallant's game I Get This Call Every Day, I felt something tighten in the pit of my stomach. I didn't even need to play it to have an emotional reaction. Inspired by Gallant's own experiences working in a call center, the game puts you in an unwinnable customer service situation. I've done time in call centers. Unwinnable interactions were once a daily, depressing part of my existence. I count my lucky stars every day that I've been able to leave that life behind, and I'm so averse to returning to it that initially, I really didn't even want to play Gallant's game. "I don't need to play that," I thought. "I've lived it."

When I finally did play I Get This Call Every Day, I was surprised to find that, from my perspective, the interaction you experience is rather tame. The customer you deal with is frustrated, sure, but he doesn't become openly hostile like many callers did in my experience. (Maybe there's some truth to the idea that Canadians are just more polite than Americans, even when they're angry.) But despite the relatively low-key tone of the call, playing the game does provide a window into the frustration of a repetitive job that often makes you feel powerless.

So what's the point of playing a game that makes you feel frustrated and powerless?
You can't assist the caller in the game because he can't jump through the hoops he needs to jump through that would enable you to help him. You might decide to let the regulations slide and help him anyway, but there are consequences for that. So the caller is frustrated that he's not being helped, and you're frustrated because you can't help him. It's a cycle of frustration, and as the game's title so pointedly communicates, this call is not the rare exception in a normally productive, fulfilling job. It is a constant reality. You get the sense that each time the phone rings, Gallant dreads the possibility that this call will be one of those calls. I know I did.

So what's the point of playing a game that makes you feel frustrated and powerless? I know that my experiences working in a call center have changed the way I think about my interactions with people who work in call centers. It's natural to get frustrated when you have a problem and the person you're talking to isn't helping you, but I try to keep in mind that the situation is probably at least as frustrating for the person on the other end as it is for me. If they're not helping me, it's often because they simply can't, because the rigid, bureaucratic structure in which they work hasn't empowered them to do so. That's infuriating, but our rage should be directed at the larger company, not at the poor person on the other end of the line who isn't paid very much and has to deal with testy people all day.

I try to remember that, for me, when that call is over, I can go on with my day. The person on the other end of the phone is probably in a tiny cubicle where they will sit and deal with call after call after call, hour after hour. But I don't expect people to spend years working in call centers themselves in order to develop a sense of empathy with the customer service representatives they sometimes speak to. The value of I Get This Call Every Day is that, in a few short minutes, it gives us a small window into the experiences of call center employees, and that may make us more inclined to understand that the person on the other end of the phone is indeed a person, the next time we have to call a customer service line.

A very different take on workaday struggles is Richard Hofmeier's Cart Life. This "retail simulation" gives you a few characters to choose from, but they all have one thing in common: they are facing serious financial problems, and they must run their own small businesses in an effort to improve their lives. I opted to play as Melanie, a woman who has just separated from her husband and must prove that she has the wherewithal to provide for her daughter. To that end, she purchases and starts running a coffee cart.

Cart Life's impact on me was multifaceted. It brought up memories of my time working in coffee shops. Any job that gives you the opportunity to build a rapport with customers has its upside, and Cart Life acknowledges this by giving you the option to engage in small talk with your patrons, many of whom become regulars. Though I would love to see a deeper and more varied customer interaction system in Cart Life, there's enough here that you get the sense that Melanie is a friendly person who likes feeling that she can make her customers' days a little brighter.

But of course, the job isn't all just friendly chitchat. Making drinks is repetitive, and when things are busy or customers are impatient, it has the potential to be stressful, too. I found that Cart Life's coffee-making mechanics are extremely effective at conveying both the repetition and the pressure of the work. At one shop where I worked, ordered drinks would be highlighted in blue and then in red if too much time passed before they were made. In Cart Life, you can see each customer's patience waning as they wait for you to grind the beans, tamp the grounds, pull the shots, and go through all the other steps you need to go through to make their drink. It's not what I would call fun, though it is satisfying to get better and faster at making drinks, which is also true in real life.

These aren't characters with cushy lives who are embarking on exciting new business ventures. These are desperate people.
Equally important to the Cart Life experience is the way it forces you to contemplate living hand to mouth. These aren't characters with cushy lives who are embarking on exciting new business ventures. These are desperate people. Melanie is fortunate in that she has the support of her sister, whom she has just moved in with at the start of the game. But, playing as Melanie, I felt a responsibility to make good not just in order to provide for my daughter, but also so that I could stop imposing on my sister as soon as possible. I felt like I was on the brink of financial ruin, like every decision that involved spending money was hugely important. I agonized over whether to take a cab and get somewhere more quickly or take the bus and save money. By constantly making you choose between working and eating, between losing time or losing money, Cart Life encourages you to empathize with people who are working themselves to death just to earn enough to barely scrape by.

Dys4ia gives us a glimpse of a different kind of personal struggle. It's a frank and personal game by designer Anna Anthropy about her experiences as a trans woman who begins hormone replacement therapy. She is clear up front in the game that it is about her own experiences and is not meant to be representative of the experience of every trans person, but as a trans person myself, I feel like any open-minded person who plays the game is likely to come away feeling like it has communicated some inkling of what it's like to struggle to be yourself in a world that wants to bludgeon you into being someone else.

While Cart Life and I Get This Call Every Day aim to somewhat realistically transform the real-life situations they deal with into gameplay, Dys4ia is a more symbolic game in which you're presented with frequently shifting scenarios that each represent a different facet of Anna's struggles, both internal and external. There's no challenge to Dys4ia. You can't lose the game. It's certainly not a game that's concerned, first and foremost, with fun. It's concerned with communicating, with trying to make you understand what it's like to have your sense of self constantly attacked and undermined, and to face massive obstacles on the road to simply being who you are.

By letting you share in the sense of personal growth and triumph that comes with Anna's early steps in her transition, Dys4ia makes it very clear just what she's fighting for.
But Dys4ia isn't just about the struggles. In its transcendent ending, it becomes about the victories, too, and this is vital. By letting you share in the sense of personal growth and triumph that comes with Anna's early steps in her transition, Dys4ia makes it very clear just what she's fighting for. That makes you want to root for her, to see her continue to make progress and be happier with herself and her life. And that is something we can all relate to.

All of us share this crazy world with people who are very different from us. Books and films and plays and other art forms have long striven to make the personal universal, opening up the doorway to shared human experiences for those whose hearts and minds were open enough to let them step outside of themselves. It's encouraging to see that games, no longer viewed solely as entertainment products, are now striving to do this, too.

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