The Empathy Game

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

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.

Written By

Want the latest news about Cart Life?

Cart Life

Cart Life

Follow

Discussion

130 comments
King9999
King9999

Oh man, that game...I Get This Call Every Day.  That was totally me before I said "to hell with this" and tried to improve my situation.

Oh, and Carolyn...speaking as a Canadian, we do indeed get hostile customers over the phone once in a while.

tempertress
tempertress moderator staff

Very interesting looking games. Thanks for sharing, Caro. It's so great to see this medium not just growing up but also growing away from pre-conceived notions of what a game 'should' and 'must' be. 

oldschoolvandal
oldschoolvandal

Great article. The more medias touch, show or even introduce this issues and points of view, the better.

I condiser myself lucky that I was able to happily navigate through life while there are so many people that have to face daily battles just to be accepted as they are or in their pursuit of happiness.

LE5LO
LE5LO

Great article! It's nice to see it's just a minority of people posting here that are dismissive of the topic, they're missing the point. Congratulations to all the open minded people leaving comments of praise for games like these; it gives me some hope that this industry and its audience is finally starting to grow up!



Thunderstarter
Thunderstarter

Carolyn, your articles are as engaging as they are unique. I have yet to find one I did not like. Thank you for introducing us to these games and please keep up the great work. 

Neo_OnionKnight
Neo_OnionKnight

A game to me is a piece of art that expresses a collection of experiences that the designers want us to dwell in. What we do with these experiences is up to us, personally I like games that shine a small light into the grim reality that some or most us face. Remember what a certain book said: "Walk a mile in another mans shoes..."? I modify it to: "Walk a mile in another persons shoes...". 

 If these reality games shine a small light or trigger some sort of reaction that gets you to think: "Geez that's tough..." then the message has been received. It's not asking for you to save the world....but hell you yelling at call centre personnel isn't helping.

Witchblade13
Witchblade13

I'm surprised Carolyn didn't talk about "Dinner Date", it's a  simple game where there player a guy being stood up in hopes of meeting a date. (Aplologies for the utter spoiler) It's quite interesting for it's experience as you hear the character's inner thoughts. Though it's not about financial problems, it is really about something everyone will or has faced in life. This is interesting to see games emulate life in a sense of realism. Games are a medium that can change people. For better or worse. They can even help us to figure out stuff about ourselves and others we didn't even know. 

It's nice to see games take a different approach at tugging at heartstrings once in awhile and not just satisfying feelings of self-accomplishment, bloodlust, etc.  These are unique games and do their best to show us a more "human" and "natural" side of gaming. 

Gregguy40
Gregguy40

There seems to be a lot of readers who dismiss this article and the games within because their realism. They say "Games are supposed to be about escaping reality, not imitating it." Well, friends, that's totally missing the point.

This article demonstrates how progressive video games have become. Games are no longer commercial time killers and they're becoming works of art. They tell stories that are meant to touch and move players in such a way that only games can do, the same way that literature tells stories the only way it can, and the same with film. This article is important because it documents this change. Everything about it is progressive; the author, the games within, and the respect it shows for the intelligence of it's audience. 

Gamers especially should pay attention to articles like this, because games are gradually becoming a widely accepted cultural staple. Dismissing the games in this article is holding back the whole culture of games. Whether you agree with the content of these games or not, they are at least representative of life today in regards of our values, our culture, and the way they are expressed to the world. If you don't like it, you should at least respect it. 

SuprSaiyanRockr
SuprSaiyanRockr

"what it's like to struggle to be yourself in a world that wants to bludgeon you into being someone else"

I don't think that a person that has gone/wants to undergo a sex change operation has any desire to be themself. Rather, they  are unhappy with themselves, so they change their appearance drastically with surgery.

morgan_gibson87
morgan_gibson87

Games don't need to be 'realistic'. But what all good games - and indeed, all good art - should do is illuminate the issues that plague people in the real world. Games should raise questions about the degredation, alienation and exploitation that make up everyday life in contemporary capitalism. Examples? GTA IV, FF7, Red Dead Redemption, Metal Gear Solid 4 etc etc

KSTREETMAFIA
KSTREETMAFIA

Really like this article, Carolyn is awesome first of all. I see some comments saying games shouldn't be this, shouldn't be that, thats the beauty of games, and indie games in particular. They are anything we want them to be, anything the designers and creators want it to be, many of you may say these games look boring and games should be crazy and about things that we could never otherwise experience. Yet look at all of the people that have played these games, or watched this video with interest, commented on it. Even if you thought wow that game looks so stupid or boring, it's awesome to me that there's a game like this, life can be boring, life can be "stupid", a monotonous grind. But trying to create sympathy and compassion is always a good thing, it's really cool to see even just simple indie games like this.

Gunface1011
Gunface1011

While I feel games are amazing, and social commentary should be instilled in games, I don't feel that every game needs to make us experience real life things. When I want to drive up to Lake Tahoe, I don't stare at some painting of Lake Tahoe, I actually drive myself there. Games, while they are the most dynamic and entertaining forms of art, should not be a substitute for real life experiences. Now, things like violence, war, stealing cars, flying dragons, wandering the desert on a journey, and killing giant stone creatures with nothing but your sword and your horse; these are all things that are great to experience through games because they're so far from what we perceive as normal life experiences, and they're great metaphors for real life struggles. I do believe games should show us things we'll never see, but self improvement shouldn't be something you sit down and make your character do, it should be something YOU do.

befo72
befo72

All these comments about how games should not be about real life depress me. What if I want to experience something that I'll likely never get the chance to try in my own life? This is the basis of an entire (nearly dead these days) genre: the true simulation game. Old games such as Capitalism II filled a lot of my gaming hours in the past as I tried to learn how the economy and the stock market work. Another example is the political simulation sub-genre.

I enjoy good mindless fun as much as the next gamer, but why the backlash against something like Cart Life or either of the other games in this feature for that matter? Learning about different viewpoints or issues that you might otherwise never give two thoughts to shouldn't be viewed with scorn.

It's called broadening one's horizons.

leafsfreak
leafsfreak

My god, what the fuck am I reading in these comments?

It seems like all gamers want is to be entertained. Have you no apetite for social commentary or appreciation for the unique approach to narrative that video games are capable of?

NAH BRO, I JUS WANNA PLAY GAEM AND HAVE FUNS. Your escapist mentality is rather sad. You'll live a fuller life if you try to extract something from games into the real world as opposed to just closing yourself off from reality when gaming. Be a real person, this article has a lot of good things to say about the power of narrative influence in video games. 

ivan_osorio
ivan_osorio

I REALLY want to give that Cart Life game a go. Damn Mac.

Rodrigo_AA
Rodrigo_AA

It's funny how almost every gamers affirms that video games are an art form, but when some people start to make games that shows a personal point of view of the reality, what art ultimately does, a lot of gamers start complaining and say that is not a game..

dr_jashugan
dr_jashugan

What's the POINT in playing games that emulates real life? I tought playing games was to ESCAPE FROM real life to have some FUN. :-\

Senor_Kami
Senor_Kami

Are these games at least entertaining?  They sound like movies about mundane things except a movie adds interesting characters, well written dialog, and good acting to make these mundane things a joy to watch.  Do these games do whatever the gaming equivalent of that is or that they ultimately dull where the only positive is that they at least tried?  Tried and failed, but at least tried.

Rovelius
Rovelius

Call centers = hell on Earth >.>..... 

franzito
franzito

Games with hard to deal themes often make me reflect about other people's problems and conclude that, sometimes, what we are going through is manageable and we shouldn't complain too much. Nice article, Carolyn.

AntiH3ro97
AntiH3ro97

Video "game" is the wrong word to use for these, because game implies that it was for fun.  These "games" are more there to provide an interactive experience and to tell a story than do what people associate with "games."

magicalclick
magicalclick

I would rather watch "Pursuit of Happiness" 10 more times, than playing those games. Yes, life is super hard, I get it, what are you doing to do about it?

You know those games is not asking you to show empathy. It is implied. But, what most people get from it, is that, their life is as hard and frustrating as those games, and thus, they hated their job/life and give up on their dreams. The real people who actually donate and help poor kids, are they one who works hardER, be rich, and SAVE money, and have spare money to make a difference, and definitely would not waste their time play those depressing games.

I will just make it a safe statement, there is at least one person in this planet who play those depressing games would gain more empathy and decided to help less fortunate people.

prismtech
prismtech

carolyn's articles have always been refreshing. keep it up! woot woot

magicalclick
magicalclick

Sigh, if not my experience with my ex, I would have never bothered to feel anything about those trans. I have accepted the reality that he wanted to be CD or trans and accepted the fact that we cannot be happily together no matter how much want I love him. What I just want to say is, the game is so narrow from the trans perspective. Where is the emotion on the person who loved him the most? Where is the emotion of insecurity and feeling of neglected as he drift away little by little without knowing he is transitioning. Where is the shock when he founds about the truth? Where is the feeling of worthlessness when he realized he wasn't deem worthy to know the truth? Where is the helpless feeling when he tried his best cope, and yet, powerless that she just drift away further and further? And ultimately he feels all the effort to cope is wasted when she dumped him in the end?

OK, I am not saying he doesn't deserve to become a girl. But, if you want to make a game about this. Don't make it so biased from her point of view. Because that's life. We all have to struggle.

leafsfreak
leafsfreak

Carolyn,

Don't mind the naysayers commenting on this article. I think this is a brilliant read - great commentary on how video games can play a pivotal role in shaping our own understanding of empathy. It seems to me like some of the readers have been playing the wrong games...

Anyway, I hadn't heard of Dys4ia before coming across this article and I think it's quite fascinating. The game is subtle in how it delivers its message but effective in making you feel for its... narrator? I guess that's what you'd call her. The art style is also appropriate. The retro look harkens back to a time when gamers played simpler games and had simpler thoughts. It's kind of funny how both of those things (thoughts and video games) have evolved in complexity at an almost parallel rate. 

Feels kind of exhausting, don't you think? Maybe it's just me.

DiamondDM13
DiamondDM13

I love the negativety in the comments, it just shows how few are those among us that are open minded.

On the games, I only had the chance to play the last, because the 1st is paid, and the second needs to be installed to the PC. However, it is pretty short, doesn't really  have any objective. It's just a way to hear the person's story. Didn't bother me at all. Don't know how it would make someone feel bad playing it... It's not my type of game though.

The call center one seems interesting to me though. But at the moment I'm contemplating buying Journey and Walking Dead, so no deal.

davidsgallant
davidsgallant

@King9999 I really hope you were successful in improving your situation. I haven't been yet, but sales of the game have made a huge difference.

deadkingdg
deadkingdg

@Gregguy40 Yep, the same was probably said about movies at one point. "Movies are supposed to entertain us, not make me cry about the realities of the world!" Of course, we need entertainment, but movies and games that are more about experiencing something are great once in a while.

carolynmichelle
carolynmichelle moderator staff

@SuprSaiyanRockr As someone who actually IS trans, I can assure you, thanks to the irrefutable evidence of my own personal experiences, that you are wrong. I suggest that before you dismiss the experiences of trans people again in the future, you may wish to know a bit about what you are talking about. You can learn about this issue by reading the good information on this website, for instance: http://ai.eecs.umich.edu/people/conway/conway.html. Alternately, if you do not wish to actually educate yourself about what it is to be trans, that is fine, but in that case, it might be better to not express a viewpoint on the topic.

theconniption
theconniption

@SuprSaiyanRockrThese people are in the process of "becoming" themselves.  A woman grows up feeling like she is in a man's body...  The aesthetic changes are simply a way of getting the world to view them the same way they view themselves.

DiamondDM13
DiamondDM13

@SuprSaiyanRockr Well tell me then... What are you? What you look like? Or what you feel like you are?

Because by that logic, if people see you as stupid, then that is what you are. I don't mean to offende. I just want to point out to you, that people are not what their image is... They're what's inside them...

carolynmichelle
carolynmichelle moderator staff

@Gunface1011 I would never argue that every game needs to make us experience real life things, nor do I think that games can be a substitute for real life experiences any more than I think that books or movies can. But just as some books and films can illuminate real-world issues, so can games, and if a small number of games sets out to do that in creative ways, so much the better.

magicalclick
magicalclick

@befo72 

Perhaps these games are PG25 and thus, is not well suited for large amount of audiences here? I dislike those games because it is simply too dark without a clear message of hope inside. I know it is a cliché to have a typical story of poor slave set out on a journey to become a great ruler, but, there is positive energy inside it that brings hope and perhaps a glimps of survival techniques to be learned sub-consciously.

These games certainly are art. And as art, beauty is from the eyes of beholders. And apparently a lot of people here do not see the beauty from these.

Probably just want to read up the book about Mars and Veins. As male, we tends to put a lot of efforts on solving a problem instead of showing emotion to it. And when efforts goes unrewarded, we pull back. That's what most males reaction. They want a challenge that can be solved. If you give him such a difficult and depressing game, he may try it several times, and then, realize there is no reward, and pulls back. If you want to grab male audiences, you want to give them acceptable challenges and rewards. Female on the other side tends to be more acceptable to empathy without actually solving the problem. Sounds stereotypical, but, seems to apply to high percentage of populations. As a quick conclusion, those games are more suitable for female gamers who absorb emotion without actually beat the game with perfect score. As guys, they just want to beat the game with highest score and that's part of their human nature.

Dragazzo
Dragazzo

@Rodrigo_AA that's a very interesting thought, haven't really looked at it that way before :) 

magicalclick
magicalclick

@Senor_Kami 

Well, I guess that's not their goal to attract casual gamers. Or because there is a trend of playing super hard games and they think people would play it?

You are right. There are so many movies and cartoons addressing the issues. And the best one just make it a comedy, so, people can continue to absorb those information without getting tired in the process.

leafsfreak
leafsfreak

@AntiH3ro97Gamification is the use of game-thinking and game mechanics in non-game contexts in order to engage users and solve problems. (Wikipedia)

Nowhere does it say that the element of fun is intrinsic to the game experience. The games in this article present their stories through an interactive medium that engages a user - how does that not make them games?

carolynmichelle
carolynmichelle moderator staff

@magicalclick I don't fault Anna for making an autobiographical game that was specifically about her experiences. But that doesn't mean that stories like yours and pain like yours are any less legitimate or worthy of being shared. You are right, we all have to struggle. I am sorry for what you have gone through.

magicalclick
magicalclick

@Hen_hidaka:

Not sure where you post went. Thank you for the kind reminder. I think I just got a bit jealous, because there is no game about the struggle of people like me. That's just another reality. We are the minority of minority of minority of minority. The group is so tiny, a game about us just wouldn't attract enough audiences.

ihateds2
ihateds2

@DiamondDM13

"I love how people don't share the same views as me. It just shows how few those among us are that are as special and wonderful as I am".

SuprSaiyanRockr
SuprSaiyanRockr

@carolynmichelle

Thank you for clarifying, and I'm flattered that you responded to my post personally, though I'd no intention of offending you. My sincere apologies if that was the case.

Of course, I don't claim to know everything; the above comment is simply my understanding of he matter.


I will not deny that being a woman is part of your identity, as I do not understand psychology well enough to comment, and I am not a transexual myself. However, if my comment is false (which I'll assume it is), then wouldn't that mean that identity is something separate from the human body? If so, what is 'self'?


I ask because I, myself, know how much my personality and behaviour is shaped by my body and mind; I am autistic. I have Aspergers. To an extent, my condition shapes (or, at least, affects) my identity, and my personality.

From your comment, I gather that the identity of a trans person is not defined by their body or their hormones. So, what defines the identity? Is it a state of mind, that they do not feel that they belong in their body? Do they not think of it as their own body? Is that why they change, so that their body matches their identity? Then, does that mean that the identity is a construct?

I don't mean to offend at all. I just seek understanding. Thank you for your time. I'll read through the link you provided to gain understanding.

morgan_gibson87
morgan_gibson87

@magicalclick @Senor_Kami Cause we wouldn't want to think too deeply about social problems now would we? Better to bury our heads in the sand and pretend everything's okay!

magicalclick
magicalclick

@carolynmichelle 

Thank you for the kind understanding. I guess I just need to create my own game LOL. Nah, I have moved on, and it is not much of a struggle as trans. I applaud the creator's effort in this game. I hope she gets better since I don't know the ending. But, I have to got to say, I think I saw a trans as a top manager, I just couldn't confirm she is really a trans or not. Her voice is certain a lot deeper than me.

DiamondDM13
DiamondDM13

@ihateds2 If you're gonna quote me, don't change my words. Those are your words, and pretty nice, thanks. Being open minded doesn't make me special and wonderful, it just makes me different, and most importantly, let's me see what things and people really are. I'm not the only person who is open minded. But again, thanks for the compliment.

deadkingdg
deadkingdg

@SuprSaiyanRockr @carolynmichelle Well, if you had the opportunity to fix you Aspergers syndrome, would you consider being free of it your "true self" or would you consider that you can only be yourself by staying like you are? Remember that even if it gets fixed, you personality was already forged by living with it and that would stay with you. That's also true with trans people, since even after their transition, their personality would have been forged under those conditions.

Being close to the LGBT community, I can really confirm that gender is far from being binary. For some people, they can live with a different body. In other cases, they'll alter it as much as they can without surgeries or hormones. In others, hormones and surgeries are the only way for their inner self to be happy.