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Walking in Someone Else’s Shoes

So far I’ve talked about Player Empowerment and One New Thing in the context of defining success. This week I want to talk about one of the coolest things that make games different than any other medium: we can let players walk in someone else’s shoes.

So far I’ve talked about Player Empowerment and One New Thing in explaining OtherSide Entertainment’s mission – making Player Powered games. And I’ve tied that mission in with my definition of success. This week I want to continue the discussion by talking about something I feel like I’ve always failed at (which is, of course, the reason to keep trying!). That is, letting players walk in someone else’s shoes for a while – someone, in all likelihood, unlike themselves, someone whose life they may not even be able to imagine.

Rather than showing people what someone else’s life situation is like, we can let players experience it, at least in small ways. And that’s something new and very special.

I guess at some level, I’ve always tried to do this, but I started thinking about it consciously on August 25, 2015. Yes, I can pin it down with that much precision.

The reason I can do that is because the August 25 2015 issue of the New York Times featured a column by David Brooks, one of their columnists, where he lamented the lack of empathy in the world. He went on to surmise that this was a result of our inevitable inability to experience the world from another person’s perspective. Here’s what he said in the column called “The Big Decisions.”

“Let’s say you had the chance to become a vampire. With one magical bite you would gain immortality, superhuman strength and a life of glamorous intensity. Your friends who have undergone the transformation say the experience is incredible. The difficulty of the choice is that you’d have to use your human self and preferences to try to guess whether you’d enjoy having a vampire self and preferences. Becoming a vampire is transformational. You would literally become a different self. How can you possibly know what it would feel like to be this different version of you or whether you would like it?”

As that quote implies, the article is about the unknowability of how you’ll feel when you have to make a truly consequential life choice. Brooks has no answer for this.

Now, I don’t know if Brooks plays games, though for some reason I assume he doesn’t. If he did play games, though, he’d know that they may actually be the answer to his question.

Games offer the opportunity to make decisions and try out behaviors in a virtual world that we wouldn’t even want people trying in the real one. When we play a game, we actually take on the role of the character we’re playing, whether that’s an avatar with a name, personality and personal goals, or one without such things created and embodied solely by player choices.

In a game, you don’t just watch someone else unlike you, or read about someone not like you, but in a very real sense, you become someone not like you. This is a critical way we’re unique among media. Books can’t do it. Movies can’t do it. Theatre can’t do it. Painting, dance, opera… Nothing can let you experience for yourself life choices and unknowable, unpredictable situations. Nothing other than games.

How else am I ever going to experience life as a World War I fighter pilot? How else can I become a knight and see what it was like to live in a medieval castle? How will I know (to use Brooks’ example) what life as a vampire might be like?

If we were really trying, through games, you could feel for yourself the sting of racism or religious persecution or gender bias or anything else we have the nerve to offer players. You could even know what it’s like to be the last space marine standing between the Earth and alien invaders. (Oh, wait, we do that last one all the time… Let’s call it quits on that, shall we?)

And before anyone points it out, I realize there are issues of “cultural appropriation” associated with this capability of games, but that’s a topic for an entirely different talk. Let’s just leave it at this for now: I think there’s real value in providing a diversity of experience and holding out the hope that we can increase empathy as a result. Your mileage may vary.

So, to David Brooks I say, take a look over here. There’s a medium of expression that can let you live your choices and see what happens as a result. Maybe you should give it a try. Play some games. You might like it. And you might learn something about yourself.

Next time, I’ll talk about Making a Statement or, more precisely, why that’s entirely the wrong way to think about games.

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