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If games are a form of cultural expression they would need to trigger more than just simple emotions, but surprisingly little has been said on how games evoke empathy in players. This article takes a closer look on the subject.

Marius Holstad, Blogger

April 23, 2013

4 Min Read

There has been only one thing that has made me doubt that games ever can be art; and that is game-systems’ ability to evoke empathy. Before thinking about this, I was an avid defender of games as art. The reason that I became sceptical for a moment was that if game-systems were to be art, they would have to be able to tell stories. I won’t attempt to make a comprehensive explanation of why art need to be able to tell stories, but in short, you must be able to communicate something to an audience and make them feel something.

The amazing thing about stories is that they are capable of making us feel very strong emotions, and part of that is because of the human ability to empathize. Without text, visuals and sound a game is just a system of gameplay and system-rules. Realising that a game-system would have difficulties telling a deep and meaningful story, I suddenly understood why some people could be sceptical about art-games. I found that the main component missing was exactly a way to evoke empathy. If game-systems could do that, they would surely qualify as art.

With empathy in mind, I sat out to research a bit on what empathy is and how it works. The leading theory on the subject suggests that our brain uses “mirror neurons” to imitate feelings; which is triggered when we understand the goal of someone’s action. Some things that might trigger mirror neurons are:

  • Emotional responses (eg. anger)

  • Physiological responses (eg. sweating)

  • Facial, vocal and physical expressions (eg. tone or fiddling)

  • Self-comunication (thought patterns) (eg. imagining scenarios)

These does not directly tell us what goal a person has, but they give us cues on what feelings and goals that person has, which if stated clearly enough triggers mirror neurons.


Empathy has sometimes been described as a form of telepathy; a link between brains. In game-context it is the link between the brain and the game-system. But what cues does game-systems provide that might trigger mirror neurons?

Lets use an allusion to clarify; picture a blind person using his/her hands to feel the the shape of an object. I purpose that we, in the same way, can feel game-systems through testing out their system-rules. Understanding what we feel can evoke empathy.

If you want examples of why this is true just look at games like Braid and Journey. Braid magnificently creates empathy with its game-system by rearranging time and events, which with the game-mechanics become clear. It creates a shift in your perspective on your initial goal. Without these system-rules and gameplay you wouldn’t have recognized and understood the meaning of your actions.

Journey also creates empathy with its system-rules and gameplay. Lets take the snowstorm as an example: when you have come this far in the game you start to feel sorry for your avatar when you are struggling to stay on your feet in the strong gusts. If you stay close to another player, you will keep each other warm. Going up to another player to warm yourself really warms your heart.

System-rules that add descriptions of characters like this, can prove that games are able to create empathy and therefore become art. Characters that reacts differently to input can make you understand them better. It is argued by Marco Iacoboni that mirror neurons play a crucial role in how we understand actions, and games like Braid might show evidence that he’s right.

Let us put characters in games to a test. What are their responses to our actions? Only through interacting with them will we find their personality and their breaking point. Break a vase and a character gets angry. Put a guy infront of a woman and he starts to sweat. Taking the initiative to talk to a shy character makes him fiddle with his fingers. Now there finally is an explaination of how empathy works in games. There is no reason to be in doubt anymore. Be inspired and go make new games that tell stories beyond the current standard!

Send me a tweet @MariusGames if you are interested in a good conversation :)

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