The risk of games that seek to create empathy

While the power of game mechanics imbues the video game medium with tremendous story-telling power, it can result in a clash between a creator's intended message, and the one that is being communicated by the design.

“Game mechanics communicate a message,” said Colleen Macklin, a designer who runs the PETLab at Parsons School of Design in New York City, at GDC in San Francisco this week.

While this power imbues the video game medium with tremendous story-telling power, it can result in a clash between a creator's intended message, and the one that is being communicated by the design. Macklin, who was speaking on the subject of so-called "games for change," cited the example of Spent, an online game about surviving poverty and homelessness created by ad agency McKinney for Urban Ministries of Durham.

The game intended to create empathy and understanding within its players about people living in poverty. A study carried about by Psychology Today found, however, that the game had no effect on positive feelings toward the poor.

“In fact, the game had a negative effect on attitudes among certain participants—including some people who were sympathetic to the poor to begin with,” states the Psyhology Today article, before placing blame for the failing at the door of the mechanics, which leave players with the impression that people living in poverty are able to change their circumstances simply by changing their choices.

“In a game you have complete agency, but in some life situations, people have no choice,” said Macklin. “If a game is trying to create empathy in this way, it can back-fire spectacularly.”

Macklin defines a ‘game for change’ as a game that "generates some form of social change, be it learning, activism, empathy-building, fund-raising, scientific discovery.” Critics of the term (and its synonym "serious games") point out that we do not refer to "films for change," or "literature for change."

Even so, it is a useful, if inexact, distinction, according to Macklin, who pointed out that Games For Change is also a formal organization, formed in 2004, which helps to identify, categorize, promote and celebrate games that fit within this working definition.

Macklin pointed to the expanding number of "meaningful games" being created by individuals, companies, and non-profit organizations. Today, the term can refer to everything from Darfur Is Dying, a 2006 game made by students from USC, to Paper’s Please, Lucas Pope’s award-winning and grimly affecting game about the anxiety of queuing on the wrong side of the immigration inspector’s glass.

The term, Macklin pointed out, can refer to games funded with the explicit social impact aims, such as Save the Park, which was funded by American Express as a way to encourage individuals to volunteer at National Parks, as well as a plainly commercial game like Firewatch. Both games could, she said, have similar effects.

“There’s huge variety here, both in terms of subject matter and design philosophy,” said Macklin.

Despite the expansion of work that Macklin considers to fit beneath the banner of 'games for change', the area of design remains, in her estimation, “precarious,” and requiring “nurture.”

"Many games made for social change or learning are simply doing it wrong," she said.

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