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Why Video Games Can't Teach You Empathy

To truly understand another person’s plight, to know the shame of being called “sir” when you are in fact “ma’am,” takes more than a video game.

Anna Anthropy was furious. A New York teacher had recently boasted online that she used Anthropy's Dys4ia, an 8-bit flash game that Anthropy made to evoke her experience with hormone therapy, to teach students what it's like to be trans.

"Flush yrself down the toilet," Anthropy wrote to her Twitter followers, if "you think you've 'learned empathy for trans women' by playing dys4ia."

At first blush, the game does seem to invite an empathetic response. In Dys4ia, players shave chest hair off budding breasts and wait frustratingly long at the doctor's for a spironolactone prescription. A misshapen Tetris piece is a metaphor for Anthropy's changing body. After its 2012 release, Dys4ia players effused about how the game brought them closer to the trans experience.

"By the time the 15-minute experience was over," one blogger wrote, "I was closer to understanding the 'T' in LGBT than ever before."

"Dys4ia: Useful for education and empathy. Both learning facts and sharing in what she went through," read one Tweet.

But, Anthropy maintains, Dys4ia was never intended to be an "empathy game." It never pretended to invite you into the trans experience, to immerse you in Anthropy's experience getting on estrogen. Anthropy, 32, is now challenging the idea that a digital game can confer an understanding of her lived experience, marginalization, and personal struggle.

The term "empathy game" refers to a rapidly expanding genre of games designed to inspire empathy in players. Over the last few years, news outlets have covered their arrival on the market with enthusiasm and optimism. These games range from text-based interactive fiction to sensory-immersive virtual reality experiences. Many focus on highly personal experiences, rushing the player through developers' more difficult life milestones.

"Empathy games," emphatically, are not meant to be fun.

In 2013, game developer Zoe Quinn made Depression Quest, the text-based interactive fiction game that spurred the GamerGate controversy, to illustrate how depression suffocates and cripples people who suffer from it. As the main character attempts to navigate the mundanities of college life (with his choice of text narrative options), he is immobilized by anxiety. To translate this to players, the healthier options like "shake off your funk" are blocked out. It is, by design, not a game you can win.

Other empathy games have sprung up in the past few years as part of a larger movement in game development. They focus on everything from working at a call center to coming out. Their goal is to make players feel what developers or their disenfranchised narrative subjects feel, to make allies out of gamers.

"If you've played a 10-minute game about being a transwoman don't pat yourself on the back for feeling like you understand a marginalized experience"

After Dys4ia's release, Anthropy was approached by a game art exhibitor. He wanted to show Dys4ia, she remembers with disgust, because he thought it "allows the player to walk a mile in my shoes." Anthropy balked. She had made the game for other transpeople and questioning gamers. The outpouring of professed empathy and support from straight, cis-gendered people was unexpected. Their pretentions toward understanding, she thought, were dangerously misguided.

"If you've played a 10-minute game about being a transwoman," Anthrophy told me, "don't pat yourself on the back for feeling like you understand a marginalized experience."

In response, Anthropy is developing a game called Empathy Game, which will premiere in June at Babycastles in New York. It's not a video game. It's also certainly not fun. A pair of women's size 13 boots with falling-off heels, shredded soles, and duct-taped backs will sit in the center of a room along with a pedometer. Anthropy bought the shoes at Torrid, one of the only women's stores that can accommodate her large foot size. The goal of the game is simple: walk one mile in her shoes to earn exactly one point.

"You can get a high score on that game," Anthropy said, "but you're probably not going to beat mine. You can spend hours stomping around in those boots and it will only bring you a fraction closer to knowing what it's like to be me, to be trans."

Screengrab from Dys4ia.

Anthropy's objection to empathy games provokes some interesting questions. Can a video game, anything from a 15-minute flash game to an Oculus Rift experience, provoke meaningful feelings of understanding and compassion? Do "empathy games," despite their hype, even exist at all?

Defining empathy is tricky. Experts divide empathy into two main strains: intellectual and emotional. Intellectual empathy doesn't require any emotional response: you imagine what another person is thinking and ascertain how they're likely to respond. Emotional empathy, on the other hand, focuses on an affective response to an emotional stimulus. If you see somebody facing a particular threat, do you feel fear the same way they do?

Relating to someone like this face-to-face comes easily to most. Dr. Mark Davis, a behavioral scientist and empathy expert at Eckerd College, has found that physically sensing another person's emotions, watching their face, is a powerful empathy stimulus. "You can see it," he told me. "It's real. It's not something you know, at some level, is fictional. When someone is crying in front of you, you have different expectations."

Using technology as a media, or conduit, for empathy is a bit tougher. But studies show that it's possible.

Davis cited a few studies that successfully evoked feelings of empathy in subjects (without use of a person as an emotional stimulus). In one, medical students wore vision-distorting glasses, auditory impairing earplugs, and uncomfortable shoes to evoke how an elderly person's joints would feel. The subjects reported greater sympathy and understanding for elderly patients after the study.

In another, med students were hooked up to a tape that whispered "auditory hallucinations" into subjects' ears all day, evoking the conditions of schizophrenia. Interacting with peers and performing basic tasks were significantly more difficult. Again, subjects reported increased empathy for schizophrenics.

"It's not that far a step to go to a virtual reality game where you'd see and hear what the target you're evoking empathy for would see or feel," Davis said.

Psychologists interviewed for this story maintain that, in studies they conducted, violent video games negatively affect children when played consistently. In many cases, prolonged time spent playing games like Grand Theft Auto will increase players' aggressive thoughts and decrease their capacity for empathy. Each time you kidnap and dismember an innocent woman in a video game, it turns out, you probably become a little bit more of a jerk. These "antisocial" games, as researchers put it, desensitize players to violence.

Only recently, psychologists have set out to determine whether the opposite can be true for "prosocial" games, of which "empathy games" are a subset. Dr. Douglas Gentile, who runs the Media Research Lab at Iowa State University, is one of the only researchers who has written studies proving that empathy games can make players more empathetic.

In one, he handed out surveys to gamers in seven countries to measure childrens' long-term emotional response to certain games. Another supplied participants with either a prosocial, neutral, or violent game, and measured helping or hurting behavior post-play (assessed by setting up a puzzle competition between participants). Short-term exposure to violently or emotionally-charged games, according to the study results, actually increased helpful and hurtful behavior in these children for a small period of time.

Playing a game like Dys4ia, if even for fifteen minutes, can soften a gamer to the tragedy of feeling body dysphoria, a dissonance between a mind's conception of its body and the body's physical makeup. But will it make gamers better allies in the long-term?

"Games help you understand something outside of your normal experience, but that's different from understanding someone else's experience"

Nonny de la Peña, recently christened the "Godmother of Virtual Reality," has watched people emerge from her empathy games in tears. De la Peña thinks that video games, and in fact even board games, have the potential to spur powerful feelings of empathy and forge connections between disenfranchised people and gamers.

Her Project Syria, an immersive virtual reality experience, surrounds players with the sights and sounds of Aleppo, complete with rocket explosions and the screams of injured children (the audio was gathered on-site in Syria). Wearing a virtual reality headset, players are inserted into the refugee crisis, where literally everywhere they turn there are more atrocities. The experience is personal, moving with you as you physically walk around.

"People cry, they get so emotional," de la Peña told me. "Sometimes they reach out and directly connect to Syrian refugee kids."

De la Peña describes her reconstruction of the Syrian civil war as "immersive journalism," a more powerful reporting experience than reading a newspaper. "When you're wearing VR goggles," she explained, "you can't check your phone. You can't talk to your friends. It's undivided attention. It's super visceral. VR is one of the strongest media for evoking empathy."

Ryan Green, co-developer of That Dragon, Cancer(release set for this year), also maintains that video games can be a platform for social learning. His game is a harrowing autobiographical journey through his infant son's battle against terminal brain cancer. Players can hear baby Joel laughing and watch him bounce on his father's lap, or collect his small body from the bottom of a slide. Some of it takes place in sterile hospital seats, where Green and his wife spent many anxious hours.

Green thinks that players can experience empathy after playing That Dragon, Cancer. But they also experience a lot of other feelings—feelings that stem from players' recollections of their own similar experiences—that are not specific to baby Joel's agony. Their game is at one time highly personal and specific, like Anthropy's. But it's also open to interpretation.

"Our story is about cancer," Green commented, "but it is not about cancer. It's about all the things that come with living in the shadow of a 'dragon' like cancer, and those things are universal." He thinks "empathy game" is an inaccurate description for That Dragon, Cancer, because it is too narrow: Players should ask themselves, "What did this remind me of?"

Screengrab from That Dragon, Cancer.

Dr. Gentile gave a personal anecdote from his youth when I asked whether a video game can truly place you in another person's shoes.

As a thirteen year-old, he visited his father in Nigeria. Gentile, a white, middle-class kid from New York, was conspicuous among the Nigerians wherever he went. When he walked around the arid landscape, he said, he was followed by a group of Nigerian children, who would point and laugh at him because they had never seen a white child. Whenever he entered a room, he recalled, everybody would sharply turn to look at him. After some time, he wondered whether his experience would translate into empathy for African Americans back home in New York.

"My perspective changed when I came back. But I will never, and have never experienced the distrust, the fear of walking down the street, being arbitrarily shot by the police. I will never understand, no!" he said, "But my experience in Nigeria did open me up."

Gentile's research confirms that fifteen minutes playing a flash game can provoke short-term empathy bursts in subjects. But to truly understand another person's plight, to know the shame of being called "sir" when you are in fact "ma'am," takes more than a video game.

"Games help you understand something outside of your normal experience," Gentile explained, "but that's different from understanding someone else's experience."

Hours spent inside Anthropy's 8-bit nightmare may help players feel the loneliness and existential terror she felt while transitioning. Unless they experience it, however, it seems they will never know what she went through.

"Allyship doesn't end with a ten-minute video game," Anthropy said. "Being an ally to a marginalized group is a long process, a lot of work. Thinking that playing Dys4ia has allowed you to walk a mile in my shoes is misguided."