Using games to promote empathy, and related thinks

[Edit to add July 2020: I am leaving this post up because it covers some important topics. But I feel it’s important to mention that Drew abused me and others, and I don’t wish to be seen as promoting his games or boosting his reputation. You can read my account of that experience here.]

[This is a terrible title, but it’s the best I could come up. I hate titles.]

I started writing this post because I recently played a game that made me bored, and I enjoyed it. And then I played it again, and this time it made me bored and made me cry, and that time it was even better. And what’s more? I’d totally play it again.

And that’s weird, right? Like what other medium would even lead someone to say that? Okay, so it’s not so weird that I enjoyed something that made me cry since I am a champion at crying at movies that no one else cries at. But actively enjoying being bored? Folks, I have some pretty extreme ADD – boredom is almost physically painful for me, and I will drop something like a hot rock if I get more than a little bored with it.

Even as a hard-core devotee of fantasy and sci-fi novels, where exposition infodumps are often part of the genre’s buy-in, I have a hard and fast rule that I will only read the first 75 pages of a novel and if it’s not interesting by then, I’ll stop reading. Similarly, I didn’t see Alien until a few years ago, and the first forty-five minutes of the movie were almost painful in how slow the pacing was – the only thing that kept me going was the nerd-shame of never having seen Alien in the first place. And even as a hardcore Joss Whedon fan[1], it took two attempts for me to get into Dollhouse. The first episode left me completely cold when it was on the air, and I wound up not actually watching it until it went up on Netflix.

So what gives? How is it that games have the ability to affect us in ways that would be seen as negative in other mediums and still create an experience that is seen as rewarding? And what does that say about our ability to use games as a medium to promote empathy by getting people to engage emotionally with ideas or stories they’d normally rather not think about?

Let’s back up and start from the beginning

So here’s what got me started thinking about all this stuff: I was lucky enough to help Andrew Medeiros playtest The Forgotten – a LARP that he is fine-tuning about civilians desperately trying to survive in a city under siege, based on the actual experiences of survivors of the siege of Sarajevo. The game itself is very simply structured: there are day scenes and night scenes. During the day, everyone is trapped inside because there are snipers everywhere and it is too dangerous to go outside. At night is when the survivors establish a guard and send people out to scavenge.

During the day scenes, often toward the beginning when things hadn’t gotten too bleak yet and we hadn’t had to make too many hard choices, the players wound up sitting around with seven or eight minutes to kill and no game tasks that needed doing, just waiting for the day to be over. And that time… got kind of boring. So we’d wind up reminiscing, or shooting the shit, or picking fights just for something to do, or even just staring at the wall and just wanting the day to be over already.

Later in the game when the bleakness had had a chance to ramp up, day scenes flew by, but everyone was stressed and frazzled. How would you use limited resources when there wasn’t enough to keep everyone alive? The game forced you to make decisions when the only decisions that could be made all fucking sucked – and sometimes made you feel like a bad person just for making the choice in the first place. And worst of all, sometimes (rarely, but it happened) during the night scenes the people that went out at night got killed by snipers. Which is a fucking gut punch, especially when (as happened in our second game) they’ve gone out to scavenge for supplies to save you and then… just don’t come back.

So the result this game that shouldn’t be enjoyable by any of the standards we would apply to other forms of media. By turns, it’s boring, stressful, and horribly agonizing – I jokingly described it as “punching yourself in the feels for two hours”. But the mechanics that produce these feelings create such a great story, and for a lot of people that’s what separates a good game from a bad one.

Which is awesome and exciting! Because if games can make otherwise painful or unpleasant experiences enjoyable, that opens up so many possibilities to tell the stories that get overlooked, or are even intentionally ignored – stories that are hard and painful and maybe a little traumatizing, and stories that challenge our personal beliefs as players and human beings.

Modeling more than just violence

Something that I’ve seen popping up more as a topic of conversation in the design circles that I inhabit is the problem of getting game designers to see game design as more than just building different types of violence simulation engines. A whole heap of brainpower gets devoted to modeling just about every type of violence imaginable. As a result, a lot of mainstream gaming just winds up producing games that let you play different flavors of murder hobos.

Screen shot 2013-02-24 at 8.46.22 AM
(taken from Order of The Stick by Rich Burlew)


Fantasy murder hobos! Cyberpunk murder hobos! Steampunk murder hobos! Murder hobos in space! Mainstream gaming is a little bit addicted to murder hobos[2]. Thankfully, however, as games mature as an artform, we’re finally starting to expand the boundaries of mainstream gaming beyond simply “mostly murder hobo simulation”.

The indies, of course, have always been out there doing their own thing. I’ve written previously about how indie TRPG designers have managed to handle the issue of sex, sexuality, and relationships in a far more sophisticated manner than pretty much any AAA video game title out there. There are also a lot of smart and talented designers working in both tabletop/LARP design and in video games to expand the boundaries of what is traditionally considered to be a “game”, and in so doing are creating what might just be a new genre – empathy games.

In the past few years, games like Depression Quest; Papers, Please; and That Dragon, Cancer are increasingly becoming part of the conversation about the future direction of games. And while they’re still not doing business on a scale approaching anything close to the volume that the AAA video game industry puts out, the fact that Papers, Please – a game often described with words like “tedious”, “grim”, and “affecting” – had sold more than half a million copies as of March 2014 argues for an increasing appetite for games that provoke empathy.

Excitingly, the advent of incredibly accessible game development tools like Twine and Unity mean that new designers from traditionally unrepresented backgrounds are getting into game development and doing all sorts of new, compelling, and weird things with the medium.

As far as analog gaming goes, the future is a bit harder to predict. Tabletop gaming is a far, far smaller industry that employs far fewer people than the AAA video gaming industry, and the majority of tabletop gaming’s “mainstream” game lines could still arguably be called violence simulators. D&D, Pathfinder, World of Darkness – all of these are game lines that will devote hundreds of thousands of words in a book to modeling violence and either neglect or completely ignore rules that help model relationships, or empathy, or emotion – assuming that that will sort itself out in the fiction.

Of course, the tabletop gaming industry is also an industry far less dependent on its “mainstream” anchor companies. Indie trpg publishing has been around for a long time. And I’ll admit to some bias as someone who designs for tabletop and not video games, but it often seems to me that the conversation surrounding the design challenges of creating games centered around things other than violence is considerably advanced from that in the video game world, simply because creating these sorts of games hasn’t been marginalized as a fringe concern. (Or at least not to the degree that is the case in the video game world.) And maybe that’s because there’s a whole lot less money in analog gaming? It’s hard to say.

What I can say is that games like The Forgotten make me excited about the future of analog game design. I’ve been following analog design and designers for… well, a long time now. Long enough that I’ve watched some ideas previously dismissed as “hippie” or “indie” slowly creep into even the trad-est of trad games. As indie analog designers continue to create new ways of telling stories, those tools will inevitably creep into “mainstream” games.

Admittedly, the creep is… slow. And empathy games are certainly never going to replace violence simulators, because let’s face it – sometimes when you’ve had a really shitty day, it can feel therapeutic to sit down and shoot zombies in the face for a while. (Or aliens. Or demons. Whatever.) But could they become their own legitimate subgenre? Something without the weird stigma associated with things like Nordic LARP or American Freeform, games that people either dismiss or don’t see themselves as “brave” enough to play? I sure hope so.

[1] Yes, yes, I know he can be kind of awful, and his stuff is super problematic. I just can’t help but love it, though. (At least it’s not Game of Thrones.)
[2] And don’t get me wrong. I do love me some murder hoboing from time to time. I am greatly enjoying playing Dragon Age: Inquisition, which does have a fair amount of “quick, kill those guys! Because [mumblemumble] reasons!

9 thoughts on “Using games to promote empathy, and related thinks

  1. The whole “murder hobo” thing is something which crystallised for me back when the Dante’s Inferno game by EA came out (the one where they basically took the “Hell” section of Dante’s Divine Comedy, and turned it into … a bog standard beat-up-the-monsters-to-rescue-the-girl fighting game). At the time, I was annoyed because quite frankly, something which is LESS in the spirit of the lessons Dante (and Christ) were trying to get across is hard to imagine, and I had a lot of fun trying to think up alternative game mechanics to try and get the whole thing across. Things like:

    * Yeah, you can play the game as a standard “kill everything in sight, steal the loot, betray your buddy” sort of character… but that winds you up turning into a demon yourself.
    * Giving the character a novena of prayers to say – enough prayers to redeem a soul from hell. Then along your journey, you’re faced with souls who *almost* have enough prayers said for them, and you get the choice of giving them one of the prayers from your novena or not. (Secret mechanic: the more souls you save and the more prayers you give away to those who have truly repented, the more powerful your remaining prayer(s) become when it comes time to rescue Beatrice).
    * Having scenes which transport the player around history – even into the present day – and face them with the temptations of the seven deadly sins. Fail the challenge, be tempted into sin (and it doesn’t matter which of the sins you’re tempted by, since each scenario should provide temptations for all of them, even if the main focus is on a particular sin) and wind up imprisoned on the appropriate level of hell.

    There were just so many different things which could have been done with the concept – but it got turned into just another beat-’em-up with a bog-standard brawny hero… at which point, it stopped being interesting.

    To be honest, I’d love to see more games out there where violent behaviour (however sublimated into puzzle games or whatever) isn’t the only way to win.

  2. Long time reader, first time commenter.

    While I generally enjoy the content on this site, and the stuff in this post was interesting…I’m left wondering what ‘murder hobo/hobos/hoboing’ is/are?

    Murdering (in-world) homeless? Homeless people going on murder sprees, as they’re known to do, haha, they’re so quirky?

    If it’s from OotS or its forums or w/e, I wouldn’t know, but…given the problems and bs that homeless people get from society, I wanted to know more about the term’s origins/meaning, given its use in this post.

    Because I would like it if this site didn’t start using terms that seem to be flippant about marginalized people?

    (Looking at the first page of google results for ‘murder hobo’ don’t make things look any better?)

    I do appreciate the work you do, and plan on donating to your (and some others’) patreon(s) when I can. And I’m probably still going to keep reading/trying to spread your work. I want to make it clear that I don’t suddenly think you’re a horrible, horrible person, and that I only commented because I’m forever mad and pissed at you. (Given the nature of internet text, I want to point out this isn’t sarcasm.)

    • You have a point in that “murder hobo” isn’t a term that would be well-known outside tabletop circles, so I do apologize. What the term means is a style of play where players play characters who drift aimlessly from place to place, killing anything that moves and selling their shit to buy better things for themselves. Hence the term murder hobos – they don’t have any fixed home and all they do is go around murdering stuff.

      And let me be clear, while I do enjoy “kill things and take their stuff” type play from time to time, murder hoboing is what happens when you take that to the next level and just stop giving a shit about anything other than violence and being rewarded for violence. Which, you know, is a bit problematic.

  3. is the forgotten-larp in any way connected to the pc-game this war of mine?

    they both work with the same premise, simply trying to survive in a besieged city (based on real world sarajevo), there’s also the same day/night-cycle. was one game based on the other maybe?

    this game gave me one of my most jarring gaming experiences. one of my characters was out scavenging and came across a soldier obviously torturing someone. i couldn’t see the other person, i just saw the back of the soldier at the edge of the screen and heard what the was saying. i was unarmed, i knew there were more of them. i knew there was nothing i could do. so i took what i could without being detected… and left. the sick feeling in my stomach lingered for quite some time.

    • The Forgotten’s mechanics and day/night cycle were definitely inspired by This War Of Mine, I wrote the initial rules while playing the game.

      TWoM was one of the most amazing video games I have ever experienced, definitely my top pick for 2014, and it falls in perfectly with Anna’s observations about the rise of “empathy games”.

  4. There was a panel at GDC (last year?) about “Empathy Games”. Not sure I like that title as a subgenre, but yeah I think you’re onto something.

    The thing is, games are all about involving the player. It’s not even a game without us. So it almost seems unnecessary to have a subgenre. Every game tries to evoke a reaction from players, whether violent or tear-jerking. Aren’t both equally empathic (or psychopathic or sociopathic)? I mean, we’re not going to have sociopathic games as a subgenre …right?

    It’s a weird road. I think games will eventually sort of fall away as tech becomes more pervasive. It’ll be on our bodies, in our bodies, etc. Soon all of this will just be called simulations. Games will mean something entirely different.

    I always imagine going to a Sim bar a few years from now where I can purchase a fantasy and get the feels I want 😀

  5. I genuinely feel like your interpretation of the WoD is off though, in my experience it has often felt like the combat portion takes a distinct backseat to…well everything else, unless you play Werewolf. Mystic secrets and interpersonal monstrosity dominate Mage and Vampire, which make up the other part of the central WoD triumverate.

    I don’t disagree with the overall gist you’re aiming for here, but somehow feel like it is harshly reductive of a lot of things. I dunno, I’m just an anonymous commentator.

    • Okay, so I’ve actually written stuff for WoD and played in a Vampire LARP for like 12/13 years. So I say this as someone who has affection for Vampire as a WoD game, but seriously. Go through the book. Look at the word count devoted to Disciplines, Merits, Abilities, etc etc related to violence. Then look at the wordcount devoted to modeling actual relationships. Violence is going to win every time by a vast margin.

      Like I get that that’s not what actually happens at the table, because 100% murderfests are boring as fuck to play. But it’s important to look at wordcount as a measure of designer brainspace, and designers for WoD are hella focused on violence.

  6. I know that I’m quite late in the discussion, but I was translating your article for a french website (with your permission if my comrades do their job properly 😉 ), and I can’t but reply because I thought on this problem for quite a long time and have some pieces of thought that might be interesting on the topic.
    First, I found that it is effectively strange that in every game, there is a special section reserved to combat and violence even if it is not in the subject of the game. But then, I came to play and find that when you are trying to seduce a girl, she might accept or reject or whatever. But in every case, you will have other chances. Because, well, you know : the show must go on. But damn, when it comes to the fight you may fuckin DIE, end of story. Go back to the “create a character” section. The show is off.
    That’s where as a player I would like to have some idea of what will kill my avatar and what do not. Mainly to avoid the GM to simply say “Bang you are dead”. And as a GM (and one who always try to save the skin of my characters), it is also good for me to have some rules to say that no, there is no more chances for this boy/girl. If you want to have a coherent universe, he’s dead.
    I’m not sure that this excuse everything (and especially not [MWWG](, but if you think the designer (through the book) as the referee between the GM and the players. He will try to defuse the most conflictual situations first and those are violence. And actually all threat against the life of the characters. (Because fire, breathing and fall of a tree are also always mentioned even if they rarely happen in game.) Similarly, looking at the word count of the law devoted to the different part of your life/country will give you a very biased picture of your daily life.

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