Empathy games and critiques

Empathy games are a genre of game that enables players to understand and appreciate other people’s feelings or experiences. Supposedly, games are uniquely positioned to cultivate empathy because of the embodied experience of playing. In a game, you can almost literally walk a mile in another person’s shoes. Empathy games also offer a counterpoint to the mainstream viewpoint that video games are all about “fun” or plain bloodlust.

Among my readers, I suspect that many have never heard of the concept of empathy games. And when you first hear about empathy games, you might feel that it’s a great idea. However, in games critic circles, especially among queer critics, it’s often considered passé, or even a discredited trope. Marginalized creators have spoken out about the limitations of empathy, and its commodification. Exploring their perspectives may help us understand pitfalls in media representation of marginalized groups.

This post will summarize and discuss the scholarly article “Empathy and Its Alternatives: Deconstructing the Rhetoric of ‘Empathy’ in Video Games” by Bo Ruberg, published 2020 in Communication, Culture & Critique. Sorry, journal access required to see the original.

Where are empathy games?

I should begin by naming examples of empathy games–although they’re all a bit indie, so I’m not confident that readers will have heard of them. You may have heard of Gone Home, a walking sim that centers a queer character, or Depression Quest, a piece of interactive fiction about experiencing depression. I also found that Games For Change has a directory of what they consider to be empathy games–although I would caution that “empathy” tends to be liberally applied to any game with a narrative. If you’re not familiar with any examples, I’d recommend watching a playthrough of Dys4ia (7 min video, or just look it up and play it yourself), a short game about the creator’s personal experience with hormone replacement therapy.

It’s important to understand that these are examples of games that are described as empathy games by players and critics, but the creators may not agree with the assignation, and perhaps neither should we. Dys4ia, in particular, is commonly praised as an empathy game, but the creator has been vocally critical of the idea (as we’ll get to soon).

Ruberg also points to a body of work explicitly trying to foster empathy games. Organizations like Games For Change and iThrive have been promoting empathy through game jams and student game designer challenges. Ruberg mentions Empathy Box as an example of a startup geared towards empathetic narrative design. And then there’s virtual reality, which commonly gets lauded as an “empathy machine”. Even if empathy games are not particularly visible in mainstream gaming today, it seems to be an up and coming trend that we may see more of in the newer generation of games.

What’s wrong with empathy?

Although Dys4ia was just a short flash game, it reached a wide audience. Educators said they were using it in the classroom, art exhibitors wanted to include it, and one blogger wrote, “By the time the 15-minute experience was over, I was closer to understanding the ‘T’ in LGBT than ever before.” The creator, Anna Anthropy, expressed disgust at the idea that people could understand trans women from just a short game. It’s minimizing of trans experiences to claim it is possible to compress them so much.

Furthermore, it misunderstands the intention of these games. Anna Anthropy has said that the game was not made for cis audiences, but for trans and questioning people. To view Dys4ia as a game that teaches empathy, is to claim it for cis audiences. Robert Yang has said:

I’m very familiar with people annexing other peoples’ experiences under the banner of empathy. Specifically, I’ve been making realistic 3D games about gay relationships for a while, and the vast majority of my players and fans happen to be straight people. This leads to a widely-held but incorrect assumption that I make my games for “straight people to understand what being gay is like

Another criticism is that it de-radicalizes marginalized experiences, by framing their value in terms of productive contributions to society. It takes things such as anger in the face of oppression, and repackages it as an uplifting experience.

Ruberg’s discussion is mainly framed around creators who actively resist the “empathy games” label as applied to their own games, but I think the critique also extends to games that are deliberately made under the empathy banner. It’s one thing to look at Dys4ia and misunderstand it as an attempt to squeeze trans experience into a package safe for cis consumption. But what if someone made a game that deliberately attempted to do exactly that? Wouldn’t that be even worse? And this is not to say that people shouldn’t make games about queer experiences, but rather that the limitations must be respected by both players and creators.

Alternative perspectives on empathy

In the above examples, we focused on marginalized experiences, but this is not always what people mean by empathy games. For instance, some people cite Firewatch or Oxenfree, which aren’t particularly about marginalized experiences, they’re just about human relationships, and emotional learning.  Sometimes people use “empathy” synonymously with “deep” games, whatever that may mean. Other people understand it to refer to games about feeling for someone else’s misfortune. And finally, empathy games might be seen as a tool for allyship.

These alternative perspectives on empathy may still be vulnerable to the same critiques. For instance, allyship can be a fraught concept. Often allyship seems to be about making people feel good about themselves without actually causing any social change. Like, if the one thing you did to feel like an ally was play a video game, that’s not what I would characterize as effective allyship. Sympathy for someone else’s misfortune is also ultimately about the feelings of the sympathizer, and doesn’t really help the person being sympathized for.

But Ruberg still sees some potential in empathy games. Rather than engaging players with “fun”, they engage players with caring, compassion, sorrow, and queer interpersonal engagements. They cite a description of That Dragon, Cancer, which describes it as helping players become more comfortable discussing emotional topics, such as death. There’s another article which describes how players can learn to strategize around character death, allowing them to feel more empathy for the experience of loss. (There’s a longer example based on Unravel and a talk by one of the game devs, but I admit I don’t “get” that one, so I will not attempt to summarize it.)

Where does that leave us? Ruberg wants to put to bed the “empathy” label, but still wants to see a discussion of alternative emotional modes in games. As they put it:

The rhetoric of empathy promises that video games can help us understand one another. Yet it is equally important, if not more important, for video games to show us we can value those we do not understand.

Here are my own thoughts.  I consume a lot of queer media, and I often think about who the media is “for”.  And when media is for queer people, straight people may still enjoy it, still learn from it, still find it an edifying experience.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  But it’s not reality, it’s just media.  I also encourage other folks to understand who media is “for”–recognize when queer representation is pedagogical in nature, and when it’s trying to do something else.


  1. says

    Maybe “empathy games” are an example of something that can be useful for people as a first step in becoming less ignorant, as part of a long-term journey to actually becoming an ally- but I definitely understand marginalized people/ queer people not wanting their work to be used for that. There’s definitely this idea of “we don’t owe it to society to educate them/ to be polite about our oppression/ to say things in a way that the dominant culture can accept”- and yeah that’s true, nobody should be obligated to do that. But also, hopefully some people do want to do that work, because it is necessary to actually change people’s minds.

  2. says

    I was thinking maybe we were going to be talking about playing World of Warcraft in the role of a non-player character that gets endlessly killed, looted, re-spawned, killed…

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