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Empathy Games

May 13, 2016

When we meet for our monthly catch-ups, Bath Spa’s Empathy Research Group resembles a boardroom meeting for the world’s most nervous, and self-deprecating, security firm. Imagine such a thing. Believe me, we know better than any how difficult that is.

With members from the fields of literary criticism, creative writing, psychology, neuroscience, developmental psychology and now latterly, through myself, the digital arts, we often feel like departments in such an introspective, publicly-minded conglomerate, one whose business is the observation and judgement of others. No firewall, lead vest nor Faraday device can stop our enquiries; even non-existence isn’t a shield. Luckily for everybody else, we worry about what we are doing a lot.

In all our various fields, we apply ourselves to the problems of that most human (or, according to some of our members, firmly universal) trait of imagining the unobservable states of other entities, a powerful and fraught exercise. In our meetings there definitely is the atmosphere of audit; gathered from our various specialties we report on our work, and hear about the work of others. We keep minutes and welcome new members in strict timetabled order as we sit stiff-backed around the panoptic awkwardness of square-set tables. We stand in small caucuses at the windows, looking pained or revelatory. We sit with coffee and laugh giddily at both our own shortsightedness and our ingenuity, experiment on each other, talk about ramifications, kindly critique and suggest, look to the future, get almost teary-eyed with utopianism. Eventually we conclude and disperse, until next month, for the next balancing of sheets; back to our own fiefdoms, taking home napkins rolled around slices of the chair’s excellent banana cake, as dense as earth.

I’m one of the only members working in the field of interactive artforms, and whilst reaction to my talks and reports has been enthusiastic, encouraging and rigorous, I have realised that very few in the group are engaging with these forms outside of the intellectual tourism provided by our meetings. Not many would consider turning to games in the ways that they might easily turn to a text, an essay, an academic paper, a film or a piece of music.

So, for them as well as everybody else, including myself, I’ve started a public list of games which I feel engage with the theme of empathy in some manner. I haven’t called it homework for the Research Group, but I sincerely hope that some of them take it as such. I hope that anybody finds this list useful, or interesting, or perhaps will settle for it not being offensively ommissive. I hope to add to it throughout the future, and as it is a public Google Sheet there is nothing to stop you from adding your own entries and justifications.

The focus of the list is, however, my little Research Group; a sort of corporate bonding exercise, without the body-hot scotch eggs on cardboard china for afters. To be honest, I am excited at the thought of this group of impressionable, inquisitive, highly intelligent thinkers engaging with what to them might be an entirely new artform; few of us get a chance to do that, in adulthood. I’ve tried to provide as much gateway material as possible, including basic instructions for getting and playing the games at all. Writing this column has reminded me of how contingent the videogame medium is; the intermediary technologies and ontologies that you need to understand in order to just access the art are an absolute thicket in some cases. After you’ve purchased a machine that has the graphical capability to even render the artwork into being (hence my inclusion of some basic web games), there comes the tribalistic storefronts, the corporate loyalties which are second-nature to those of us who have seen our development as aficionados bound to our development as consumers. This is before we even get to the thornier problems of haptic and diegetic literacy. Do you need to understand the history of the health bar to understand the significance of its exclusion? Can you really appreciate the savour of a game well-made when you cannot get your avatar to move out of the corner of the first room? Is this your fault? I remember rolling my eyes at my granddad as a pre-teen, entranced by the (still-frankly-marvellous) metaphor of the translation of his muscle movements into the movement of a cursor on a screen; out of the hands of adults, I must have thought. But, as my little corporation of twenty-five shows, ‘non-gamers’ and ‘Luddites’ are other things besides. They are poets, artists, scientists and thinkers. All humans must be given the potential of access to a form if it is to be treated as a contender for the exploration of human themes such as, let us say, empathy. At the moment, this is the best I can do.