Digital Games As Empathy Machines


Are digital games empathy machines? How do they differ from other modalities in their ability to produce affective empathy? Drawing specifically on the perspectives Flanagan (2009, 2014), Isbister (2016), Gee (2007), Bogost (2007) and Keogh (2018), I will demonstrate how digital games are a means to share lived experiences, and can help players experience affective and cognitive empathy. Digital games become empathy machines through game affordances such as procedural rhetoric, situated cognition and embodiment, concepts I will discuss at some length. Some theorists see games as a force for change, a new means with which to communicate, connect, teach and heal (Isbister, 2016; Gee, 2005; Abt, 1970; Zimmerman, 2009; Bogost, 2007, Bisell, 2010; Keogh, 2018). I count myself among those theorists and game scholars who argue that digital games afford designers and players a unique platform for affective storytelling, and the creation of experiences that promote inclusion, understanding and empathy. Throughout my discussion, I will look at several examples of persuasive, empathy games, and how they exemplify the elements of procedural rhetoric, situated cognition and embodiment.

Research Context

‘Empathy machines’. What is empathy? Walking in someone else’s shoes. Seeing the world through someone else’s eyes. Climbing into another’s skin and walking around. These are the colloquial ways empathy is described. Empathy can allow one to “…feel a deep connection to a feeling or an event as if it was happening to him or her” (Oppegaard & Grigar, 2013, p. 145). Not to be mistaken with compassion, empathy is a complex mixture of emotion, cognition and behaviour. Hoffman (1982) indicates that humans are born with motor mimicry or so-called global empathy as might be found in infants under three years old. This early stage of empathy is undifferentiated and involuntary (Schaffer, 1996). As we grow, we move from egocentric empathy such as offering assistance to another without consideration for what that person might need or want. Empathy can evolve to become more refined and ‘other-focussed’ with the responses to the other person in need becoming more appropriate (Schaffer, 1996). The final stage of empathy looks out beyond the current state of another’s distress toward helping in a longer term, more proactive way. People with this level of empathy look to help entire groups of people, the vulnerable, marginalized and oppressed, and seek to help prevent conditions that might cause further distress and suffering (Schaffer, 1996). 

Film critic Roger Ebert (2005) once famously said that “the movies are like a machine that generates empathy.” A good film can, Ebert (2005) says, connect you with the story of another person, immerse you in a cultural experience you might not otherwise experience, and see the world from another’s point of view. Games scholars and theorists have argued, like film, literature and fine arts, video games are critical cultural vehicles. Digital humanities scholar Steven E. Jones (2008) called video games “the quintessential social texts of our present cultural moment” (p. 37). Games, like films, are situated in the culture in which they are created and experienced. As Flanagan & Nissenbaum (2014) identify: “(G)ames can serve as cultural snapshots: they capture beliefs from a particular time and place, and offer ways to understand what a given group of people believes and values” (p. 4). Mäyrä (2008) states that games are a “significant culture force” that grow increasingly important to those who live in the industrialized world (p. 4). Zimmerman (2009) suggests that games are models for “learning and action in the real world” (p. 24).

Defining digital games. As the creator of the game Civilization, Sid Meier once said, “a [good] game is a series of interesting choices.” (as cited in Isbister, 2016, p. 130). Anthropy (2012) defines games quite broadly as “an experience created by rules” (p. 43). She notes that there is a unique quality to digital games, unlike analog or tabletop games, as digital games have the ability to withhold information and create greater ambiguity or mystery during game play. Abt (1970) splits the idea of ‘what is a game’ into two essential aspects. On the one side, there is the formal, procedural element of games that is comprised of rules, objectives and systems. There is another side, that which is emotional, feelings that arise during game play that are based on “optimistic beliefs… a kind of spiritual conquest” by miniaturizing conflict or complex problems and vanquishing them through a combination of skill and luck (p. 6). Abt (1970) suggests the definition of game that is “an activity among two or more independent decision makers seeking to achieve their objectives in some limiting context (Abt, 1970, p. 6, italics in original). Isbister (2016) decries the pigeon-holing of digital games through narrow definitions, noting that there is no “monolithic” idea of digital games. Isbister (2016) writes: “We would never lump Hollywood action films, Sundance winners, and nature documentaries together…” and cautions that any one definition or mental model of a video game is likely to be in error (p. xv). Anthropy (2012) argues similarly, suggesting that avant-garde game designers, auteurs and zinesters are pushing against the boundaries of everyone’s idea of digital games. Juul (2010) also argues that video games are in the midst of being entirely “reinvented” (p. 3). 

Intentional game design. According to Zimmerman (2009), game design creates a “context” which is then “encountered by a participant”; it is from this intersection that “meaning emerges” (p. 28). The invisible, and at times, visible, hand of the designer(s) is a critical factor in a game’s ability to generate empathy in its player. Because the game system is bounded by rules, and gameplay is in service of a set of objectives, the designer can ultimately be the author of the player’s experience. Designers can dictate the emotional, cognitive and behavioural experiences of the player through her design. A designer’s intention and game design choices can mean the difference between a game that either desensitizes a player to a representation of the human experience, or one that generates empathy. Isbister (2016) describes the role of the game designer as a kind of “summer camp” counsellor who crafts an experience through “carefully wrought virtual worlds, game actions, and well-crafted avatars” (p. 118). There are ideas and values embedded in game elements. Anthropy (2012) argues that games communicate the values of their creators not just through narrative but “through the logic of their design, and the systems they chose to model” (p. 67). This choice of systems, the processes of the game is, itself, is an act of persuasion. The designer’s selection of the processes and systems in a game is rather like an editorial, persuasive act. Games, like the fine arts and literature, become a means to “express our joys, anger, fears, confusion, affection, and hope” (Bogost, 2007, p. 339). Bogost (2007) argues that video games are unique in their ability to be “procedural media”, an experience that allows the player to get to “the heart of things by mounting arguments about the processes inherent in them” (p. 339). 

It is through these miniature versions of our cultural realities that we might “defamiliarize” these replicated processes just enough to enter the “magic circle” of the game space. Games then allow us to play with the ordinary and the fantastic, puzzle through and interrogate our social realities,  the processes and systems that support them (Flanagan, 2009, p. 262). Flanagan (2009) argues that it is designers who play a critical role in imprinting their own “motives and values” on our culture through games (p. 262). Empathic game design, per Flanagan (2014) starts with the understanding that every choice a designer makes matters. The designer is literally infusing his/her/their values into every element of the game from the narrative, game mechanics, available player actions, character representation, even down to the core game hardware selected to run the game and the game engine. Design choices matter and dictate a player’s experience. Sometimes design decisions aren’t made for weighty, thoughtful reasons. For example, as Gee (2005) points out, the act of shooting a non-playable character (NPC) was simply one of the easier interactions to program in the early days of digital game design. Thus, many game designers made this choice, resulting in a dominant genre of shooter games in early video games.

Procedural rhetoric. Thinking more intentionally about game design, we can see that the ‘how’ of games can often be more important than the ‘what’ of the overt theme or the ‘who’ of the player characters. There is, per Bogost (2007), a procedural rhetoric at work in games. The processes and rules in a game tell a story about the world in which the game was designed and experienced. Games demonstrate what processes are privileged, what systems are being exalted or criticized, what rules underpin ‘winning’ and ‘losing’ conditions, what skills are valued, and what outcomes are required. Citing Janet Murray (1997) seminal book, Hamlet on the Holodeck, Bogost (2007) echoes the idea that procedurality is the principal value of computer systems. The ‘if-then’ algorithms of computer systems are designed by humans who themselves are situated in a social, economic and political context. Humans designing algorithms do so with a set of ideological beliefs in mind, what is good, bad, important, necessary and irrelevant. Digital systems like games are no different, the processes and rules that govern the game system are tinged, steeped or drenched in ideology. Bogost (2007) demonstrated the persuasive power of games in his own “anti-advergame” called Disaffected!, a parody of a poorly managed Kinko’s copy store (p, 226). In this procedurally-driven microcosm, the “employees” in the store might not do what you say, get confused, only to “respond to inverted movement control”, and move things around at random (Bogost, 2006, p. 226). The lack of player agency, the overwhelming number of angry customers, the inability to adequately control your playable assets, all of these elements explicate the point that Bogost (2007) is making: Kinko’s systems and its business practices do not help its customers. Bogost (2007) calls this game experience an “anti-demonstrative” which is arguably more effective than an angry letter to the corporation or disgruntled social media post (p. 229). This game’s goal is to put you inside a broken system and to allow you to empathize with the disaffected employees, and customers trapped inside of it. On the other hand, Bogost (2007) critiques the celebrated empathy game Darfur is Dying for not using procedural rhetoric to contextualize the wider problem of genocidal-scale killings in the Sudan.  Darfur is Dying instead puts the player into the ‘shoes’ of an avatar, a young Darfuri child looking for water (p. 97). By depicting this tiny decontextualized slice of life in Darfur, Bogost (2007) argues the game fails to provide enough information about the conflict. Darfur is Dying abstracts the war to a point where the larger scale historical context is missed, and a player would need to go elsewhere to find materials to fully understand and truly empathize with the people of Darfur (p. 97). Persuasive games, games that make arguments or are designed for a particularly affective experience, Bogost (2007) argues, need to be undergirded with procedural rhetoric.

Similar to the casual game Bejeweled, Layoff (2010) sees tiny cartoon people drop into the player’s screen, then the player, who is acting as the “boss”, matches these employees. If they are matched, they are laid off, and dropped into the unemployment line (Flanagan, 2010). As a player, you have the option to read the character bios and make informed decisions about who to fire. The game uses procedural rhetoric, giving the player the ability to override her/his/their curiosity about the pixelated characters by not reading the characters back stories. Flanagan (2010) notes that after play testing Layoff, players who chose to read the character bios reported they were able to empathically ‘connect’ with the cartoon characters, and more broadly, the experiences of those impacted by layoffs in real-life. Players even donated to charities focused on poverty after the gameplay (p. 133). Here again, we see players engaging cognitive, emotional and behavioural empathy through an ostensibly casual game. Flanagan (2010) uses procedural rhetoric to argue a point of view, and she drives forward an ideological agenda, contextualizing her perspective on the global financial crisis by giving players an experience of alienation, anxiety and depersonalization.

Situated or grounded cognition. Abt (1970) argued games simulate real-world action. This affordance distinguishes games from other communication modalities or artistic vehicles. While “chiefly mental”, games can create opportunities for emotional experiences and experiential learning by offering the “felt freedom, intuitive speed, and reactive responses of physical movements” (Abt, 1970, p. 5). Games scholars argue that another key element that contributes to games as vehicles for empathy is the power of situated or grounded cognition (Gee, 2005; Isbister, 2016). Gee (2005) argues that games have a unique ability to reproduce real-world, embodied experiential learning.  Situated cognitive theory suggests that learning and emotional experiences don’t simply occur in our heads but rather are situated in our bodies which in turn, are placed in a material, social and cultural world. Gee (2005) defines situated cognition as “thinking as tied to a body that has experiences in the world” (p. 8). Isbister (2016) argues as well that “our bodies dramatically shape our emotional experience” (p. 107). Isbister (2016) places games and gameplay as happening in physical and social contexts rather than a totally mental or virtual space. Games are neither isolating, sedentary nor solitary. Games connect us, get bodies moving, allow us to form communities, and solidify social bonds (Isbister, 2016). Exploring networked games such as Journey by Jenova Chen or Words with Friends, Isbister (2016) argues that experiences with games can be made even more powerful when they are played with others. “When players in a room together laugh, jump and tease each other, the power of games to drive connection, empathy and closeness appears right before your eyes.” (p. 109). 

Embodiment. Further to situated cognition, games differ from other communication modalities because they, more often than not, engage our muscles and therefore engage the body in a way that other modalities do not. Keogh (2018) cites Torban Grodel (2003) as saying that video games are “…stories for eye, ear and muscles” (p. 4). Isbister (2016) demonstrates the full body immersion afforded by games through functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans of players brains firing up “mesolimbic neural circuits” to show how game experiences are felt profoundly by the human brain and body (p. 3). Keogh (2018) argues against the idea that we enter the body of our player avatar in the game; the situation is “much more complicated than simply stepping out of one world and skin and into others” (p. 3). Drawing on the concept of hybridity and intertwining of realities as the cyborg suggested by Haraway (1991), Keogh (2018) argues that the real answer is “located in the splice, in the hybrid all-at-once … (i)t is this flickering play of bodies that is the meaningful sensorial, situated experience of video game play” (p. 17). In the splice or hybridity of worlds, and virtual and real bodies colliding, the complex intermixed, multi-tasking consciousness of the game player, Keogh (2018) refines a phenomenology for analyzing and defining the experience of a video games which he defines as “embodied engagements through eyes-on-screens, ears-at-speakers and muscles-at-input-devices (p. 197). Ultimately, video games provoke strong feelings of connection with the in-game action and game characters because of that “flickering” connection with real bodies situated in real space (p. 17). Keogh (2018) writes that “the videogame corpus possess an embodied textuality that produces meaning” (p. 199, italics in original). 


As the theorists explored in this paper suggest, video games are both an art form, a glorious unification of sound, visual design, film-making, performance and writing, all while offering audience interactivity. Games are a powerful tool for education, connection and persuasion. Digital games are unique. They can offer their participatory audiences moments of unparalleled grace, connection with others and a means to promote empathy. Digital games give creators and storytellers a unique modality with which to communicate. Yes, ultimately, digital games can be empathy machines. This is because they offer a unique set of affordances that can help players experience empathy. These affordances include procedural rhetoric, situated cognition and embodiment.

Game designers seeking to create an empathetic experience needs to consider every aspect of the game design. Looking at the Bogost’s (2007) and Flanagan (2013) game examples, we can see that even the game mechanics, rules, outcomes, the actions and decisions privileged during the gameplay drive forward an experience that can create empathy.  The two example video games demonstrate some of these digital game affordances in play. Disaffected! and Layoff are designed to help players empathize with the dread and confusion of a broken set of corporate and macroeconomic processes. Layoff is designed to mirror the real-life mechanistic soullessness of mass layoffs. Players can experience in a limited way the sterile, process-driven system through which real people are dropped out of the workforce. Information on the 2008 worldwide financial crisis is provided on mock stock tickers and television chyrons. The reality of capitalism is mirrored by the game system down to its processes and depersonalization. Layoff’s win conditions are designed to create discomfort in the player, you ‘win’ only if you can slash your budget and create ‘greater efficiencies’ through human suffering. In this discomforting experience, you are able to empathize with the real corporate manager and the employees who are dropped unceremoniously from the job market. As Bogost (2007) and Flanagan (2014) argue, the procedural rhetoric of the games can be more important than the narrative and thematic elements of the game in procedural rhetoric’s ability to help players feel dread, boredom, unease and powerlessness that might result from the real-world systems the game is simulating.

It is important that the game design be intentional. The designer must create the empathetic experience from the ground up. Thinking of values-based game design as defined by Flanagan (2014), we can ask ourselves: Would the game of Monopoly, itself originally designed to be an anti-capitalist messaging vehicle used to demonstrate the inherent injustice of land ownership, create a different experience for players if the objective of the game was fairness or empathy, and the game mechanism used to achieve that outcome was the co-operative distribution of wealth? (Pilon, 215). Following the same thought experiment, imagine if games in the Call of Duty series, the military warfare shooter simulators, were focused on the objective of saving lives? The designer needs to question at every point the game’s purpose, what impact it might have emotionally and cognitively on its players, what performance or ability is being privileged or rewarded, and how players are being attuned to certain ideas within the game (Flanagan, 2014). If empathy is the goal, the designer must weave it into every aspect of the design. Anthropy (2012) celebrates the idea that games are becoming more idiosyncratic, intimate and personal, and with the democratization of games production. It is now possible for games to be created by auteurs rather than enormous games studios cranking out “derivative” games or those copying previously successful formulas (Anthropy, 2012, p. 67). This democratization will enable games to tell more stories and could potentially afford players with more affective empathetic experiences.

Games give players a simulated experience of real-time action (Abt, 1970). This experience of simulated action, experiential learning and play, can approximate real-life experiences in a space that replicates and even revivals ordinary life. A game enables situated cognition, affording the player with a powerful opportunity to learn and understand another’s lived experience, or feel — through processes, decisions and gameplay actions — powerlessness, despair, joy, boredom, sadness or excitement. This experiential simulation can actually deepen the cognitive and affective experience. When a player is grounded or situated in a game world, the experience is enhanced, the action is memorable, and the immersion is deepened. The situated cognition afforded by games can promote the empathic experience (Gee, 2005).  Games also work on and within the player’s bodies, muscles are engaged in game play in a way that other artistic and communicative experiences might not engage viewers. A player engages her/his/their muscles, eyes, ears, intellect and attention during game play. While I agree with Keogh (2018) that there is no full body immersion nor entering the skin of the player avatar, there is, however, a cyborgian merger, however fleeting, with the in-game environment and characters that can create empathic experiences. A game happens to a player who is situated in a place and time, and in a community and culture. As such, a game, can be a whole body, mental, affective and cultural experience. Games can provide players with joy, escape, transcendence, connection and movement through a sense of embodiment. It is the procedural rhetoric, situated cognition and embodiment afforded by games that I believe makes games empathy machines. 


In a time when games and gaming are becoming increasingly woven into the business​, cultural, political and social fabric of those in the industrialized, technologically advanced world, games for teaching, learning and creating social and interpersonal connection are an important area of study. Are digital games empathy machines? The answer is yes. They differ from other communication modalities in their ability to offer procedural rhetoric, situated cognition and embodiment. These affordances help players journey deeply within game designs, experiencing affective and cognitive empathy. I have explored the perspectives of Flanagan (2009, 2014), Isbister (2016), Gee (2007), Bogost (2007) and Keogh (2018), to demonstrate how digital games are unique vehicles for the promotion of empathy. At this moment in our culture, games can be a force for change, healing and artistic tools, and a platform for learning and storytelling. Video games, like Ebert (2005) good movies, work on us through a mixture of visual and auditory cues, signs and symbols to create an experience intended by the designer. The power of games work on our minds within bodies, our bodies within communities, helping to create profound affect and even empathy in players. 


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