Empathy in Videogames

Empathy in Videogames

Sex workers are perpetually stigmatized in the media. By creating a newsgame about sex workers, we hope to work against this tendency by depicting the lives of sex works as complex and multi-faceted. It is important to recognize that sex workers have the capacity for empowerment and agency, while also acknowledging the grave challenges they face.  Is evoking empathy in our players a good strategy to fight prejudices they may have about sex workers? Does evoking empathy still allow us to depict the complexity of the issues we wish to explore?

In “Designing Games to Foster Empathy” (2010), Belman and Flanagan argue that empathy has been proven to improve people’s attitudes and behaviors towards individuals or groups. However, for this change to happen, the authors assert that both cognitive empathy (taking another person’s point of view) and emotional empathy (emotional response to another person’s emotional state) must be evoked. Furthermore, people must be induced to feel empathy. Typically, those with prejudices often avoid feeling empathy towards those they discriminate against. Therefore, the authors recommend videogame design principles that invoke both cognitive and emotional empathy, and that explicitly state the development of empathy as goal of the game.

By asking our players to play from the perspective of a sex worker character, our game may foster cognitive empathy by asking them to take on this point of view. Emotional empathy could be fostered through our depiction of the dangerous risks sex workers must take to earn their livelihood. However, we also want to avoid perpetuating the stereotype that all sex workers are victims.  Finding a balance between representing the dire obstacles that many sex workers face, offering empowering depictions of sex workers, and evoking empathy in our players is a central challenge to this project.


Identity, Identification and Representation in video game play

Notes From Identity Etc

In “Identity, Identification and Media Representation in Video Game Play: An audience reception study” (2010), Shaw argues that identification in video game play is complex, and is influenced by a variety of factors including: a game’s mechanics, it’s narrative, the context of game play and the player’s understanding of their own identity. Researchers cannot assume that players will identify with game characters based on shared identifiers such as race, gender, and sexuality. Shaw highlights that fantasy and escapism are common motivations for video game play, and often players are not looking to identify with their video game characters at all.  However, Shaw asserts that diversity in video games is important and is the social responsibility of producers. The game industry’s pluralistic approach, marketing specific types of games to niche markets, can alienate those from the groups being represented and can perpetuate stereotypes. However, while representation is important, it should not undermine the playfulness of gaming.

As this newsgame is in part a response to the stigmatization of sex workers in the media, the representation of sex workers is central to this project. Shaw advocates for diverse and complex character creation in video games, as reducing video game characters to specific identifiers does not induce identification. However, she also points out that identification between players and their characters is not straightforward, and it is impossible to capture all the complexity and nuances of the lives of sex workers in a video game. However, Shaw’s research does suggest that accurate and fair representations are more important to players in realistic games, which is particularly relevant to newsgames.