Tuesday, October 17, 2023

An Invitation to Empathy

 empathy: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another.”


Games invite us to put ourselves in someone else’s position. A warlord commanding an army against an identical force (chess). A colonizer of a resource-rich island (Settlers of Catan). Commander of a historical military force (wargames). A specialist fighting diseases spreading through the world’s populations (Pandemic). A fortune hunter exploring underground labyrinths, slaying monsters, and taking their stuff (any number of fantasy roleplaying games). Every game places players in a role within a thematic context; it’s part of their appeal, allowing us to temporarily assume a new, make-believe identity to varying degrees and live vicariously through the game experience. Most games ultimately invite us to empathize with a new viewpoint. As players assessing and responding to evolving game situations within a particular mechanic and thematic context, we have an opportunity to consider a different perspective from our own. Often we play games for the escapist entertainment they offer; but with a little introspection, they can also serve as opportunities to expand our empathy.

Books, films, shows, and other media also accomplish this to some degree – certainly many people become immersed in such fare – and form the core of our escapist entertainment. But these pastimes remain passive. We experience a story, often empathizing with characters and their challenges, but we don’t actively participate other than as readers or viewers. Some media can inspire us to learn more about the characters and situations it covers, as I’ve discussed before. Sometimes we reflect on what we’ve read or watched, depending on its nature. Occasionally media moves us emotionally, though we don’t always take the time to examine why or how. This media quickly satisfies our need for entertainment and escape; it’s easy to passively digest and move on.

Some folks similarly immerse themselves in games as one more form of entertainment as a respite from real-life issues, drawing a firm border between amusing diversion and reality. Some revel in the social interaction or focus on the intricacies of gameplay. We don’t have to find significant meaning in everything we do; not every experience requires even superficial reflection. But doing so, even for a brief moment, we might gain a greater awareness of other people’s perspectives – both players and their in-game roles – and become more attuned to empathy in our everyday lives.

Different games offer varying degrees of immersion and hence various invitations to explore empathy. At the very least, most competitive games invite players to empathize with their opponents in an adversarial context. We attempt to “get into their head” and make informed assessments about their next move given their past behavior and the current game state. Games challenge us to learn about how others might react to different situations in the course of play so we can manipulate the game state in the interest of our own victory.

The more abstract a game the less it instills in us a sense of empathy, of being someone else for a short while. Any of the classic games like checkers, nine men’s morris, chess, pachisi, even the Royal game of Ur and ancient Egyptian senet paste only a thin veneer of a theme over an essentially abstract game. I mentioned chess earlier as a confrontation between two warlords and their identical armies, but, despite the pieces’ relation to actual military units of antiquity, it remains an essentially abstract game with only superficial thematic elements. They still teach valuable lessons – as any game does – about maneuvering one’s resources, assessing the situation, reading one’s opponent and their intentions, and winning or losing graciously. But they offer a minimal invitation to empathy and thus provide a “safe” play experience removed from any real-world implications beyond opponents gathered around the game board. Games with fantastic themes offer a similar invitation to explore empathy at a similar level. The imaginary world setting gives each player the option to indulge in sheer entertainment or look for deeper significance.

Games with themes anchored more in reality provide perhaps the most effective means of examining empathy. Board games like Pandemic deal with current issues facing our global society. Professional games engage players with real-world challenges and inspire teamwork and innovative solutions (along with debriefings afterward for personal development).

Certainly historical wargames or board games with historical themes touch on delicate issues when one looks beneath the surface. Such games help us examine past conflicts first hand and gain some insight into factors influencing those involved, whether politicians, commanders, units, or even individual soldiers. If we look past the basic game experience the historical context can prod us to address questions both about the game and our role as players: What events led to the conflict? How does each side view itself in the right? What differs in the experience of those leading and those serving? How might the participants have resolved this situation leading to the game differently? What happens in the aftermath of the present action? One of the fathers of miniature wargaming, H.G. Wells, even made a provocative point in his Little Wars game rules worth pondering even 100 years later: “You have only to play at Little Wars three or four times to realize just what a blundering thing Great War must be.”

We’re not obliged to learn something from every experience, especially from those stemming from entertainment like books, shows, and games, things we rely on to relax, escape, and recover from our daily trials. But, more so than passive media, games require us, at even a basic player level, to place ourselves in someone else’s position. They draw us into an engaging experience where we directly affect actions and outcomes. Games offer an opportunity to explore the theme first hand and empathize with the perspective players represent in the game. With a little examination and introspection they might provide some insight into a different perspective, or an awareness that other viewpoints exist beyond our own personal realities. If we can cultivate a sensitivity to others and their situations, such empathy might inspire us to better understand others, reach out to those in need, and help our communities at various levels. We can use games as a tool to improve ourselves and enrich the lives of those around us.

Human beings must involve themselves in the anguish of other human beings. This, I submit to you, is not a political thesis at all. It is simply an expression of what I would hope might be ultimately a simple humanity for humanity’s sake.”

Rod Serling

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