Empathy and Terrible Games

Empathy is needed for design. But all that planning can be for naught if your execution fails to get players to empathize with your designed creation. Ultimately, no one cares about our ability to understand other people and put ourselves in their shoes. We’re wired to be selfish and attend to our personal needs first. Alright, that’s cool and all, but what’s in it for me? Why should I care?

Since the goal of our games as game designers is to make players feel a certain way, I argue that designing and playing games are both acts of empathy. Not only do we have to think from our players’ perspectives to design an enjoyable experience, but our players also need to empathize with the characters, story, and world we’ve built to really immerse themselves into gameplay and achieve a state of flow.

If our players do not suspend themselves in the illusion of gameplay, this often leads to an unpleasant, jarring experience. We want to play pretend that feels real, while still maintaining a tiny semblance of agency in the back of our minds that reminds us that none of this is actually real (save for our personally felt experiences). This is sort of like lucid dreaming, where everything still feels right and okay – up until the point where we are forced to acknowledge that our dream is a lie that we made up. Maintain the illusion, and everyone’s happy.

Once the curtain goes up on the Oz act, our sense of wonder gives way to pessimistic adult realism and/or curious fascination (How can I do that? How can I recreate the magician’s trick and do it even better? What does this imply about our ability to be tricked as humans?) “Even I can do what this phony did.” And sometimes this leads to great results, such as not-yet game designers suddenly realizing that they can design their own games. Being able to view our heroes in a more humble light allows us to more seriously consider our own personal abilities to succeed – perhaps even where our heroes could not.

We only care enough about the design of something if it either does really well or utterly flops. Since research in psychology shows we’re more attuned to negative emotions, I’d say we’re more likely to leave a negative rating in reaction to something bad than express a positive reaction to something good. If all is as it seems it should be, we tend to take the design for granted and go on with our lives as usual.

Great game design is great. There’s no question about that. But I argue that terrible game design is also great. Maybe not as great, but practically speaking, there’s long-term payoff where there is little short-term reward. Terrible games contribute to community growth and the “creation” of new game designers. With good or decent games, players may think, “If it ain’t broke, they don’t need me to step in and fix it.” But making a task or goal seem achievable inspires actionable thoughts, such as, “Even I could do better than this.” And then someone takes on that challenge.

A few minutes to weeks pass by, during which we as novices realize seemingly simple tasks have a bit of a learning curve to them as we transition from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence. But often enough, many of us are stubborn enough to persist through the journey and then go on a few more (due to passion, curiosity, ego, whatever our reasons may be) – which more often than not results in a set of refined skills. Then lo and behold after a few months (or years), one of your indie efforts makes it big and draws people’s attention to your work. Ta-da, you are now recognized as a skilled expert who designs good games. No pressure. Remember, even if you do a bad job, you’re encouraging new minds to enter the field because they’re now empowered to design their own games.

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