Recap: Gaming with Empathy Panel Discussion Part 1

Our presentation of “Gaming With Empathy: Creating Play For and With Others” went fantastic. Thank you to everyone who attended.  As requested, we’re blogging some of the bullet points we’d discussed.  This is about one-fifth of the presentation and focuses on strategies players (as opposed to designers) can do to play with empathy and empower others.

This main purpose of the workshop was to help participants identify cases of transferable privilege, determine plausible opportunities to empower others, and enjoy the freedom to make choices unfettered by win conditions and other arbitrarily constructed restrictions that limit play and fun. Our solution to noticing and possibly subverting in-game privileges and reimagining a new social co-creative space is to play with empathy.

To recap, we identified three types of empathy

  • Affective empathy, which tends to happen first, is the emotional reaction that happens neurocognitively through mirror neurons and amygdala reactions. You notice that someone else is feeling a certain way, sad for example, and you feel sad, too.
  • Cognitive empathy, which tends to happen next, is the thinking reaction whereby a person identifies and understands other peoples’ emotions and needs (a point of roleplay itself); also known as “perspective taking.”
  • “Compassionate empathy” or “active empathy,” whereby after feeling and thinking, you make the conscious choice to take a helpful, righteous action on behalf of others. This is the motivation to action we hope to incite in players who can make choices to make a gameplay experience that is collaborative and empowering for all players and can highlight and/or challenge institutional structures that may limit play for some.

We moved to highlighting some things you can do as a player no matter what type of game you’re in. We acknowledge, however, that some games make it easier to play with empathy than others. In a hierarchical larp with betrayal mechanics? Trust may be harder to come by. The bottom line is that you’ve got to play the game that you’re in.

One of the strategies is a shift in personal objectives of the game. We’re asking players to take risks and consider letting go of win-condition thinking. Games can fall along a ludus-paidia spectrum, and play includes both types, as Roger Caillois noted in 1961.

  • ludic goals are explicitly set up to demonstrate superiority, either in skill, strength, or good fortune of the winner or winners. There are clear victors and clear losers; the game has explicit win-conditions that require separating into winners and losers. Your goal is to be a winner, even though you know that not everyone can be. Players are expressly competitive with one another and their personal ludic outcomes are primary.
  • paidia is more open-ended, improvisational, play. Though sometimes characterized as not having goals, paidiac play does have rules, but it does not define winner and loser. There are goals and subgoals, but not win-conditions. The key objective is generally  to play together. We contend that although larps will have ludic goals and characters can and should play with a measure of competitiveness, that a larp itself operates primarily on the paidiac level of players choosing to play together for the experience of the event. The characters are competing and accomplishing ludic goals; the players are enacting paidia when you are gaming with empathy.

But how can I give up my competitiveness? Are you saying I should “play to lose?” Losing doesn’t feel good! We’d like to remind players that there are no non-diegetic (out-of-game) consequences to diegetic (in-game) failure, and that diegetic failure does not necessarily mean the game is over (barring permadeath, of course, but that’s another story).

Some of the tricks and techniques we offered to help encourage empathetic play include:

“What does failure feel like when it can’t hurt you?” – When you find yourself having difficulty letting go of ludic gameplay, I find it’s helpful to ask this.  It lets you assess that the risks you take in larp, do not often have very punishing failure conditions.  What would the gameplay be like if you didn’t have to try so hard to win at every turn?  Try exploring this!

  • “Imagine Others Complexly” – As a simple mantra of thought, it helps us resist our first conclusion regarding someone’s motivations and circumstances, which are often both knee-jerk responses and judgemental.  Entertaining the possibility of complicated motivations or circumstances helps get our thinking into a less reactive and more mindful state, necessary for empathetic play.
  • Dual Consciousness – In addition to trying to achieve immersion in your role, it’s helpful to try to also be conscious of the fact that you are a player in order to be mindful of others while you’re playing together.  When considering consequences for choices, it helps to think about how the choice will affect me as a player, other players, other players’ characters, and the overall gameplay experience.  Even if those questions are difficult to answer, merely raising them primes one’s thinking towards more mindfulness.
  • Betray Up – many larps are designed with a significant intrigue component to drive the game’s plot.  Intrigue, and it’s climax of betrayal, is not exactly all that conducive to empathetic play.  I’d like to suggest that in games like that which are also cases where power is distributed hierarchically, that one tries to avoid betraying “down” the hierarchy, taking a betrayal action against a character who is powerless to retaliate (which I call “kicking the dog”), and instead try to find ways to betray “up” the hierarchy, taking action against a character with plenty of means to retaliate (which I call “punching the man”).  Betraying up is incredibly risky, but as an attempt to try to reverse the standard flow of above in hierarchical games, I think it’s worth trying to explore. See letting go of ludic goals, above.
  • “Yeah!  What she said!” – Under normal circumstances, we don’t imagine a supportive voice to contribute much of value.  I would like to suggest that in larp, supportive voices are of incredible value.  A single supportive voice to someone’s idea or suggestion can help significantly to that person’s voice being heard, and their idea being given due consideration.  Our panel’s participants contributed the experience of making a suggestion which is ignored, and when the same suggestion is made by a player with some privilege, the suggestion is then deemed meritorious.  “Yeah!  That!” may feel a bit like the waving of pom poms, but in larp spaces, where so much of gameplay is derived from imagination and consensus, the act of being cheerleader for someone can produce great results.
  • “Reinforce Non-Standard Roles” – Similar to the above remark, explicitly supporting someone who is in a leadership role that defies non-diegetic (out-of-game) power dynamics can help.  Making it clear that your character firmly believes that the person in the authoritative role owns and deserves that authority can help overcome other players’ often unexamined tendency to disbelieve a player enacting the role whose embodied appearance doesn’t conform to their expectations of what that role would look like (e.g. a small female battle leader).  
  • “The Relationships You Form Are Better Than XP” – It helps to remember that when you leave a larp, all that you’ve achieved and accomplish don’t follow you back into non-diegetic space once the game is over.  The exception is that the relationships you form with the players do stay with you, and they are of incredible value.  Even in cases where gameplay is resumed from session to session, or there are opportunities for win-conditions during gameplay, it’s easy to imagine someone “winning” the game, but alienating other players to the point where they are not invited to form relationships.  Likewise, someone that “loses” but plays well with others and forms positive relationships with other players, can be said to leave the game with far more than they entered it with, and has, to a certain perspective, “won.”

Using a Trigger Warning — what of it???

We’re back! Abysmal, relentless winter, work commitments, personal challenges to overcome, and relationships to nurture: these things have occupied us these many weeks. While our fingers may not have been flying and we haven’t pushed the “publish” button, the thoughts have been swirling and there is much to say.

Recently, Trigger Warnings have been under discussion again, with all the predictable vitriol about what it means to use one, need one, or ask for one. It started with this post by a 20-year police officer who wanted to tell us what “real” trauma is like.  It extended into international Facebook discussions about the meaning of trigger, the need for trigger warnings, and why people are so upset by their use. I can tell you that our FB discussions were far more civil than the comments on Hernandez’s original post, which I don’t suggest you read unless you wish to fuel your anger and despair at humanity. Not here, though. As hard as it can be sometimes, we’re going to invite discussion and attempt not to fall into the binary logic trap of “I’m right, you’re wrong.” So here are some thoughts about trigger warnings, something Maury thinks about far too much.

Trigger warnings — short descriptive phrases that give advance notice about content and themes —  seek to recognize the lived experience of community members and offer these members the individual agency to determine when, how, and if they wish to read, view, or engage with content. Many people find their use to be insipid, and they have no qualms about telling others that TWs are evidence of everything that is wrong with contemporary society, challenged as it is by social justice and feminist activism that seeks to give voice to others. But it is patronizing and problematic to assume that someone is weak or inferior because they have been traumatized by their lived experience, and oppressive to assume that they should be able to handle a situation or content simply because you (an author, designer, or fellow audience member) think they should be able to, or should be “over” their situation/symptoms by now. These attitudes also assume that the reactions are completely controllable, which is a fiction. Biologically, trauma intrusions are enacted through the autonomic nervous system and are outside of a person’s control. A person who has been triggered can begin to enact a measure of control over how they handle the reaction after it occurs, but they cannot control whether they will get a reaction at all. Trigger Warnings are one way to give some measure of control back to the reader, viewer, player, audience.

Of course, one of the things someone can do is avoid a situation or content that may be triggering or that they simply don’t want to engage with; and of course, they can only do that with clear descriptions of content, transparency from designers/content creators, such as what might be found in a trigger warning. However, all-too-often trigger warnings become derided as being “unhealthy enablers or avoidance strategies” which almost immediately slides down the slippery slope to “and people are babies who need coddling and obviously can’t handle reality if they need to avoid something.” By giving someone a hard time for asking for a trigger warning or for choosing not to engage with something, these armchair psychiatrists have taken away the agency of an individual by demeaning him/her for making a choice; according to them, to make that choice was an admission of being “inferior” or “needy” or “weak.” Many people, it seems to me, have this one-sided view of trigger warnings as a marker that someone can’t handle life/themselves/their trauma and not as the more nuanced notion of allowing people to make their own informed choices about how they live their life and cope with their prior experiences.

Sometimes content creators use the phrase “trigger warning” or “TW” on purpose to demonstrate that they are thinking about others. To show that they care. To show that this author is considering the potential discomfort or intrusions of viewers or readers. They may get it “wrong” in that their TW is not specific enough or as a result of their concern they begin to overuse the term. This overuse of words such as “trauma” or “trigger” or “phobia” or “PTSD” can lead to trivialization, but those that voluntarily use trigger warnings are trying to show empathy. Tumblr actually has a few blogs that are dedicated to standardizing common trigger warnings so that people can use common language that facilitates content filtering and mutual understanding.

You don’t get to choose what traumatizes you. It is a neurological inscription that can be coped with over time using strategies, but neither trauma, nor subsequent triggering reactions, can be prevented or completely eliminated, despite your diligent efforts. That is not to say that there aren’t those who attempt to weaponize triggering as a way to silence others; however we have no way of knowing whether they are trying to legitimately protect their mental health and we should, with empathy, give them the benefit of the doubt and recognize that their discomfort is real.

Trigger warnings, like any content warning, are informational, rather neutral and boring. The outrage such an innocuous statement provokes speaks volumes about our culture and empathy. People have a right to know whether to engage with content or not. Providing a trigger warning does generally lead to refusal to engage with the material, but its presence affords viewers or players with the means to ready themselves for triggering content. That in this way, being at least mentally prepared for triggering content is far better than being blindsided by triggering content. The solution is not to deny everybody a trigger warning, nor is it to give everyone who wants a warning grief over wanting it. And most certainly we should not get into any attempts to try to divide “legitimate” triggering from “false” triggering from the comfort of one’s armchair. People’s experiences are their own. Respecting those experiences is ours to own. Trigger warnings are an invitational attempt at offering that respect.

The Serpico Effect

Frank Serpico got shot in the face. That is really what I was talking about when I jokingly coined “The Serpico Effect” when in conversation with Maury about our plans for this blog.  Speak up or raise a fuss, and you can get shot in the face.  The context, though, is where it connects to privilege, social justice and gaming.

Frank’s incredible story can be looked at as an example of what can go wrong for anybody when you make an effort to change things and a lot of people are invested in making sure nothing changes.  What I think is worth examining is the fact that Frank’s role when he took action to expose graft and corruption in the New York City Police Department is that of a privileged individual trying to enact a change in a system that privileges him.

It kind of blows my mind to just think that over, the level of retaliation thrown his way.

I referenced The Serpico Effect in that conversation to try and explain how difficult it is for a privileged individual to do anything about their privilege. For a lot of people with privilege, they are caught in a trap of circumstances.  If they care about justice, they know that they appear to the less privileged to be a collaborator with the oppressive institution.  But if they are cautious regarding consequences, they are very aware that the privilege that they have gives the system serious leverage.  If the system doesn’t benefit you, you don’t have much to lose by complaining about it, but if you do benefit from it, complaining can cost you all those benefits.  Worse, if you make a real mess of things, the retaliation you can expect for throwing a monkey wrench in the machine can escalate to something far worse for you than just having your privileges revoked.

Like getting shot in the face.

Or in the case of Veronica Santangelo, voiced by Felicia Day in Fallout: New Vegas, who, as a consequence of pushing for change in the Brotherhood of Steel, endured an attempted lynching (that would likely have been successful if not for the player’s intervention) by Brotherhood traditionalist extremists.

Or to maybe go back a little further, the case of Ramza Beoulve, in Final Fantasy Tactics, who literally threw down his birthright privilege, then was branded a heretic and became a fugitive.

Or maybe any of the many sympathetic characters in David Simon’s The Wire, powerless to effectively make changes in the institutions that control their lives, have to chose to between diving out of the way of the oncoming train (capitulate) or get run down (defiance until defeat).

As Bunk said to McNulty, “Shit is fucked.”

What can we do about this?

I don’t know.

I’d really like to have a lot of strategy and suggestions.  I’d love to talk to Frank Serpico and ask him about the advice he gives the many police who approach him on how they can effectively speak up about the things that they’ve seen and do not want to be silent about, how to be better lamplighters of the truth, and how to do so in ways that would expose them to a minimum of retaliation yet still accomplish the goal of making change for the better.

But for now, the best advice I can give is based on my puny and ineffectual attempts to speak up for others a few times in my life:

  • Prepare for retaliation.  Not quite being blindsided by the people that you’d previously come to trust takes a bit of the sting out.
  • Don’t expect recognition.  Failing to make a real difference and bringing shit upon yourself won’t get you an A for effort, a thank you for at least trying, or acknowledgement of the cost you’ve paid.  It’s also really possible to look like an utter jerk if you appear to think you’re entitled to this stuff.
  • Don’t expect success.  Even if you successfully get your voice heard, and promises to take action are made, don’t believe it.  If the goal is to shut you up, letting you think you’ve achieved your goal is a remarkably effective tactic.

That’s bleak though.  But I think I need to accept that I’m not quite the heroic personality that Frank Serpico was, and that a lot of similarly privileged folks out there are not either.  And even you have the heroic temperament, the will to do what you think is right in spite of what may come, you can’t help but notice that those people who speak out face significantly high costs.

Like getting shot in the face.

More to come.  In the meantime, tread carefully.

Are we having fun yet?

So, if you’ve read the last few posts, you may be wondering what all this talk about privilege and empathy and rhetoric has to do with gaming. At first glance, nothing.  Then, if you think about it, everything. How? Let me give a few ways:

  1. Nerd Entitlement: Aaronson speaks about being a nerdy white male and being less privileged than other white males. Because gamers and gaming is an often stigmatized group (at least in the United States), our subculture is a geekdom and participants are often “nerds” (whether called that in derision or embracing that as an identity). Gamer culture has a proportionally larger number of “lesser privileged males,” who by virtue of their interest in gaming (or their social awkwardness that drives them to seek it out) become part of this group. Thus, Aaronson’s point of view of not recognizing or understanding privilege as a result of his own marginalization and underclass treatment can be a relatively common one in gamer culture. In fact, I’d argue (and I’m pretty sure Ben agrees) that this is the root of certain feminism-resistant groups in gaming culture and their backlash against feminism in gaming. Lots to say here. More to come.
  2. Games are culture: We can learn a lot about ourselves and our culture by looking at the games we play. Play is a simulation of real life, but with differing structures and rules that create new paradigms designed for fun. Roger Caillois notes that play is governed by rules that provide a level playing field for all participants and consists of finding a response to the opponent’s action – or to the play situation – that is free within the limits set by the rules. These rules are socially and culturally constructed by game designers, storytellers, and the players themselves. Even with these game rules and mechanics, out-of-game power structures and representations get replicated, and the empowerment that is possible from games can often be distributed in normative ways rather than allowing and encouraging the liberating possibilities of play. This phenomenon is an ongoing source of inquiry for us and many others.
  3. Privilege exists in games: Games, as a cultural creation, are not immune to the social issues that exist outside of games, privilege included. Some in-game factors such as genre or historical time period call to mind certain representations of gender, race, and class. Yet certain players have power in games, regardless of their character. This power comes from outside of the game and is not fully mitigated through game mechanics. It is the result of out-of-game cultural norms as well as previous personal experience (in- or out-of-game) with specific players. Generally (but not always) at the top of this category are larger or stronger bodied, white, straight, loud-voiced men. By default their character is often deferred to (many times unconsciously) by other characters due to socialization outside the game. Exploring this privilege and how to use empathy to be aware of it and possibly transfer it is the crux of our work at the moment, and the focus of our upcoming presentation at Intercon O.
  4. Games can be safer spaces: Because games are microcosms that have their own explicit rules, a game can facilitate a respectful and tolerant community, a safer space. The injustices, intolerance, and marginalization that occurs outside of a game can be mitigated or upended within it. Many Nordic Larps and American Freeform games explore these opportunities. In addition, a game has the ability to reset the parameters of reality, which also allows awesome opportunities to explore equality. Fantastic settings don’t need patriarchal systems and realism can be reimagined by players, designers and organizers. Gaming communities also have a specific play culture: guidelines, norms, or implicit rules that may not be codified or written into the game rules and mechanics, but are nonetheless expectations of participants and are enforced informally by community members and/or game organizers. It is here that dialog about empathy, equality, and social justice can be translated into felt reality. And what begins to happen in a game or gaming community can begin to happen outside of it. This is what excites us.

These are just a few ways that we believe the discussions about social justice, nerd privilege, feminism, equality, and other -isms come into play with regard to gaming. We plan to explore each of these in more depth here, and we hope you’ll let us know what you think.