A metaphorical experience: gaming and empathy

While playing through Limbo I was reminded of another game that had a similarly minimalist aesthetic and controls, a little gem called Elude (be patent—it takes a while to load) that was created by the Singapore-MIT Gambit Game Lab in 2010. The goal of the game was to metaphorically simulate what it feels like to have depression, and despite that rather lofty premise, I have to say that it mirrors my own struggles with the disorder surprisingly well. The website describes the game as follows:

By tapping into the experiential aspects of the video game medium, Elude’s metaphorical model for depression serves to bring awareness to the realities of depression by creating empathy with those who live with depression every day… Elude aims to raise awareness for depression and to inform about this dangerous illness. It is specifically intended to be used in a clinical context as part of a psycho-education package to enhance friends’ and relatives’ understanding of people suffering from depression about what their loved ones are going through.

GAMBIT designed Elude as a side-scrolling platformer that lets you move left, right, and upward, as well as using the space bar to “resonate” with birds on the branches of trees you climb to increase the height of your jump.

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The metaphor here is fairly simple, but brilliantly executed, using not only visuals to relay the game’s message but the controls themselves to deepen the player’s understanding of their experience. The birds represent daily activities that enliven and revitalize you; and causing one to sing out increases your energy, making it easier to navigate the tree branches that stand for everyday life, much as positive daily activities might. Sometimes birds won’t resonate with you, and as you climb through the trees, your jump height, reprensenting your ability to deal with navigating through life, increases and decreases. This, say the game’s developers, stands for a normal state, the way most folks spend most of their days. If you mange to get to the canopy, however, the visuals, gameplay and music change entirely.

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Each jump you take is significantly higher, the music is louder and in a major key, and the player’s movement is  far more dynamic. Controlling jumps is much more difficult, but the payoff is faster movement and being catapulted into a gorgeous blue sky. Falling back to the trees isn’t violent or painful, and is instead depicted as a natural transition back to a “normative” state. The next phase of the game, which mirrors what it’s like to be actively depressed, is the polar opposite of the “bouncy sky” phase.

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To telegraph “depression,” the game first slows your movement and jump height; the environment you’re in gets darker; the birds fly away, and finally thrashing, creaking vines overwhelm your character and drag them into a dark, confined area where most of your movement controls are severely restricted. You have no control over this turn of events—all you can do is muddle through it until you either find a way back to the “forest” of normalcy or succumb to the environment by falling off a cliff. The game’s final scene is a map

Although vastly different in scope, the game dys4ia uses similar methods to chronicle creator by Anna Anthropy’s experiences at the beginning of her male-to-female gender transition. She makes it clear in the game’s intro that, unlike the more globally-framed Elude, dys4ia is meant to represent her experiences and hers alone, and shouldn’t be taken as a template for what every transgender person goes through. For those of you unfamiliar with what it means to be transgender, the GLAAD article on the subject is a good place to start; Wikipedia goes into more detail. The game uses bright, blocky, pixellated graphics to provide the player with a game-as-autobiography experience using minimal controls.

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In fact, dys4ia’s controls are so minimal that at times they’re almost nonexistent, but those moments often coincide with events associated with being confined or having little to no physical agency. Notable among these is the section of the game where the protagonist is getting her blood pressure taken and must simply be still while a diagnosis is given. Although it lacks the video game “feel” of Elude in the sense that this game feels less like a playable event and more like an interactive artifact, it also uses symbols to convey meaning; a cell phone or mouths to indicate communication, a brick wall with a hole in it and a puzzle piece to represent an obstacle that is difficult to get past, pink and blue to connote “traditional” gender roles. The flowers, birds and thrashing vines of Elude are read by the player in much the same way.

I mention both games because while their goals, controls, and aesthetics are quite disparate, both use visual metaphors and specifically tailored gameplay mechanics to communicate an emotional experience that may be unfamiliar to the player. Many video games use simple symbols to convey complex meanings that the player translates through a shared cultural lexicon (think about how we all knew who the “protagonist” was supposed to be in Space Invaders, for example). However, Elude and dys4ia differ from the majority in the sense that an emotional response, a feeling of resonance with the game’s content, is the primary objective. There are no scores kept, no bosses to fight, no enemies to defeat—the game’s symbols aren’t stand-ins for fantastic physical objectives that must be overcome, as in Donkey Kong, but are distilled or translated concepts that are encountered in everyday life. The symbols of these games have been crafted with great care, pulling from that shared cultural lexicon, because the creators wanted to convey a specific idea.

Perhaps one could conclude that while many video games seek to expand or embellish on common motifs—the heroic quest, the fight against impossible odds, the solving of a mystery—Elude and dys4ia provide a concentrated focus on an uncommon reality.

Perhaps after all this explanation my analysis seems fairly obvious (and disappointingly brief), but I believe it raises some interesting points about video games in general. Do you believe the conclusion I’ve reached here is valid? Can hyperrealistic games like Far Cry 3 or Mass Effect be considered “symbolic” in the way they use visuals, or as overall experiences? Why or why not? This is stuff I really don’t have the answers to, but I’m interested in your feedback, even if it’s to call me out on flaws in my analysis.

 

 

  12 comments for “A metaphorical experience: gaming and empathy

  1. Conor McMahon
    January 24, 2013 at 10:59 am

    Although I find the idea interesting I do not think that video games can effectively be used to convey certain aspects of life, such as depression. It’s entirely possible that in the future video games will be able to do this more effectively. However, being someone that suffers from depression I do not feel that a video game can convey something that I cannot even appropriately convey despite it being part of my every day life. And, that’s just the thing; I play video games to get far away from my every day life. I know the game Elude is trying to raise depression awareness, and for that I am grateful. I feel that there are certain things that video games simply cannot convey to people. The second game dsy4ia did not change any of my understanding of how hard it can be to be a transgendered person. I understand that most of them go through a lot in there transition and onwards. Unfortunately, I don’t think a video game can, ultimately, convey that sort of feeling or understanding that would be the most helpful for the world. There are a great number of things that video games can, and have, accomplished. Is there a time where we will be able to effectively convey these things? Possibly. Do we have the current means to? In my opinion, no we do not. I believe that games such as Far Cry 3 and, I’m not sure if you mean the series or the first game, Mass Effect have strong aspects of hyperrealism. This is especially true with Mass Effect because of the obvious fact that nothing along the lines of the story has come to pass. I have played all of the Mass Effect games and do consider that Mass Effect does seem to have a great deal of symbolism. Especially in the aspect that mankind is trying to find its place in the universe much like every person tries to find his or her way in the world. Mass Effect has also made great strides in implementing subjects such as homosexuality into the video game world. That being said the same problem remains that playing a video game does not seem like a viable way to strongly relay certain emotions, feelings, situations, etc. to someone that has never experienced them. These games you discussed, Elude and dys4ia, both bring awareness, but I do not feel they bring understanding. The ultimate question I’m wondering is, can a game ever truly bring understanding of certain life aspects that have not been experienced by the player?

    • Haley
      January 24, 2013 at 11:18 am

      Okay, that does make sense–but you never say WHY a video game can’t deepen someone’s understanding of its subject, only that the medium is an inadequate way to do so. I can see why Elude and dys4ia might fail to create empathy, or even a deeper intellectual understanding, but saying that video games are incapable of broadening someone’s worldview or making a player feel something seems drastic to me.

      It’s entirely possible that my rambling post didn’t fully communicate what I was trying to say, but I’m still curious about your reasoning here. I think what I was trying to untangle as I beat my head against this post last night is that it’s perhaps easier to find meaning a distilled symbol (a flower for happiness, a cell phone for communication, a heart for love) than it is to derive understanding from, say, a long text-based narrative or a factual lecture. Both of these games use symbols as shortcuts to meaning, allowing the player to interpret them both as they’re specifically intended within the context of the game, and as an easy way for the player to transpose meaning onto said symbols from their own life. If you’re told “transgender people get harassed,” that’s one thing, but if you see a symbolic representation of that harassment, expressed through projectiles being fired at a character you’re playing, you may be able to relate that symbol to an experience of your own. You know what it’s like to have things thrown at you, to be attacked by someone or something, and the symbol is a shortcut to that feeling, framed in a different experience.

      Wow. I should probably go back and edit my post, shouldn’t I? Thanks for helping me tease this out more fully!

  2. Conor McMahon
    January 24, 2013 at 11:46 am

    I had said that the games are perfectly fine for raising awareness, but there’s a certain level where I feel that you cannot understand something through a video game. Also, I do not believe I said that one cannot feel something from video games. I have felt plenty throughout my life of playing games. I simply wanted to convey that I do not think that video games are at the point in time where they can actually convey how it feels to be depressed or transgendered. Not that you can’t feel emotion over some aspect of it.

    Games, like films, art, theatre, music etc., can definitely generate strong emotions in the person observing. However, they do not effectively put someone into the shoes of the character, in my opinion, because even though we may be close to that point we’re not quite there yet. Video games have come a long way in terms of substance there’s no doubt about that. I just think that there is a limit to what can be done. I think that you can relate to something, but you cannot truly come to understand something like being depressed or transgendered through a video game. You cannot effectively put your entire self into the shoes of a character. You’d have one shoe on, or maybe sandals even.

    • Haley
      January 24, 2013 at 3:16 pm

      That clarifies things for me, thanks! So in your opinion is there any medium that can effectively convey a set of feelings or experiences in the way you’re describing here? Or is literal, real-time experience the be-all end-all? I’m not trying to be belligerent, I’m just curious.

    • Conor McMahon
      January 24, 2013 at 3:40 pm

      I think that in the future it is possible that it would be possible to have those experiences with games, but for right now I think that we’re too disconnected from the game through a controller or keyboard and mouse.

  3. Amber May
    January 29, 2013 at 3:39 pm

    I agree with Conor here that it would take a lot more for a game to truly mirror a certain condition. It is true that games can bring awareness and help one feel empathetic to an extent, but it’d be a jump to say that they could full-on replicate a diagnosis. For example, if there were a game that tried to emulate the symptoms of asthma, the developer could use any number of visual methods (lungs, breathing, hearts, ect.) to attempt to make a comparison, but in the end the player couldn’t possibly know the real deal unless they themselves have the condition. The game is just basically a way to tell the player “imagine if…”

    I totally understood what ideas you were trying to go for, and you made a few really good points. It wouldn’t be surprising if games such as these actually do get people thinking about others’ situations. Movies, Broadway plays, and books are able to convey the same messages, so why can’t video games do the same?

    • OneMoreDaySK
      January 29, 2013 at 4:13 pm

      Well for one, there is still the idea that video games are meant to be fun and entertaining, requiring a degree of interactivity that the media you mentioned lack. In the other media you, as creator, are able to point your audience in a direction, towards certain moods and ideas. But in a video game, you can’t do that, as you cannot ensure that the person will be paying any heed to your message. They could just be there to kill things or get the objectives done, to screw around with the world and watch it burn, instead of watching the story you create. If you try to restrict the player forcefully, then you have less of a game, and more of an interactive movie. Too many cutscenes in a game are an example, with the attempt to alleviate it by sprinkling the cutscenes with quick-time-events. Of course these things are largely annoying and do not require any skill outside of timing and mashing.

  4. ChocobunnySK
    January 29, 2013 at 4:08 pm

    When Microsoft attempted to remove the controller aspect, you get the Kinnect. While innovative and interesting, the lack of feedback is even more jarring that being unable to connect to the game.

    When putting someone into another’s shoes, the shoes might not always fit. Some people are more able to empathize and immerse themselves in a story than others, evident in all sorts of media not restricted to video games. Besides, even if technology develops to the point where we play games in an Avatar-esque state, there will always be that one thing you are missing when playing a character. Whether it’s the experince of that character’s childhood, or their culture, we will always be in want of the whole character. Remember, its fitting in their shoes and walking a mile, not taking over and becoming them. So a glimpse is just enough. a

  5. Guillermo
    January 30, 2013 at 2:32 pm

    Sorry to veer from the main topic of discussion so far, but I just started Limbo and couldn’t stop thinking about Bogust’s chapter “Empathy”. I find that the game so far does an excellent job of creating an atmosphere of success (after completion of a puzzle for example), but it also does well to produce empathy with the character. That being said, I myself have never been killed more than once in a matter of five minutes, BUT the game does seem to elicit a sense of connection with the character. The treacherous monotony of life was a recurring feeling that I experienced throughout gameplay. Perhaps some of you are better at Limbo than I am, but after seeing myself crushed to death multiple times in a matter of one minute I began to reflect on how the game seems to comment on life. Often times we feel as though we fail constantly, thinking to ourselves, “Ok this time…I’ll try…THIS!”, only to fail again, and yet life goes on. In this sense I think Limbo is an extremely empathetic game, much like Elude as you described it.

    • Margeaux
      January 30, 2013 at 11:40 pm

      Limbo’s connection with the player definitely seems to be one of its strong points. I agree with you on having that feeling of disappointment every time you fail an obstacle, only to pick yourself up and try it all over again. Like you pointed out, it’s a great metaphor for life in general. Yet Limbo does not make you feel empathy only for yourself, the gamer, but also sorry for your character: a little boy. It’s interesting that the game’s creators decided to go with a child character rather than a grown adult or even teenager persona, and it is that factor that truly extracts the emotion and drive for success from the gamer. The innocence and purity symbolized by the child only makes you want to win that much more. I mean, I could feel my face turn white that first time I stepped into one a bear trap and watched the little boy’s head roll away after hearing a very cringe-worthy crunch. I had nightmares when I went to sleep that night…..

  6. cristina
    January 30, 2013 at 7:26 pm

    I believe that these games provide an atmosphere that can be linked to the primitive “known” feelings of depression we can all identify with, but I do not believe any video game can ever project something such as depression successfully enough to provide any form of understanding. Understanding is such a subjective term that is open to interpretation, and I think it’s incredibly difficult to say video games can at some point deepen someone’s “understanding” of such a complex subject. The statement you made within your post that you believe that each game uses visual metaphors and specifically tailored game mechanics to communicate an emotional experience that may be unfamiliar to the player is a bit confusing only because if the player is unfamiliar to this “emotional experience,” how would they be able to recognize or try to begin to understand an emotion that is completely foreign to them? At most these games are utilizing cliche visuals that project a very basic form of a general emotion.

  7. Margeaux
    January 31, 2013 at 12:16 am

    The imagery, meanings, and overflowing symbolism in dys4ia is amazing! The jumbled array of colors and pixel characters creates such a vivid picture of the creator’s inner struggles and emotions. In this case, the game truly does gives a person who has not undergone gender transition to empathize with the creator. No, this does not mean I am personally and physically feeling these problems (like taking hormones or the problematic ordeals with shaving), but her feelings are being reciprocated; and as a result a sense of awareness, in terms of the personal achievements and hardships which transgender people experience, is instilled within the gamer. And moreso, the fact that this story is used through the medium of a video game is what’s more interesting–rather than merely writing words down in a book or painting a meaningful mural, the artist chooses a digital gaming platform. Yet I guess this makes some sense, as people nowadays are becoming more and more attached to electronics as they invest much of their time and entertainment in them. As a result, a video game will surely catch the attention of those attracted to all-things digital. So maybe this truly is dawn of a new era in artistic expression….. ?

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