Gameplay and the Hindrance of Empathic Responses to Prosocial Games

At last year’s Meaningful Play conference, held biannually at Michigan State University, several hundred attendees from across the globe convened to explore the computer game as a catalyst for change. Whether this change was raising social awareness, educating, or spurring recovery from neurological trauma, the assumption was that the interactive nature of gameplay was capable of producing transformation within the player.

 Syria screen

My recent research examines prosocial games as rhetorical texts that attempt to inform the player about a particular event of social, economic, or cultural impact. These projects typically simulate a social justice issue in hopes that the player will better comprehend the subject. Furthermore, these projects attempt to persuade the player to empathize with the injustice that is being rendered interactively. There exist several inhibitors that prevent this latter priority from succeeding but the one that concerns me most lately is that the ludic nature of gameplay itself prevents the player from perceiving the seriousness of the issue being presented. Possessing an unparalleled measure of interactivity, computer games of any kind prompt the player to develop power over the physical hardware (controller, keyboard, and mouse), the software (operating system, browser, GUI), and ultimately the game being played. If we consider how much of our day-to-day resembles this gamespace (or is it that our days reflect our gaming nature?), we may recognize this negotiation of power as a tribal quality ingrained in our social behavior

Phone Story

This pursuit for power may be too big an obstacle for such admirable prosocial games like Phone Story, Endgame:Syria or SPENT. Is it our very nature that prevents us from empathizing with the digitally-rendered plight of the homeless or the survival of the refugee? How can players overcome this feeling that the problem solved once we “beat” the game (even if that entails simply turning it off)? My fear is that, despite the sincere motivations of the developers, these prosocial games and their persuasive strategies are smothered underneath strata of these struggles for power. Prosocial game creators might span this divide by taking advantage of games’ narrative qualities, using interaction with the environment and the characters to immerse the player within the context. Could multiplayer functionality and cooperative play reduce the competitive instinct enough so that a viable solution be recognized? These possibilities might seem a long way off but we have already witnessed the potential of collaborative gameplay and real-world problem solving. Perhaps by distracting players from the fact that they are engaging in gameplay, developers might better foreground the environment, the issue, and, ultimately, their empathetic responses.


Great post from a different perspective! Your assessment of many of these game is spot on. I also thought of September 12th where the only way to 'win' was not to play. It's intro reminds us that this is not a game. However, that is a big oversimplification of global networks right there. 

I did not play Phone Story as well and my inability to beat and shoot miners meant I didn't learn much about how phones are made. The set up, with us as oppressors while playing from our cell makes it hard to identify with the victims.

I did want to lift up Urgent Evoke, which was a  2010 project by Jane McGonigal where the way to complete quests was to write a reflection or do a task that did make some small difference. I played it a bit when it came out, but am unsure of it's success. It was definitely more of a learning game than the more ludic, play based games you have listed above. 

Kris, I enjoyed your post despite my limited gameplay and equally limited scholarly framework surrounding this discourse. Regardless, I am intrigued with your critical analysis of the power struggles and hierarchies within the games you mention. I am also interested in your working assertion that players' innate tendency/need to negotiate power (Nietzsche for further framing?) may obstruct game designers'/developers' rhetorical intentions of raising the players' awareness of "social, economic, or cultural" issues.

It seems that despite designers' rhetorical aims, players/users have the final say in constructing textual meaning(s) (should we invoke Barthes here or does this just go without saying?). I suppose I have more questions than I do an ability to expand on your post, Kris, and this is likely given my lack of gaming ethos, but I would like to hear more about what you (or others) mean by "distracting players from the fact that they are engaging in gameplay," as this seems like a fundamental appeal for persons  who invest their time, energy, and money in gameplay. If this element is removed, what will draw players in to the world of the game?

Also, I'm wondering if anyone can share any insights/scholarship on how game design acts on users' need to negotiate power (though not intentionally in prosocial games?) in terms of gender? In other words, how does this need to negotiate power look different for male and female players or does it? Finally, to what extent has games studies relied on theories of visual rhetoric and design to negotiate some of the narrative/argumentative issues related to the rhetorics of gameplay Kris discusses in this post?

Add new comment

Log in or register to add a comment.