Board Games – A Nascent Culture of Empathy

If you‘re willing to acknowledge that games are part of modern culture, and I‘ll just assume that‘s the case, you will have to eventually ask yourself which ones you consider of particular value or distinction. And while received „wisdom“ will say that it‘s all subjective and purely a question of taste, there are at least two traits that put one cultural product over another: they evoke a feeling of community and a sense of empathy.

It seems trivial to point out how board games create community. It‘s pretty self-evident as soon as you sit down to play. Even in games that are derisively labeled as multiplayer solitaire, community arises by way of indirect competition. It‘s arguably even more present and lively than the communal experience of watching a movie in the cinema, which is no longer in question. The audience in a movie theater experiences a film together. They laugh together, tense up together and shed tears over a character‘s fate together.

We’re all in this together

With the end of the film, the group experience comes to an end as well… which is no different to the community dissolving at the end of the game. Although that does bring up the question if a movie audience doesn‘t weaken the group experience if parts of it laugh or fall quiet at the wrong scene in the movie. Does the game‘s sense of community start to fray when a player hesitates or makes a hasty decision during the „wrong“ part of the game?

But this isn‘t about community at the gaming table. I‘m far more interested in how games allow us to experience and teach empathy. As in, do they? And if so, how? To what extend does it require a group to play towards such an experience?

Unlike community, a board game does not require empathy to be played. You can‘t play a game without clearly drawing a line between players and non-players, or between what is and what isn‘t part of the game. Whereas it‘s easily possible to play a game while completely devoid of empathy. A game is not in itself enough to make you empathize with others.

This is where games differ from books or movies. Not every book or movie tries to relate some deeper understanding of others, or a sense of empathy for those different from ourselves. Most are perfectly content to entertain and provide a good time. Here compassion and emotional investment are used as narrative techniques to reach the story‘s goal. If I sympathize with Ethan Hunt, I will experience the movie‘s cathartic final act far more intensely. And I will leave the theater feeling well entertained, as opposed to watching the spectacle with a notable emotional distance towards the characters.

In board games the most common tool to create emotional investment is player competition. We care about the game‘s ending, because we want to beat our opponents. (It‘s quite interesting how some games turn those means into their purpose, and declare competition the purest form of play, cf. Diplomacy fans)

Ironically enough, even competition can be used to draw out empathy in players. The ability to see things from a different perspective can be a great boon to improving your strategy and recognizing tactically sound decisions. At least if it has to do with evaluating other players, as opposed to merely deducing the board state from the information provided by the game. Empathy isn‘t required, if all you need to do is correctly recognize the interplay between various mathematical functions on which the game is built. But if I need to understand how my opponent thinks, if I have to see things from their perspective and gauge just how big a risk they are willing to take, I will make use of the very same skills and emotional intelligence that is expressed through empathy.

Old school cheat code for The Mind

It‘s easier, and far more common, to use empathy in cooperative and semi-cooperative games. Those games often place their challenge in the area of acting and thinking empathetically. By severely limiting communication between players, you need to find new ways of understanding your team mates.

A game like The Mind asks you to pay attention to body language, facial expressions and microexpressions. Players need to use and practice those skills, which others games rarely take into account, if they do so at all.

But there are also games that go one step further. One hidden player in Insider has to subtly help the table guess the right word without them catching on. The rest of the group then has to ask themselves, if they really came up with their brilliant idea on their own. What made me want to ask that question in particular? Did the player who gave me the idea do it on purpose or by accident? In this game you are constantly pushed into different mental perspectives, and empathy seems a suitable tool to get it done.

This suggests that any experienced gamer will have empathy as a tactically useful tool in their arsenal. But this doesn‘t quite touch on empathy as a consequence of a game. You simply make use of it, to pursue some other goal.

If you‘re looking for empathy as the result of a successful game experience, there are two effective and reliable means to achieve that. In combination they allow players a deeper understanding and maybe even a sense of compassion for the Other. Those are immersion and perspective.

The term immersion isn‘t particularly clearly defined when it comes to board games, I think. It‘s often equated with flow.

Immersion for Dummies

I‘m not sure the two have that much in common, though. Flow would describe an intense engagement with a process, which is what a game is. When a player is confronted with a set of procedures that are sufficiently deep and complex to fully engage said player, you could arguably call that entering a flow state. But that does not necessitate immersion. Because immersion doesn‘t focus on the process of play but on the fiction in which the game is set.

This idea of sinking into the game‘s world as you play is often described as „feeling“ like you‘re doing the kind of things, that the game box talked about. When your in-game actions, the game‘s illustrations and the consequences of your decisions combine to create a coherent symbolic system, you‘ve paved the way for immersion to occur. With a little creativity and imagination, it really feels like you‘re building ships or ruling over an intergalactic empire.

The tangible game elements on the table are translated into their symbolic function. The wooden cube becomes a load of coal. The cardboard chit turns into a unit of soldiers. The card on the table becomes an as of yet uncolonized planet. As soon as that act of translation isn‘t done actively, but almost subconsciously, you‘ve entered immersion. It‘s usually made significantly easier by using in-game terminology, as opposed to uttering the prosaic „I will buy 2 yellow, 1 black and 4 red.“ This is especially difficult for people who play a lot of games, since game terminology often tends to range from the unintuitive to the interchangeable. This makes switching to the right set of terms cumbersome and distracting. Using plain but descriptive words comes easy. That is why games that introduce new rules by way of the implicit logic of the game‘s setting are considered „thematically rich“. It becomes easier to remind yourself of the right term by inference, as opposed to straight-up memorization.

But immersion is not the same as empathy. Immersion is extraordinarily helpful in illustrating, internalizing or even understanding the complex interplay of various factions or interests. Something that just recently has been again argued to be the case with wargames. But in order to evoke empathy by way of immersion, it takes a human (or at least anthropomorphized) face. By immersing ourselves in an unknown situation the complexity of it becomes apparent to us. But only if we manage to take on a new perspective within that situation, do we have an opportunity to feel empathy.

Even with particularly outstanding entries in the hobby, empathy is no involuntary reflex to what transpires in the game. Just like in any other medium, the audience needs to be receptive, i.e. willing to open itself up to such emotions. In part they also have to avoid the common pitfalls that games bring with them. Abstraction is one of the many ways in which the potential for empathy can be unmade. If the symbolic reading of the game‘s elements pushes players towards immersion, abstraction pulls them back out again.

The more abstract and reductive the game is perceived, the harder it is to experience immersion and by extension empathy. Competitive players in particular soon find themselves conflicted. It is far easier to look at the game pragmatically, and reduce all elements of the game to their functions as game-winning utilities. The human-shaped player token ceases to represent a person, and is instead a tool to gain victory points with.

Abstraction and compartmentalization are the counter to game-derived empathy. Something that Brenda Romero‘s Train illustrates well when people – even after being told what it is they do, have no qualms continuing to fulfill their given task to the best of their abilities. Despite immersion and identification, abstraction allows us to divorce the consequences of our actions from any empathetic reaction we may have to them.

Unearthing the cultural value of games then requires a two-pronged approach. On the one hand, the game needs to allow for an immersive experience. Appealing presentation, sufficient complexity and a coherent symbology must outline the game‘s setting to the group. Players must be given a perspective within that setting. Events need to exist in a context that is emotionally accessible, in order to evaluate them. The consequences of actions must rate as good or bad. Most of all, they must feel that way, too. Erasing an entire city off the map must feel like an impossible choice and not like adjusting stats.

In that same vein, the gaming group must be willing to experience the game emotionally. They must be willing to accept that the most rational and most effective decision isn‘t the only „right“ choice. Decision made for emotional reasons and in response to the events within the game must be just as much part of the game, as the strategically beneficial choice. And players must curb their impulse towards abstraction. At the very least, it must be understood that ever step towards abstraction effectively dulls the game.

The cultural value of a game doesn‘t become apparent by simply leaning back and letting it wash over you. Just like being fluent in a language doesn‘t necessarily mean that you understand literature. Even watching a lot of movies doesn‘t immediately result in an appreciation of cinematic storytelling. Why should games be any different? Why should knowing the rules, and having a knack for strategies, be enough to dive into everything gaming has to offer?

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