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In order to create empathy in players, writers need to get personal

In order to create empathy in players, writers need to get personal

March 19, 2018 | By Emma Kidwell

"I've spent this past year doing events with developers all over the country and one thing is becoming clear to me. We have a generation of new developers who want something deeper."

With those words, iThrive Games' senior creative director Heidi McDonald opened her talk at the Games Developer Conference this afternoon on the narrative burden writers carry when creating empathy.

McDonald uses Lucas Pope's Papers Please as an important example of empathy.

The game asks players to weigh the consequences of their own actions against how it will affect other characters, but the empathy these in-game choices evoked were completely accidental. 

In a conversation held over Twitter, Pope admitted that he didn't set out to create an empathy game. "The mechanics and setup came first," he wrote. So how can writers deliberately design narrative experiences to elicit empathy in players? 

Understanding the components of empathy is the first step. Appropriately dubbed the "narrative burden", it comes from the story writers craft and provides the emotional tugs needed for players to empathize.

This includes concepts like emotional regulation (like containing rage after playing Getting Over It), perspective taking, perspective engagement, and empathetic contagion. A lot of components go into making a game meaningful.

Writers do the heavy lifting, McDonald explained. "The world, the story, the dialogue, that's on us." And that's a crucial part in making players care. Give players co-authorship of the experience. 

When reflecting on how empathetic games accomplished getting players to care, McDonald notes that writers and designers who draw from experiences in their own lives tend to be more effective. 

"They were doing things that felt right to them. Tapping into your own feelings of memories or's as simple and difficult as looking into your own heart and reflecting back out what you see. It can be pain or joy. Use it. Other human beings are going to see themselves in that somehow, and it's going to resonate."

The job of a writer is to tap into human emotion and use that as a tool for getting players to care. McDonald stresses that it's actually the smaller decisions that players make in games that add up, and writers should utilize them more often. 

But most importantly, McDonald stressed, is looking into your own heart. 

"We create empathy for the player when we create empathy from ourselves. Use your joy, use your pain, use your sadness. That's what is relatable to other humans. Don't be afraid to reach deep. Be fearless. You will make them care." 


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