Not all games that invoke empathy do so about something specific, political or even personal, but there has been an increase in the past couple of years in the ones that do. The games I’ve listed below range from light-hearted discussions of silly situations to solemn portrayals of our world’s darkest corners. Some are uplifting. Others beg compassion. Nearly all attempt to educate. What you choose to take away from each is ultimately up to you.
“You now have at least two generations of people who have grown up with games and feel so strongly about them that it is part of their DNA to want to express themselves in that form,” professor and game designer Tracy Fullerton told the Wall Street Journal. “The bandwidth [of videogame emotion] is usually tension and competition — a sense of aggression. That’s changing now.”
Developed by the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab, Elude was designed as part of an educational package for the friends and families of depressed individuals. The game contrasts different mood states in order to represent the seemingly hopeless condition of clinical depression and uses a mechanic based around renewing and maintaining passion in order to suggest methods of overcoming the illness.
Depression Quest is meant as a demonstration of depression for those not directly affected by it, as well as a way to let those suffering from the disorder know that they are not alone. It is a text-based game written and designed by Zoe Quinn, Patrick Lindsey and Isaac Schankler.
Another gamed designed by the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab, A Closed World uses RPG-like turn-based combat mechanics to emulate conversations about homophobia, acceptance and oppression. Rather than swords and spells, your character has logic, ethics and passion on his or her side and must maintain their composure in the face of crippling hate speech.
A one-shot game about unrequited love by Daniel Benmergui, I Wish I Were the Moon allows players to manipulate a scenario by taking snapshots of its different pieces and changing their position on the screen. It’s a simple and familiar situation for most of us, with everyone coping in their own way.
Conversations With My Mother is a short, text-based game about family and acceptance, specifically in the context of gender identity. Players manipulate words in a series of sentences, drastically changing the context and impact of the conversation with even the most minor tweaks, demonstrating the power of communication in the process of acceptance. The game echoes real conversations between designer Merritt Kopas and her mother, linking off to individual tweets addressing these exchanges.
Ladylike was made by Nina Freeman and Emmett Butler for Ludum Dare 27. It’s another game about having a conversation with your mother, putting you in the role of a young girl unbridled by stringent gender roles and stereotypes. This upsets your mom, who feels your love of pizza, video games, swearing and Redwall books are unbecoming for a young lady like yourself.
I wrote about David S. Gallant’s I Get This Call Every Day a while ago. It’s another brief, one-shot experience, this time about working at a call center. Over the course of one phone conversation, the game captures the painful monotony and frustration that can come with working a soulless desk job. Gallant was actually fired for making this game, a testament to the growing influence of even the smallest personal games… as well as the general public’s ignorance to the medium and a couple freedom of speech issues.
Anna Anthropy is a game designer perhaps known best for dys4ia, an autobiographical game about her early experiences with hormone replacement therapy. While dys4ia is both a great game and a great fit for this list, I chose to focus on a game she gets significantly less attention for. Triad is a simple sliding-block puzzle game about trying to fit three people on a bed made for two. A polyamorous lifestyle can seem foreign to some, who may harbor a list of pre-judgments without fully understanding it. Perhaps Triad wasn’t designed to educate those people, but it certainly does a good job presenting one aspect of a non-conventional lifestyle as a quirky, yet routine part of life for some. I’ve written more about it here.
Auti-Sim is a game designed to simulate for neurotypicals what a hypersensitivity overload might feel like for those on the Autism spectrum. It’s a haunting, abrasive game that puts you on a playground occupied by other children. Attempting to venture too far into the crowd and interact with your peers results in deafening static, volume-shifting effects and overwhelming visual impairments, forcing you to reel back and seclude yourself in a quiet area. It forces those unfamiliar with the disorder to rethink their understanding of the various behaviors associated with it. I’ve written more about Auti-Sim here.
Designed in RPG Maker, Mainichi is a game about navigating the world as someone the world views as different. It was an experiment by Mattie Brice in representing her own personal experiences within a game’s system. In the beginning, you’re tasked with choosing your presentation for the day (well-groomed, well-dressed or casual), and then suffering the unique consequences of each choice, no matter what the choice was. Either face discrimination or seclude yourself by avoiding all human contact.
This game was quite controversial on our site a few months ago after an article by Colin resulted in an eruption of angry comments. Whatever your unique take on it may be, Female Experience Simulator is a text-based game intended to call awareness to street harassment, as directed towards women. In the game, you’re given a choice in outfit and a place to go. No matter the combination, your scenario ends in casual harassment, something nearly all women claim to have experienced. While the game obviously narrows this issue down into a concentrated series of scenarios, the point is not to make a claim about who harassers are and why they do it, but the frustrating experience of not being able to control when it occurs.
12. Hey Baby
Hey Baby is also about street harassment, albeit portrayed more tongue-in-cheek and with more of a focus on the feelings of frustration that come with it than the politics that cause it. Basically, you play a chick with a big gun exploring a 3D city space and being constantly followed and hit on by various men. At first, there are just a few. By the end, there are hordes. You can shoot them if you want, which is a violent, but insistently playful attempt by designer Suyin Looui to cope with the fear and frustration that many women feel navigating certain spaces by themselves. If you don’t, though, it becomes an entirely new game – one where danger and discomfort lurk overwhelmingly at every corner.
Lim is another game by Merritt Kopas, this time about violence and discrimination. It’s an abstract game where you control a colored block traversing a series of long, linear corridors. Your block is constantly shifting colors, representing a multitude of beings. You can move freely this way, until you come in contact with other blocks of a specific color. If you don’t make an attempt to blend with them while in their midst, the result is unpleasant. But so too is the attempt to blend, the camera moving in discomfortingly close, your pace slowing. You can face the difficulty of representing something you’re not or face the consequences of asserting your own identity in the face of bigotry.
Spent is a browser-based game about poverty and the constant possibility of homelessness that haunts millions of people every day. It asks players to survive a month with just $1000 to start with, a child to care for, grocery and medical expenses to deal with and constant changes in housing and employment conditions. The goal is to have at least some money left over at the end of the month, a near impossible feat meant to demonstrate the way poverty, for many, is a hole that can only dig itself deeper.
15. Cart Life
Cart Life is also a game about poverty, but it goes much deeper than that. Depending on the character you choose to play, you must learn to manage your own personal needs, the needs of your loved ones and the needs of your business to maintain a balanced, healthy life. The road there is difficult, full of costly demands and circumstances that will put a strain on your routine, if you can manage to find one that works. As depressing a game as it may be, there’s a faint glimmer of hope that seems to underline it. Or maybe that’s just my being optimistic.
That Dragon, Cancer is a deeply personal game about its designer, Ryan Green, and his four-year-old son’s battle with cancer. It’s a game that is as painful as it is hopeful and as much about life as it is about standing in the face of death. It’s not just the story of Green or his son Joel, but their entire family and the journey they’re taking together. Chris wrote more extensively on the game here.
17. Papo & Yo
Papo & Yo is a fantasy game rooted in some very real and personal issues. It’s a puzzle game and an adventure game about a young boy named Quico, his friend, Monster, and the sad nature of their relationship. While Monster can be playful and friendly, he has an addiction to poisonous frogs that, when fed, changes him into a raging and violent beast Quico must flee from. Papo & Yo translates into “Father and I” and is a surreal, semi-autobiographical story based on its designer’s past relationship with his alcoholic father.
18. Actual Sunlight
Actual Sunlight is a short, interactive tale about depression, loneliness and corporate work life. The game is linear, meant to tell you a specific story, rather than give you the choice to avoid it. Chris has written about Actual Sunlight here and interviewed its designer, Will O’Neill, here.
19. The Path
The Path may seem like a strange addition to this list, given it’s usually presented as a horror game. While it’s certainly horrifying at parts, The Path does an amazing job illustrating the various stages of womanhood and the unique complications that come with each. From vulnerability to insecurity to the exploring of sexuality, to acceptance of the self and beyond, each stage of life represented by the various characters comes with its own trials, tribulations and threats. It may be an unconventional telling, but its themes are more real than it seems.
Am I allowed to keep putting bonuses on these lists? The Magi and the Sleeping Star is a game currently seeking funding on Kickstarter. It’s a self-described “diabetes self-management video game” presented as an epic 3D RPG where you must conquer the evil trying to enslave your world while simultaneously “master[ing] your blood sugar.” Learn more about it here!
This is by no means a definitive list. There are a lot of great ones I left out, because I had to cut it short at some point. If you have a favorite game I didn’t include or have played a game that gave you a better understanding of an unfamiliar issue, or have an important topic you wish more games would cover, let me know in the comments!