Empathy Through Game Design

Empathy Through Game Design
January 23, 2020

Empathy Through Game Design

By Dylan D, November 29th 2020

I have always loved video games. I loved the idea of getting to be transported to virtual worlds that were often so different than the ones that I was in. Often when I was a kid or a high schooler, I was derided by people older than me, they'd say "it's just escapism". My dad would make jokes that at least I'd have strong thumbs.

Now that I'm an adult - I don't regret the time I spent playing video games as a kid at all. Nothing - with the exception of maybe books - allowed me, a very antisocial kid, to engage with stories and situations and characters like a video game. Not only that, but video games honestly would teach me things, or at the very least they'd lay the groundwork for my ability to understand. I'd learn about supply and demand from city building games, and different historical periods from the strategy games I loved so much.

But one thing I feel like I got from games that goes overlooked is empathy (or more empathy, I feel like I was already pretty sensitive).


Back in the day, I feel as though you'd be hard pressed to find someone who thought that video games were 'art' (frankly I feel like it might even be a bit tough today). But I want to go a step further and say that I believe the reason that video games have the power to teach, and to teach difficult concepts like empathy is that they are what's known as a 'gesamtkunstwerk' which, from German, means 'total work of art'.

When the term was coined by K. F. E. Trahndorff, a philosopher, and later (unfortunately) by Wagner (who was a massively racist antisemite) it was used to describe the opera. Opera, with it's sumptuous costumery, props, swelling music and elaborate stories was seen as the culmination of every art form there was. Even the architecture of an Opera house is made to serve the purpose of facilitating better opera.

Then, with the advent of movies, a new gesamtkunstwerk was born. You probably see where I'm going with this.

Opera. The OG Gesamtkunstwerk
Opera. The OG Gesamtkunstwerk

Games games take in art, design, writing, (virtual) architecture, and music just like opera and movies did. But they add in another layer that makes them so important. Interactivity. You are able to engage, interact with, and oftentimes become a part of a games story and narrative in a way you are able to do with no other media, and they're only getting better and more complex. This is what makes them such effective tools for empathy. It's one thing to read about homelessness, it's another to literally play as a homeless character trying to make it through a winter on the streets.

Some Examples

I want to share two games, the designs of which I found to portray this idea of how impactful all the elements a games design and artistry can bring to bear can be.

1. Change.

Change: A Homeless Survival Experience
Change: A Homeless Survival Experience

Change is a game that I played a few years ago and still think about to this day. It is, on the surface, mechanically, a deceptively simple game.

It's a side-scroller ( a game where the players character can only move left or right and the levels move in the background) survival game.

But where most side-scrollers are fast paced, colorful affairs full of gathering coins or stomping on goombas, Change is quite the opposite. Your character is slow, ponderous and tired. Instead of collecting coins you need to pick up scrap to sell at a recycling center for next to nothing just to eat.


In order to earn any money at all you must beg for change and you can go entire days in the game without any of the faceless NPC (non player characters) in the game even batting a virtual eyelash in your direction.

The art in the game is a simple, utilitarian pixel art that manages to capture the bleak position you are in. However, there are times of light, where the sun shines - you may be homeless but you're still human.

The music is somber, often quite and you just hear the sounds of the street and people wordlessly shuffling by.

The mechanics of the game reinforce the message that there needs to be a change when it comes to the way society views its least fortunate. You, the player try desperately to survive and often fail to do so. You'd have to be relatively cold hearted to not at least try and think differently about the homeless after this.

2. That Dragon, Cancer.


Full stop, if you're interested in crying whilst playing a game - play That Dragon, Cancer. You play the father of a 12 month old baby who has to deal with the fact that his child has been diagnosed with cancer.

So yea.


The game mixes the overly clinical, hospital setting with a fathers escapist fantasies and deep family moments. It genuinely - through use of it's game design makes you live as someone going through the hardest time in their life. For example sometimes the player is just along for the ride to symbolize the lack of control you feel at undergoing trauma) and other times you must make choices or interact with the game in some ways.

Everything showcases the swell of emotions one might feel (and did feel, the developer lived through what the game is about), and makes the player feel it too. That's the core of empathy, and while a book can certainly make you feel - it doesn't compare to something like this.