Simulation and Sympathy

So games are art, but what kind of art are they?

We all have ideas and emotions we wish we could share and a lot of tools for sharing them. Styled text like this is one option, but you could compose a song, direct a movie, paint a picture, or design a game.

Most of the time, we just use whatever tool we’re best at. When all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a game design.

But what ideas and emotions are each tool best suited for? I won’t pretend I know anything about music or film, but I will say that there’s one thing games are great at.

“Walk a mile in their shoes.” It’s a classic reminder that the people who disagree with you aren’t just idiots or monsters… and one my father had to repeat often as I was growing up.

It’s good advice, but a difficult thing to actually implement. We don’t get a lot of opportunities to make the choices facing other people.

You can probably see where this is going.

Faced with the same rewards and pressures, the same options will be optimal in both the game and in reality. So while we may not be an immigration officer or a feudal king, we can walk through some of the choices they faced.

Even if the decisions aren’t life and death, it pays to realize the people who plan our cities and serve our food aren’t incompetent or out to get us. Sometimes there’s no right answer and sometimes the best laid plans go awry.

Although a book or movie can explain why people made a decision, it is uniquely powerful to make that decision yourself. The process of choosing and justifying that choice creates a far deeper connection with that choice.

Sharing Goals
The cornerstone of this technique is to make sure that the player in the game and the character we’re walking with have the same goals.

Some games approach this by having very nebulous goals. That way, the player’s goals can be projected directly into the game and they can find out how they’d do.

But you can also define victory more narrowly as what the character wants and give players the freedom they need to grab it. With a reasonable initial goal, this can be incredibly powerful.

And all the rest
Not every game is trying to build sympathy, just like not every paining is trying to evoke wonder. The lunchbreak iPhone games and family portraits have their own sort of magic.

But if you’re trying to explain why people do what they do, a game can be just the right tool for the job.