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Are we seeing the rise of a new video game genre?

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In his book 9/11: The Culture of Commemoration (2006), literary theorist David Simpson, invoked the image of FPS-playing soldiers to denounce theories that said experience through cultural objects necessarily made their reader or viewer more open to empathy. These U.S. soldiers, Simpson says, could do what they did in the Gulf War (1990 – 1991) because their experience of similar scenarios in video games numbed them to the reality of their actions. This is a different argument from one that claims video games work to incite violence; What Simpson is saying is that video games make us used to experiences we would otherwise find morally troubling.

Written in 2006, Simpson’s work predates new studies that show exposure to violence may make gamers more, not less sensitive to violence. In any case, the discussion on games and whether or not they mold our minds (for good or bad) has mostly been concerned with violent franchises like Call of Duty, and other shooters. This might be because gamers and theorists alike are troubled to whatever degree over why we play, make, and enjoy them. It’s likely not my household alone where gratuitous violence in our favourite games have become the blood-soaked elephant in the room, listening on while we tip-toe around it, enthusiastically discussing issues of race and gender. One way to confront this discomfort is to meet its opposite which, roughly speaking, are the games currently forming a new genre. Called ‘empathy games’ by Telegraph, ‘interactive (non)fiction’ by Zoe Quinn,’ ‘performative empathy experience[s]’ by Akira Thompson, and ‘art game[s]’ by That Dragon, Cancer (2016) creators, Numinous Games.

This gentler genre puts empathy creation front and center, where historically it has existed only in second thoughts. Taking a closer look at this new category, let us turn to a recent release, That Dragon, Cancer (2016). The game came earlier this month on PC; Made by the crew at Numinous Games, it tracks the experiences of Amy and Ryan Green as parents of Joel, their five-year-old son who died in 2014 after a four-year battle with cancer. Their love, and loss are woven into the game’s mechanics in a way that devastates. Out of respect for the game’s mission and prospective players, I have kept the details of this skill intentionally vague, though there is much to praise even from this relative distance. The characters, Joel, Amy, and Ryan are for the most part without detailed facial features. When asked why this was so, Ryan Green responded saying:

"We knew that if we attempted faces, the lack of realism would probably distract the players from the game. By intentionally having no faces, we have discovered that players can actually relate to the game in a deeper way as they fill in the missing details with their own memories and experiences."

The incredibly emotive responses Numinous Games have received even from journalists are a testament to the game’s room for self-projection. Furthering this attempt at inclusion, an in-joke shared by the Green parents is offered to knowing players in the form of a comment on ‘hospital time’, expressed through drastic light changes over short periods in the game’s hospital scenes. Players spend an ample while in that place where ‘times were so often pushed back and processes were slow’, says Green, where days ‘begin to blend together’.


The game so acts as an invitation to explore one’s own history with the illness that kills 7.6 million people each year. At other times, it is distinctly ‘Joel’. Giving reason for the extensive use of animals characters throughout the game, Green explains that ‘Joel adored animals’ and that the addition of animal characters in-game went far to ‘express Joel’s immense joy within their presence…even in some of his lowest moments’. Though he adds that this narrative decision also ensures that the game would ‘share the way that specific kind of joy was able to transcend pain’.

These and other thoughts, recollections, and yearnings collate to form the ground-breaking That Dragon, Cancer (2016) – a momentous step in the evolution of games that require emotional experience to strongly influence design. This process produces results that have repercussions not only for the wider gaming industry, but also for collective human experience – pushing boundaries to allow players to be both within and away from their lives in a way books, films, and photographs can’t mimic.

Initial reviews, like those from The Guardian and Wired, are testament to the brilliance of this game as a pillar in the formation of a genre built around empathy and protected from the same criticisms that might be levied by Simpsonites elsewhere. Answering exactly what That Dragon, Cancer (2016) hoped to convey to those with or without direct or indirect experience with cancer, Green responds saying: We hope that That Dragon, Cancer displays the full complexity of loving someone with a terminal illness. It’s an experience full of hope and hopelessness; joy and bitterness; incredible love and deep loss, but it changed us for the better even though we don’t believe cancer is good, and pray to see that dragon slayed in our lifetime.

Are there any empathy games you have played that I might have left out? Have any of you made your own, or plan to? Comment in the section below. 

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