Empathy in Game Design

Empathy is crucial for designing great games and in March I had the opportunity to attend Empathy School. Although a program designed help educators and instructional coaches in difficult conversations, the lessons taught are also highly applicable to business, design and personal life.

What Empathy Has to Do With Game Design

When designing games with a purpose, empathy is necessary to be able to create experiences that lead players to Aha! moments. Those Aha! moments are going to be what shapes the player’s mindset and impacts their thought processes outside of the game.

1. Empathy is about connection.

Empathy is the capacity to understand and communicate your understanding to others. There are four components of empathy:

  1. Taking others’ perspectives
  2. Recognizing emotion in others
  3. Staying out of judgement
  4. Communicating understanding of others.

2. The main action involved in empathy is mirroring.

This starts with listening carefully and attentively and establishes a rapport with others. Important parts of mirroring are making eye contact and repeating what the person is stating and feeling so that they know you understand them.

3. Avoid empathy blockers.

There are a few actions to avoid if you want to make the person you are speaking with feel heard.

They are:

  1. Silver-lining it- Looking for the “good” in a tough situation. There may be a time and place for this, but that time and place is not when someone is first confiding in you.
  2. Being a fixer upper- Jumping right into problem solving before listening to the other party and making sure they feel heard.
  3. Interrogating- Asking many questions of the other person before mirroring what they are stating and feeling.
  4. Stealing the thunder- Changing the topic of conversation to your own feelings or a similar situation in your own life.
  5. Sympathizing- Telling the other party you “feel sorry for them”. This can actually be a block to forming the bond necessary to work past conflict. Sympathy is different than empathy. Empathy is what’s required for strong relationship building.

Empathy in Game Design

As a game designer, it is crucial that you take into account feedback from your playtesters. They are much more likely to give you feedback if they feel like you are listening to them. That means not offering explanations when they point out something that’s not working and avoiding the empathy blockers listed above.

Quick anecdote: this whole process needs to be done authentically both for reasons of operating with integrity and because authenticity is crucial to successful outcomes. I am not advocating for manipulation or trying to make the other party think you are listening to them just so you can achieve your own pre-determined goal. That’s not going to work. However, if your intention is to truly connect and try to understand the person/people you are speaking with and designing for, these tools will help you.

When designing games, especially games with a purpose as we do here at MonstRpreneur, these empathy skills are crucial to creating games that truly serve the players both in and out of the game experience. So whether it’s the next time you are designing a product or are in a tough conversation, try employing these actions.