Making a Game Part 1b: Research


Also known as playing games (yup, yeah for doing a Masters degree in games!).

So it’s Research/Analysis– How to you solve the problem and deal with the task at hand. Ensure that you spent a chunk of time doing research into how to effectively deal with the task.

There are different resources available such as:

  • gaming knowledge and intuition of good gameplay vs bad gameplay
  • creative minds from other inspirations (like for like or cross-medium)
  • comparative analysis of other products (look at other products, and they don’t necessarily have to be games)
  • and of course, ensure that you have reference sources at all stages of development


So yes, onto researching stuff in order to answer my problems.

Before I go into comparative analysis, I came across this article, “From Project Syria to That Dragon, Cancer: the rise of empathy video games“.

According to the developer of “That Dragon, Cancer”, Ryan Green:

But why choose a video game to evoke empathy? What qualities did Ryan Green – Joel’s father and the lead developer on the game – believe this medium had over, say, a book or film?

“When someone talks about a video game,” Green tells me, “they use the pronoun ‘I’. It gives you a platform to create immersion and engagement – a new level of empathy. I’m not sure if everyone who has played That Dragon, Cancer claims to have grasped what we went through, but they are now able to relate to it in a very personal way.

“I started out with the mission of teaching,” continues Green, “but ended with the mission of just acknowledging that we’re all in this boat together. However, I think most of all, creating the game gave me purpose in the midst of our great loss of Joel.  Had I not been able to make telling his and our story my occupation, I’m pretty sure I would have shut down.”

While the developer of “Papa and Yo”, Vander Caballero, says:

“People use ’empathy games’ as a blanket term for many types of entertainment,” says Romero, “ranging from edutainment to games that feature characters and stories that don’t fit in the typical genre canon. Papo & Yo is not an educational game or a cautionary tale – we are not trying to teach. Instead, it tells an emotional story that we had never before seen explored in video games.”

And how does virtual reality come into play? Nonny de la Peña, an immersive journalist, who made “Project Syria” says:

“I want to tell important stories,” states de la Peña frankly. “And I want to do that in a way that brings them to life as much as possible and helps the audience find out about, or better understand, or feel more strongly about, a particular situation. Virtual reality has the unique ability to make you feel present on scene, and that in turn generates a very powerful feeling of empathy.”



Keith Stuart, writing about “That Dragon, Cancer” says:

I think this is the unique value of games as a medium – they offer agency to the audience and because of this there is the potential for weird, stupid stuff to happen. Video games, like grief, break us out of our sublimated modes of thinking and acting. Games give us stories, but the good ones always allow us to utterly subvert authorial intentions. They teach us about control and the loss of control. They are by their very nature anarchic.



Rich Stanton, also writing about “That Dragon, Cancer” says:

Indie developers have always used games to explore real-life topics from a personal perspective, whether that’s a life-changing event, or just settling in a new town.

That Dragon, Cancer shows how video games can create empathy, both through the simple method of allowing the player to experience unfamiliar situations – and by twisting what is real and not-real within them.


Developer Ryan Green, talking to Keith Stuart about “That Dragon, Cancer” in another article, says:

“That can be a freeform thing, something the player chooses to explore. For me, that’s one of the strengths of a video game universe over what a film can do: you have the choice of going in and out of people’s heads and discovering a story in your own way.”

Keith Stuart says:

People have asked: “Is it right to make a game about cancer?” But games are an expressive medium, just like books and films, and for a new digital generation, they are increasingly the way that life is processed and understood. Game-makers at major studios are growing older and thinking about new things, meaning that narratives are maturing.

Ryan Green’s sister says:

“There is something in this industry that’s pointing toward experiential games,” says Ryan’s sister Stephanie, who helped demo That Dragon, Cancer at the Rezzed festival in Birmingham last year. “Games can show us real-life experiences – raw, beautiful and moving experiences that take people in a different direction. For Ryan, it’s an artistic expression, too, that whole idea of games as art and what that means. I’ve been in that hospital room. I knew what it was like, but not from his perspective. That’s what’s interesting about the game: it gives you a glimpse of what it’s like to be him, the father. It’s not a game about escape, you can’t press a button to make it all disappear. It makes you confront the reality of it. This is a whole new movement for the industry. There will be more games like this.”



Beyond “That Dragon, Cancer”, I think I decided to find out more about “empathy games”.

Dan Solberg writes about empathy games:

A niche genre of videogames hopes to inspire players to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, leading to an important discussion about how players experience empathy.

But what happens when developers create games designed to evoke a specific emotional or psychological response?

Empathy games attempt to answer that question. These videogames aspire to enhance a player’s understanding of an outside perspective, particularly those pertaining to real-world struggles and inequalities, through interactive experiences.

Clinical psychologist and Intel research scientist Margaret Morris studies how technology can cultivate interpersonal connectedness. She described two types of empathetic responses: the first is physically feeling what someone else feels and the second is seeing from that other person’s perspective.

Many applaud empathy games for the stories they bring attention to, but the long-term impact of such brief mediated experiences in terms of changing player behavior still proves questionable.

While “Empathy Game” comes off as a biting critique of the categorical label it’s named after, it isn’t cynical about the power that games have to create meaningful or educational experiences. Rather, the piece questions the sometimes superficial rewards and self-applying merit badges players win for merely sympathizing with someone else’s struggle.

Adrian Chmielarz also writes:

But here’s the kicker: there are actually two types of empathy: cognitive and emotional.

Cognitive empathy is all about deliberately understanding another’s perspective or mental state, sometimes up to a point where we fully identify with such person. Understanding why a child cries is one example of cognitive empathy (“perspective taking”) and role-playing Dragonborn is another (“fantasy”).

Emotional empathy is all about being involuntarily affected by another’s emotional state. Feeling uncomfortable because a child cries is one example of such empathy (“personal distress” aka “reactive empathy”), and feeling sad and on the verge of tears when a child cries is another (“empathic concern” aka “parallel empathy”).

For example, it’s easier to induce emotional empathy when a game is in third person perspective. We can actually see the character we are supposed to empathize with, so we are more aware this is not “us” and thus our brain is a bit more inclined to increase the level of emotional empathy.

Vander Caballero of “Papa and Yo” says:

“In order for an art form to expand and be successful in society, it needs to be recognized, and then it has to have an economy around it to sustain it,” he tells us. “Without an economy, the idea cannot grow.”

That recognition would come under the label of “empathy games,” a term that Caballero suggested in a GDC 2014 talk. In empathy games, the main experience is driven by players’ desire to understand and relate to the emotions of other avatars or players, he says.

According to Caballero, games that would fall under this category include Journey and Papers, Please for example, as well as Minority’s Papo & Yo and its upcoming Silent Enemy, a game that tackles the issue of bullying. All of these games aim to help players develop the capacity to understand how someone else might feel in a certain situation.

Caballero argues that with a genre label, developers of such games can manage the expectations of players, including taste-making game reviewers whose yay or nay can drive or damage sales.

“We have to give these games a label,” he says. “Some people don’t like the label ’empathy games,’ but when someone is looking for an experience about empathy, and having a deeper, meaningful experiences that focus on emotions towards other people, then you’ll know what you’re getting, and you’ll be happy.”

For some developers, this is a backwards way to design a game – to start with a specific emotion you want to convey, then retro-engineer that emotion to arrive at game mechanics and systems. To Caballero, designing an empathy game isn’t about “finding the fun” game mechanic first.

“The first thing [when designing for empathy], is not starting with the game mechanics,” he says, “because when you start from the game mechanics, what happens is [the designer] gets the player hooked into those mechanics. And you just repeat those mechanics over and over and over. … The moment you start with mechanics, you’ll be pulled back [away from empathic goals of the design].”

“You have to start with, ‘I want to take someone on an emotional journey. What is that emotional journey?,'” he says. “Then the question is ‘what can I bring to someone’s life that’s going to be important and meaningful for them, a lesson that will help people in their life?'”

“When you start with that angle, you’ll get to a completely different place,” he says. To him, the designer on an empathy game will be thinking about where they want to take the players. “Then you figure out the mechanics for the journey – you starting forming your mechanics for the journey you are building,” says Caballero. “But you have to figure out the moral at the end, first.” For Papo & Yo, for example, the moral related to Caballero wanting to make peace with his father, and helping others make peace in regards to their past abusive relationships.

“Working backwards does not imply that gameplay will suffer,” he says. “Instead, it’s the opposite: It forces designers to push existing mechanics in unusual ways, and also invent new ones.”

Designing from this angle also has a commercial benefit, he argues; a game designed from an emotion will separate itself from the pack. “It is true that if you start with a traditional approach to mechanics, you have a better chance of ending up with a more polished game,” he concedes, “but your game will resemble a thousand others that are coming out every month,” he says. “In the end, it is the choice of the creator: Are you the type who wants to recreate what is out there, but better, or are you the creator who wants to bring games to new frontiers?”

“[Our games are] more about healing yourself. We all have pain in our lives – immense pain,” he says. “I don’t see a better way as an artist in helping other people cope with that pain.”

Mattie Brice, a game critic and developer, however says:

Game critic and developer Mattie Brice feels strongly against the label ‘Empathy Games’ although most of her work is cast in that category. “I believe it acts as a scapegoat for mainstream games to not have to worry about its own problems with human connection and shove it all into a tiny, underserved, under supported corner. I think all games are an exercise in empathy, so ‘empathy games’ is kind of redundant. Rather, most games don’t really give meaningful contexts for players to empathize with. I think we should be skeptical of how the term is being used, especially when we consider this sort of work has a more diverse representation of people than mainstream design.”



Again, this is another rabbit hole. So I will stop here for now.

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