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Opinion: We have an empathy problem

"We are in the midst of the most important and influential movement in video games in a decade, if not ever [...] and almost everyone involved in the conversation is looking for ways to ignore everyone else." Adam Saltsman

A kind of debate-rant-fueled movement among game makers and critics has unfolded over the last few weeks, and will continue to do so, hopefully for the foreseeable future. At the heart of this movement, as far as I can tell, is a passion for video games. It is about a powerful need to make games that are more inclusive. This means not only making games that are about more than just swords and guns, mitigating the overwhelming male gaze and exploring the form and content, but also getting people who wouldn't normally express themselves through games to do just that. What better place to get new experiences than from new people? This discussion has been inspiring, enlightening and frustrating in equal measures.

I've spent the last couple years dealing with some big life changes, and trying to figure out how making video games squares with my new life. Being on the sidelines of a movement that is all about inclusivity in games, finding new audiences and new experiences, this is all enormously reassuring for me. When someone I've never met writes, "This is the first video game I've played and enjoyed since Tetris," about a game I helped make, I get pretty emotional.

At the heart of this movement, as far as I can tell, is a passion for video games

The last few years, and especially the last few months, have brought with them an endless string of eye-opening and awareness-raising incidents, some happy, some sad, that are helping me improve my understanding of my life and the lives of the people around me. We are, and I mean this in the best way, growing up a bit. We have a lot of growing up to do still, too, but when I look back on ideas and attitudes that went unquestioned just a couple of years ago, I can see concrete progress.

But I feel frustrated, too. I've felt frustrated for weeks, actually, and I've been struggling to figure out how to explain what I'm feeling. My frustration, as far as I am capable of understanding it, stems from the role of dismissal in this ongoing conversation about the future of games. I see a lot of dismissal happening on both "sides" of this conversation, some of it implicit, some of it explicit, and all of it harmful.

The last few years have been eye-opening

Robert Yang wrote yesterday that when we're talking about the games from this new movement, games like Cart Life, Howling Dogs or Depression Quest, or even Train and Proteus, bringing up the question of "but are these games?" is actually a form of dismissal. It is a harmful categorization that tries, whether we like it or not, to create a separate set of standards by which to judge these games. It's a way of stopping a conversation before it has even started, and that is the last thing we need.

The other extreme, though, is the idea that any attempt to categorize or understand games from this movement is a political action against not just the games but the games' creators. That is, if you were to examine the structure of these games, not just the narrative presented by the game, that could be construed as an act of oppression against the artist. This is maybe a more explicit form of dismissal, but otherwise functionally the same.

In a way, this act of dismissal could be construed as furthering the conversation, for how many questions it raises: Is it more harmful to analyze a work than it is to dismiss its critics? Is creating a public work an act of submission to critical analysis? When we make things, do they transfer out of our ownership? Where do we draw the line between creator and creation? We can (and will, I hope) pursue these threads, but at the root of all this is an attempt to cut off a branch of discussion.

When we make things, do they transfer out of our ownership?

We are in the midst of the most important and influential movement in video games in a decade, if not ever — a movement that is vital to the ongoing cultural relevancy and maturation of our medium — and almost everyone involved in the conversation is, intentionally or otherwise, looking for ways to ignore everyone else. We can do better than this, and we have to, in order to make progress.

This is our real empathy problem in video games. Instead of figuring out some reason why this person we disagree with shouldn't even be at the table, we should be trying to figure out why they so badly want to be part of this discussion. We will always, always, always learn more from people with whom we disagree than from our own personal echo chamber, as safe and comfortable as that place may be.

We have a real empathy problem

This is all easier said than done, of course. In practical terms, this might mean worrying less about how to define a game, or whether games are art, or what indie means. It might mean being receptive to analysis of personal works made public, even (especially?) if we disagree with them. It means striving for this kind of perfect zen balance of deep, passionate belief in your own ideas, while cultivating a very real respect for people who don't share those beliefs. It means growing up a little bit.

To be perfectly clear, I don't want to see consensus building, prescriptive diatribes or agreement on The Right Way Forward, whatever that is. I want to see 500 (or 50,000) game makers, all with different ideas about how to make something interesting and new for a new audience, arguing about how to make great art, with vigor and passion, and complete respect for everyone's right to be part of that discussion. I want to see the great works they make to back up their rhetoric. Because the thing we have in common, this need to make more games better for everyone, binds us together with far greater force than the things that we think divide us.

Adam Saltsman is an indie game developer in Austin, Texas. His previous games include Canabalt, Capsule and Hundreds. For more information on his work, visit his website.