What’s that? Traumatic or Trivial?

The developer of the MISSING game, Satyajit Chakraborty of Flying Robot Studios, was “shocked” when he first understood how harrowing the game could be. “I was aware that this game would make people uncomfortable. Despite having made the game, to play it is a harrowing experience for me as well. That is the theme though. This game shouldn’t make you happy or energetic, it should make you [think].”

Chakraborty talks about how powerful a game like this could be, emphasizing how the utility of games could really expand. “This is also a kind of entertainment. Tragedy. It’s powerful. The most acclaimed films are tragedies. Games don’t go that way. MISSING is a similar experience; it’s not comfortable at all. It wasn’t meant to be a comedy.”

Thinking out of box

Chakraborty’s notion of what a game can be is interesting because it goes against what the word “game” typically connotes. Ordinarily, it is associated with playfulness, frivolousness, something light, something distracting, something that sometimes allows for deep introspection, but, ultimately, exists in the world of fantasy. Reality is traditionally seen as something that exists outside the game.

People usually play games for the escapism they offer. Now, what happens when the game is set in a reality that’s, perhaps, distressingly more real than their own reality? With empathy gaming, then, does the blurring of reality and gaming translate into real, actionable change? Moreover, is ensuring that change part of the game mechanics?

Mankeekar, who has also worked on disaster management game Snakes and Ladders, says yes. The game, he says, trains your brain to store vital information, which, when push comes to shove in real life, can be immediately actioned. “Your brain needs options. If something like [a disaster or a shooting] happens in your life, and there’s already an option in your brain embedded in your memory [as learned through the game], then you react fast.”

Snakes and Ladders is the good old game with a twist in the gameplay. Each time you land at a snake’s mouth or at the base of a ladder, you’re given a chance to avoid disaster by answering a question about disaster management and what you can do to help. Whether that’s universally applicable across empathy games, however, is something that remains to be seen. If Mankeekar is right, any trauma experienced during the game is also at risk of being stored in one’s brain.

Impact on the individual

Kala Balasubramanian, a psychotherapist and the founder of Inner Dawn counseling services in Bengaluru, says it could very well stay with you for life. “The impact on an individual depends upon the quality of the game—even a 15-minute play of a very violent game can have a strong impact—and the age of the individual, especially a child. And when the child gets used to such violent games, they may develop aggressive tendencies and insensitivity. The problem is that the impact could stay with them even as they grow into adulthood. Environmental factors can make the child susceptible.”

Balasubramanian, however, notes that these empathy games—as a faction of “prosocial games” or relatively less violent games—may not always be so immersive. “Yes, to an extent it does affect the individual psychologically,” she says. But a lot of these games don’t have levels like regular games do, like That Dragon, Cancer—a 2016 video game created by the grieving parents of a child who died of cancer that allows users to experience the situation through the parents’ eyes. The endeavor to sustain the player’s interest in the game could dilute the message, she adds.

Beyond the scope

Beyond the scope of appropriation, these games also make the gamer vulnerable to psychological triggers. Balasubramanian chalks it down to two distinct concerns. One, you end up experiencing [something traumatic as the character]. When you have any past trauma, even if it is remotely related to that, it can bring those traumas to the fore and give you flashbacks.

Two, she asks, are we sensitizing the trauma or trivializing it as a game? Trivialising can make you insensitive to the problem. Which, given the genre of empathy, would not just be a futile attempt, but quite possibly, completely detrimental to the very endeavor of social change. “Responsible and ethical design and presentation are critical,” she says.