Three Ways to Virtually Role-Play Through Others’ Eyes

Screen shot 2013-09-11 at 5.17.40 PMPretty much every new form of media provokes fears that this one will be the end of us. The rise of social media, the prevalence of smart phones, tablets that keep us connected no matter where we are and the Internet itself have all created speculation that we are losing our humanity—that digital connectivity is disconnecting us from one another.

Just as the novel did not erode our moral faculties, technological media will probably not end human intimacy. Virtual realities may, in fact, be a way to better develop an essential human capacity: empathy. Walking in another person’s shoes, particularly a person whose sex, race and economics are different than yours, is an imaginative act that requires practice, and recent developments in virtual role-playing are providing great ways to practice it.

1.Choice: Texas, a Very Serious Game,” an interactive fiction game being developed by Allyson Whipple and Carly Kocurek, will allow users to play as one of five characters from different circumstances, all of whom are trying to get an abortion in Texas. The game will take the argument against Texas’ new TRAP laws from the rhetorical to the specific. Each character faces different obstacles, from money to time to transportation. How they meet those challenges is influenced by the character’s socioeconomic, demographic and geographic circumstances.

Whipple says that developing empathy is a major goal of the game:

I would hope that this game would put a more concrete, human face on the issue, that players would not see these women as evil or shameful, but understand the difficult (often impossible) situations they’re in, and the difficulties they faced in making and achieving their choice.

2. Though game jams (as in jam sessions) are usually live events at which developers brainstorm game ideas, a new online game jam is promoting awareness of boobs in video games. “Boob Jam” was launched by exasperated game critic Jenn Frank in response to the inclusion of a feature in “Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII” that allows users to customize the amount of boob jiggle.

In games submitted to Boob Jam, however, breasts must be treated as anything other than sexual playthings. Submissions so far include “The Curse,” by Lizzie Stark, a live-action role-playing game in which players deal with having the BRCA mutation—a genetic marker for breast and ovarian cancers; “**(o)(o)**,” by Anna Anthropy, which allows users to explore the side effects on boobs of hormone replacement therapy; and “Return to Eden,” by Juan Rubio, which requires players to alternatively inhabit male and female bodies while accomplishing an equal amount of work. The jam continues through September 30.

3. Even in conventional gaming, a movement is afoot to add more playable women characters. The military first-person shooter “Call of Duty” has added the ability to play as a woman to their latest installment, “Call of Duty: Ghosts.” Though this option has been available in single-player games for awhile, this is the first playable woman in a multi-player game. In the new game, players can also customize their appearances in more than 20,000 different ways, but users aren’t allowed to experience the full range of physical differences between men and women. In order to keep being a woman from being an advantagea smaller character would be harder to shoot—male and female characters are the same size.

The goal of “Call of Duty” is hardly to develop empathy, but having consequences to playing as a man or a woman could become part of game strategy. Just as players choose their weapons based on their pluses and minuses, players could choose to be a woman (and therefore smaller) in order to be harder to shoot. The minus would be that they’re not as fast. Alternatively, players could choose to be men in order to have longer legs and more upper-body strength—but they’d also have to deal with being a bigger target and not as stealthy.

Independent projects such as “Choice: Texas” and the games on “Boob Jam” allow users to see the world through someone else’s eyes, if only virtually. I’d love to see a game that allowed white women to navigate a day as a woman of color—to conduct social transactions in all manner of situations and experience inappropriate touching, remarks and everyday racism—or a game in which a male player could spend a day as a woman and be the subject of sexist jokes, getting hit on and having to figure out how to get home from a bar safely at night.

Technology isn’t what separates us; our inability to empathize does. But being connected as human beings doesn’t mean imagining that we are all the same. It means understanding that, in many ways, we are all different.

 Screenshot taken from Call of Duty




Holly L. Derr is the Head of Graduate Directing at the University of Memphis and a feminist media critic who uses the analytical tools of theater to reflect upon broader issues of culture, race and gender. Follow her @hld6oddblend.