The Upshot: The Best GDC Talk Was About Empathy


By Harold Goldberg

It’s a busy, occasionally frantic time. But I did have direction. My goal at the Game Developers Conference was to spread the word about the New York Videogame Critics Circle’s non-profit work with students and older adults. Along those lines, I eschewed most (not all) of the game demos this year to check out the many education talks and some of the narrative talks.

I felt the most spirited, informative talk I attended was a speech about Empathy in games.  Heidi McDonald was iThrive topic was Making Them Care: The Narrative Burden for Creating Empathy. It was simply inspired and inspiring.  McDonald, the company’s senior creative director, almost has the purity of an honest actor when she speaks, which means she knows how to combine information with humor and elucidation. She was smart, enthusiastic and energetic in ways that most game folks are not. iThrive is a nonprofit that itself helps to empower teens through games. But this talk wasn’t simply about games for kids. It was about thoughtful narrative in general and could be applied, I thought, to any kind of writing.

McDonald even offered everyone a handout rife with Venn diagrams and infographics which is a design guide “for games that integrate empathy, developed by a team of development experts, and based on the latest findings in neuroscience and social psychology.” The guide works for students and seasoned developers alike, people who want to add the right recipe of emotional resonance to a game that goes deeper into narrative than, say, Color Switch (which is great but has no story).

She presented the theories in her speech not as gospel (unlike some of the others I heard talk), but as something to think about when making games. McDonald detailed the difference between sympathy (like saying “I’m really sorry to hear that. Let me know if you need anything”) and empathy (like saying “I’ve been through the same thing or something very similar, so I feel your pain”).

I think her best infographic was “The Pyramid of Feels,” which went from apathy at the pyramid’s base up through pity to sympathy and to empathy. Atop the pyramid was compassion (empathy put into action).

Recently for The Washington Post, I wrote about how nuanced narrative in games is one of the last frontiers for game maker. It’s so often done badly or it’s rushed due to time constraints. Or it’s handed off to someone who’s not ready to fully conceive a character (like, perhaps, the people who write the dialog for a non-playable character giving a quest in the middle of game).

No speaker can tell a person how to write in one session. But what McDonald did was offer a buffet of food for thought. Those who attended the talk came away richer for the experience. And they got that awesome, fact-filled handout, too.

Journalist/author Harold Goldberg is the founder of the New York Videogame Critics Circle and the New York Game Awards. 



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