When Transparency Obscures Empathy

The discussion in last class about female sexualization and exclusion in games ended in the interesting question of whether or not transparency is a useful value. In answering this, I want to talk about how different protagonists and, to a lesser degree, other characters, are perceived in games. Based on distinctions of race and gender, some video game characters are allowed to be perceived as “transparent.” Transparent here means that a player is allowed to inhabit a character without thinking about it.

MP said that not all categories of people get to function transparently. In other words, different races and genders are perceived differently by players. In a game, white is understood as transparent, not representing anything. Black characters are not transparent—in a lot of media, they only exist when they have to represent their entire group. Men are the transparent category for video game protagonists because “only men play games.”

Game studios will often say that creating a woman or POC main character would be too “risky” so instead they stick to tropes that have been done to death.

“The grizzled space marine character so captivated the imagination of first-person shooter fans that they decided to have him star in every single FPS game since.”

Based on class discussions, it seems that transparency is a value that many gamers hold in high esteem. Personally, I have really enjoyed games where I get to play as a female protagonist, because I feel as they are more transparent, for me. However, I think when we value transparency above all else we can lose out on a lot of really important experiences.

Redshift and Portalmetal, by Micha Cárdenas, is a game that many people felt was not immersive, in part because of the protagonist. I am not a transgender woman, so playing as one is obviously not a transparent experience. However, the experience of playing as someone who faces a lot of pushback about the body they inhabit made me think more about their life experience. Instead of transparently not thinking about myself or the character I was inhabiting, RS and PM put me in a situation where I had to constantly think about the differences between myself and my character—for example, the moment where you have to remember to pack your hormones.

In this way, titles like Redshift and Portalmetal can provide a transparent experience for gamers that don’t usually have one– in this case, transgender people, most particularly trans women. Importantly, RS and PM and games like it, that take many gamers out of their “transparent” experiences, also provide empathetic experiences. Most players are forced to inhabit a character unlike their own self, and in doing so learn more about the way that the world interacts with a person like that. Experiences like this can be transformative for everyone, and should not be avoided because of a lack of “immersion,” whatever that entails.

Art is often meant to be the bridge between sympathy and empathy. Although most people feel sad or upset when they hear about the oppression that transgender people face, they don’t have any sense of what it could be like. RS and PM, by making us inhabit a body that people look upon with confusion, that needs to be taken care of with hormones, that has been gained through conscious thought and not just birth—awakens our empathy. The value of easy transparency is superseded by the awareness and effort it takes to empathize with someone.

There is room for both transparency and empathy in terms of gaming ideals, but empathy is far too often overshadowed in favor of an “immersive experience”—which, a lot of the time, means that the player just isn’t being asked to think about the social identities they inhabit. I believe that both values have their place and that we should think more critically about games that feel “non-immersive.”

0 thoughts on “When Transparency Obscures Empathy

  1. I agree with you 100% and believe that this is a huge driver for the need of more diverse protagonists/main characters in video games. I also believe that to get more characters from underrepresented backgrounds, the industry needs more writers and developers from those backgrounds.

    1. I definitely agree with that. I think that even when white male writers have the best of intentions, they can make unintentionally offensive, stereotypical characters. I do think that the industry has a reputation of favoring those developers and keeping out others, though. How do you think we could make this better? I really have no idea…

      1. I think the video game industry could learn a lot from the recent push to get more minorities into tech. Many institutions are actively trying to break down the stereotype of the white, male, nerdy computer programmer. Meanwhile, programs like Girls Who Code and All Star Code, that give minorities the opportunity to learn to code in safe environments, are sprouting up. Some large companies have started massive campaigns to bring in new, diverse talent as well, like Google’s Made With Code initiative. Basically, I think there needs to be pressure both from inside and outside the gaming community to clean up the toxicity, get rid of the stereotypes, and expose the industry to as many different people as possible.

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