Today was the first day of the Power-Up Digital Games Conference (PDGC) II: The Devs Strike Back, a free Discord-based event aimed at educating and inspiring new developers, indie developers, aspiring game testers, and other members of the video games industry. The schedule of speakers (including PDGC’s first panels!) can be found here, along with some of the discussion topics in the wee hours of the night.

Among the highlights of first day was a talk by Heidi McDonald, formerly of Schell Games, now Creative Director of iThrive, on “Making Players Care: Designing for Empathy and Positive Psychology.” 

Empathy, not to be confused with sympathy, is feeling what someone else feels, imagining their perspective, and wanting to help them, and is something we develop during our teen years, given that in those years, we waffle between the stages of psychological development called “Identity vs Role Confusion” and “Intimacy vs Isolation.”

According to Ms. McDonald, meaningful experiences during one’s teen years can help young people develop empathy – or to help teach them better self care, given that some naturally develop an excess of empathy and need to learn how to develop a bit of emotional distance.

iThrive, an initiative of the Centerstone Research Institute (CRI) and the D.N. Batten Foundation, believes that games can help provide these experiences, with its founder, Dorothy Batten, coming with the idea for the organization after a terrible accident that left her bedridden for 18 months, during which time she decided to pursue her masters degree online – and saw her children spending hours on games.

Seeing that, she had an epiphany: that perhaps games could be used not just to entertain but to empower, not just to distract, but to help teens thrive.

Hence the name “iThrive” (which you can read more about on the CRI Blog).

Going back to the talk though, empathy isn’t necessarily easy to work into a game. To create empathy, after all, you have to make people care about a fiction character, someone or something that doesn’t really exist – which generally means you need a good writer – or team of writers – and designers, and to understand what drives empathy. Loss in particular is a nearly universal human experience, and having a character lose something – or be lost – can be a powerful way to get people to empathize.

Just note how Aeris’ death in Final Fantasy VII shocked the fandom when players first encountered it, after all!

But, as Heidi explained, when talking about how playing Bioware’s Knights of the Old Republic made her want to be a game writer in the first place, choice can be a powerful tool as well, as well-crafted choices, which make the player feel responsible for the impact their decisions make on the world, can also be a way to drive empathy.

iThrive itself runs a number of projects, from Design Hives – think tanks with game developers and scholars, collaborations with award winning game studios, programs with teens, and game jams to produce prototypes of games with the potential to “bake in” opportunities for thriving.

They recently had a Game Jam at MAGFest 2017, and will be having another in Chicago for April Fools Day (which we at AFKer will highlight, once we have the details).

For further information about games and empathy, the GDC Vault talks on Ellie from The Last of Us and Elizabeth from Bioshock: Infinite address some of these aspects quite well, and this talk on Empathetic Games provides some useful background on that.

The other highlights came from the “Restoring the Classics – Turok, System Shock, Fallout, and Rise of the Triad” panel with Stephen Kick, Jason Fader, & Dave Oshry, where the panelists reminisced about voice actors having to scream like they were on fire during the development of Fallout: New Vegas, as well as commented on how making games moddable means they’ll last longer, and give rise to new things.

“Literally every game in the last ten year came from a Warcraft 3 mod,” Dave commented at one point during the panel – a bit of an exaggeration, though it is true that without a level editor and the Warcraft modding community, there would be no DOTA – and thus no League of Legends, or DotA 2, or any other MOBA, and many of us would have gotten quite a bit more work done when not raging about our MMRs.

If you missed the first day though, don’t worry. All the talks of PDGC are recorded, and should be available to listen to starting Monday – we’ll give the details when they become available.