Future Developers Explore Prosocial Gaming at Empathy Game Jam

June 7, 2018

Thirty-three jammers created eight new empathy-focused games during the May 18-20 Empathy Game Jam at the UCI Esports area. Informatics Professor Josh Tanenbaum organized the event with help from Heidi McDonald, senior creative director at iThrive Games.

Students work to “find the kind” at UCI’s first Empathy Game Jam.

“There is a new generation of game developers coming up into the professional and indie spaces who care about making deeper and more meaningful experiences,” says McDonald. “iThrive’s job is to give them science-based, expert developed tools to help them approach designing for prosocial outcomes.”

To that end, iThrive sponsors these free events every month or so, and UCI’s first Empathy Game Jam was a success (see photos here). “I tend to evaluate these events [based on] whether the developers seem to have found our materials thought-provoking, helpful, and interesting, and on the caliber of games we see,” says McDonald. “By those measurements, the event was certainly a success.”

Chris Subagio, a senior software development engineer at Amazon Games Studios who acted a judge for the event, agreed. “I had a grand time. The faculty at UCI are delightful hosts and especially well suited to the Empathy Jam mission. I reckon a good time was had by all!”

Top “Find the Kind” Games
The weekend jam concluded with a showcase, the judging, a dinner and awards. “The participants were all engaged and committed to the principles. We had entries so accomplished that the jury had a hard time picking winners; those were debates worth having,” said Subagio. But in the end, the judges were particularly impressed by two of the eight games presented.

Sincerely,” a narrative-driven game where the player exchanges letters with a pen pal, won first prize overall, Best Audio, Best Narrative, and Jammers’ Choice. The game was a joint effort by UCI and Cal State University Fullerton students. “The Empathy Jam was a great experience,” says first-time jammer Tara Nguyen, an animation major from CSUF. “It was exciting to see my art being used in the game.” CSUF computer science undergraduate Steven Kha, another first-time jammer, admits that the “find the kind” theme was challenging but he “would definitely attend another game jam like this.”

Teammates of the game “Sincerely” celebrate their first-place finish.

Jake Smith, a second-year computer science student here at UCI, worked on the game’s narrative planning and programming. “Players almost always have a chance to respond with empathy or with apathy, and we try not to guilt the players out of the apathetic answers,” he explains. The team didn’t want players to “put on a fake personality to make others like them better.”

According to McDonald, just a “small amount of polish” is needed to make “Sincerely” ready for submission to festivals. “It was absolutely humbling to see the positive reception from the judges and other jammers after our presentation,” says Smith.

Coming in second place overall and winning Best Art and Best Design was “Ittai Goes to the Gym.” The purely visual game focuses on a passenger sitting on a public bus who, when presented with different situations, must decide whether to get involved and help others. If, by the end of the bus ride, the player hasn’t helped anyone, the other passengers are frustrated and upset. The observant player will find ways to make the bus ride a better experience for everyone involved.

Members of the team taking second place overall for their game, “Ittai Goes to the Gym.”

“We thought their use of behavior systems, animation and symbology was fun and interesting,” says McDonald, who hopes this team will also develop their game toward release. “We are very interested in helping any developers from our jams who wish to continue developing and polishing their games, whether that is for commercial release or festival entry.”

Next-Gen Game Developers
iThrive makes a point of collaborating with developers and was honored earlier this year by the International Conference on Game Jams (ICGJ) for its jam program. One of the ways in which iThrive’s program is unique is that it offers instructional content and on-site subject matter expertise, which, here at UCI, was further augmented by Tanenbaum’s own research and expertise. The focus on prosocial game-making fits well with Tanenbaum’s work on identity transformation and empathy through play.

McDonald says she is increasingly meeting developers who “want to help others,” and iThrive similarly assumes the best of its players, encouraging design from a “strengths-based approach.” In this approach, says McDonald, “the ‘lack of empathy’ is not a problem to be solved or a disease to be cured; it’s more like unlocking the empathy superpower that we already give our players credit for having in themselves.”

Is the industry approaching a turning point? “So many times we read headlines about how video games cause antisocial or even violent behavior,” says McDonald. “This just is not borne out at all by science — see the related Higher Education Video Game Alliance statement.” Perhaps these next-gen developers will someday create a new set of headlines that highlight how video games can cause kinder behavior.

Shani Murray