Discourse: Leveling Up Empathy

The big stories this week surrounded the toxicity of the community responding to one critics report of epileptic triggers in Cyberpunk 2077 that resulted in a grand mal seizure and the choice to publish a well-intentioned but somewhat tone-deaf piece about how to handle exploitative mechanics in Genshin Impact. What the two have in common at their most outraged responses is this idea that if there’s a problem that I don’t share, the issue is entirely yours. I think the only reason why people are coming together to mock the horrible load-in renderings of Cyberpunk 2077 on last-gen consoles, particularly the base PS4/XB1, is because not enough people have adapted yet, so their problem can’t simply be waved away as a matter of not being rich or savvy enough to upgrade.

The problem, of course, is humanity’s collective lack of empathy, a thing already exacerbated by competition in games, where one person receiving something that helps to “level” the field somehow takes away from another person, even in single games. We’ve heard this all too often, most recently with the idea of offering accessibility options or difficulty modifiers to FromSoftware games like Sekiro, so that everyone can enjoy the design and story, regardless of skill. They argue that the struggle is necessary for the gameplay, missing entirely the point that for those who have accessibility issues, the game they’re playing is actually several times harder than intended.

But that feeble defense makes even less sense when applied to Cyberpunk 2077. Who would actually advocate in favor of game design that causes a percentage of the population, however small (and it’s likely bigger than you think), to have a medical response? It’s easy to say that the epilepsy warning is there, and someone who develops a photosensitive response just shouldn’t play the game, at least so long as it isn’t affecting you. But now imagine that you’re allergic to bees, and every time you tweet something negative, there’s a chance a bee will sting you. Should we just collectively dismiss your concerns that you’re unable to fully utilize Twitter because of the constant risk of anaphylactic shock? Should we just point to the warning in the Terms of Service that note these side effects?

But now imagine that you’re allergic to bees, and every time you tweet something negative, there’s a chance a bee will sting you.

The issue, having been identified by users of Cyberpunk 2077, should be reportable and patched, like any other bug–like, say, a bee–and until then, there should be a clear warning communicated by the manufacturer, just as we do for almost all of the things legally sold in this country. Nobody’s saying that Cyberpunk 2077 needs additional delays–this need not affect you. You just need to stay out of the way of criticizing those who request an option to, say, skip or reduce certain problematic effects.

The issue with Genshin Impact is similar. It’s easy to say that you, personally, were able to enjoy a gatcha game by learning to set limits. Congratulations: you are not an addict. If an addict could walk into a casino and gamble only as much money as they could reasonably afford to lose, or order just a single drink, they wouldn’t be an addict. The trick is to make sure that the advice you’re giving can be followed by everyone or, if it can’t, to make it clear who you are communicating to. There’s value in the Waypoint article for people who want reassurance that they can enjoy Genshin Impact without paying to win, or for tips on how some people have found pleasure in the free-to-play model. But we need to have empathy for those who don’t, and when we see someone preying on others, whether it’s a person or a game, we ought to speak up even if it may not directly affect us.

Now, you might argue that if Genshin Impact didn’t prey upon whales, you wouldn’t be able to get a game of that quality for free, but that’s a selfish response. It’s the same response given by the people who scalp PS5s, justifying it by how it puts food on the table for the sellers, or by me hypothetically dealing crack to thirteen-year-olds. You can simply give people a list of advice about how to avoid criminals or dangerous situations, but better still would be to improve those situations.

Nothing gets better until we first acknowledge that there’s a problem.

But as we’ve seen from America in 2020, nothing gets better until we first acknowledge that there’s a problem, whether it’s your problem or not. And here’s the craziest thing: it costs you nothing to make this concession. That is, it costs you even less than the nothing it costs to recognize another person’s name, identity, marriage, sexuality, etc., because none of these things have any impact on your ability to “play the game” that we call life (or Cyberpunk 2077). And if you can’t muster up the ability to respectfully consider, with empathy, where another person is coming from, at the very least, get out of their way: so play we all.

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