Robin Longobardi Zingarelli – Empathy and In-game Actions: How Design Practices Shape the Relationship Between Self and Other

Drawing inspiration from the phenomenological investigation of empathy and intersubjectivity  (Husserl 1960, Stein 1989), this project proposes to apply empathy, intended as the ability to perceive a foreign consciousness (Stein 1989), to the analysis of players’ actions towards others and otherness in gameworlds.

In the past few decades, scholars have already explored the potential of philosophical conceptualizations to analyse computer games and our significance within them (Sageng, Larsen & Fossheim 2012). Particularly, authors displayed how, when entering a game world, the player starts inhabiting that. In a way, through audio visual sensory cues the player becomes embodied within this new dimension (Klevjer 2022). Calleja (2011) has even suggested interpreting this act as a temporary movement of the player’s attention and consciousness that becomes incorporated in the game world.

Such conceptualizations are extremely relevant in terms of our ontological significance in virtual environments. Scholars have also proposed that, when entering a virtual world, players maintain their philosophical status as subjects, including their identity, agency, and project utility in the virtual world (Vella 2015, Gualeni & Vella 2020, Nguyen 2020). The implications of these interpretations are vast, ranging from the possibility for intersubjectivity in multiplayer games, to the moral significance of players’ actions (Sicart 2011, Nguyen & Zagal 2016), to the relationship with other in-game agents (Leino 2015, Carter & Allison 2018, Gualeni 2020, Ntelia 2020). Despite all that, the problem of empathy towards others has seldom been considered. This project suggests empathy might conversely play an important role in determining how players relate to other agents in virtual environments, reflecting also on which kind of agent can be interpreted as a virtual subject, and henceforth allowing for a further discussion on our relationship with game worlds and the artificial entities inhabiting them.

This project proposes to apply phenomenological empathy (Stein 1989) to game worlds, observing how such empathy is employed strategically, through game design practices that emphasise the subjective capabilities of in-game others (as agency, identity or intentionality). Examples of such games are DayZ or Vampyr, where players tend to perceive the others as co-subjects and to act accordingly, considering the consequences of their actions for the other (Carter & Allison 2018). Conversely, in computer games that do not employ empathy in their design, players tend to diminish the subjectivity of other possible agents, reducing them to game-objects. Through this analysis, this project first highlights the medium specificity of computer games, showing that, unlike in actuality, empathy can be shaped through design practices. Aside from that, it is noted that such designed empathy can be directed both towards players and non-player characters, suggesting the possibility of projecting a subjective value to fictional agents.

Selected references

Bohemian Interactive, 2018. DayZ. Bohemian Interactive [Multiplatform].

Calleja, G., 2011. In-game: From immersion to incorporation. MIT Press.

Carter, M., & Allison, F., 2018. Guilt in DayZ. In K. Jørgensen, & F. Karlsen (Ed.), Transgression in games and play (pp. 133-152). Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Dontnod Entertainment, 2018. Vampyr. Focus Home Interactive [PC].

Gualeni, S., 2020. Artificial beings worthy of moral consideration in virtual environments: an analysis of ethical viability. Journal of Virtual Worlds Research, 13(1).

Gualeni, S., & Vella, D. 2020. Virtual Existentialism: Meaning and subjectivity in virtual      worlds. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Husserl, E., ed. 1960. Cartesian meditations: An introduction to phenomenology. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.

Klevjer, R., 2022. What is the avatar?: Fiction and embodiment in avatar-based single player computer games. Bielefeld: transcript Verlag.

Leino, O. T., 2015.“‘I know your type, you are a player’: Suspended Fulfilment in Fallout: New Vegas”. In Game Love: Essays on Play and Affection, edited by J. Enevold and E. MacCallum-Stewart, pp.165-178. Jefferson, North Carolina: MacFarland.

Nguyen, C. T., 2020. Games: Agency as art. Oxford University Press.

Nguyen, C. T., & Zagal, J., 2016. “Good Violence, Bad Violence: The ethics of competition in multiplayer games. DiGRA/FDG 2016: Proceedings of the First International Joint Conference of DiGRA and FDG.

Ntelia, R.E., 2020. “In the Mood for Love: Embodiment and Intentionality in NPCs”. In Love and Electronic Affection edited by L.D. Grace, pp. 61-90. Boca Raton: CRC Press.

Palmer, A. 2004. Fictional Minds. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press.

Sageng, J.R., Larsen, T.M. and Fossheim, H.J. 2012. The Philosophy of Computer Games. Netherlands: Springer Netherlands.

Sicart, M., 2011. The Ethics of Computer Games. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Stein. E., ed. 1989. On the Problem of Empathy. Netherlands: ICS Publications.

Tan,  X.,  & Tan,  C.I., 2022. Empathy  in  game  design. Exploring  a  human-centric  approach  in designing engaging video game experiences. Journal of ICT in Education, 9(2), 123-136.

Vella, D., 2015. The Ludic Subject and the Ludic Self: Analyzing the “I-in-the-gameworld”. IT University of Copenhagen, Center for Computer Games Research.




Robin Longobardi Zingarelli is graduate student at the Institute of Digital Games, Malta. There, he started researching the concept of fragmentation in subjectivity and avatarhood through his master dissertation. His current interest concerns empathy and intersubjectivity in video games, both as a philosophical matter and as possibility for design practices. Also, he has been researching transgender identity in video games and avatarial attachment from a transgender perspective. Aside from his research interest, he works as an independent game designer for the development of educational games and games for cultural heritage.