This 'empathy game' reveals a real challenge for indie games

The long-serving independent game maker and author Anna Anthropy was hit by a car over the summer and broke her arm. On her way to see some friends, she decided to walk rather than take the bus, and was struck.

Now recovered, she's just released an autobiographical game called Ohmygod are you alright about her experience—of the injury, the hospital, and the additional challenges treatment poses for a low-income trans woman, as well as the sense of aloneness she experienced after the accident.

She calls it a "direct sequel" to dys4ia, her popular piece about going through hormone replacement therapy. Since its release in 2012, dys4ia's been celebrated in the press as an "empathy game", as it seemed to allow people to feel for Anna in a circumstance that many of the players would never experience themselves. By playing Anna's autobiographical story, players learned more about the experience of transition and dysphoria, and said they felt empathy for her.

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But just before her accident, Anna Anthropy held a gallery show in New York City, where, in addition to a tool where you make games out of emoji, she presented "The Road to Empathy": A pedometer, a pair of her old boots, and the provocation for participants to actually walk a mile in her shoes.

That exhibit was pointed. "Empathy games" have formed an important movement in our medium. We've learned that disempowering the player, rather than catering to traditional fantasies of power, leads to interesting experiences.

The rise of "empathy games" has formed a landscape on which players have learned to prize unconventional, anti-capitalist, personal works, and it has been boldly led by women and marginalized people in recent years. But while these games make players glad to feel things, these important works don't usually sustain their creators.

While their names, games, articles and lectures help the press build a narrative that's positive for video games, for Anna, what came after dys4ia and the celebration of her "empathetic" works was that sense of aloneness in the hospital following her accident, worried about how to pay for it. And she's one of the foundational "names" in her "scene"—imagine the case for others.

Ohmygod are you alright is mostly experienced via text, although there is an unsettlingly-cute PuzzleScript rendering of the accident itself. You navigate a tiny Anna—Anna's image of herself—through Frogger-like traffic hazards. You know the game is about her car accident, but you feel the fruitless urge to try to help her avoid it anyway.

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Anna Anthropy has written for Offworld about what children's books can learn from games, why Nintendo's Style Savvy: Trendsetter was scary for her, and what kinds of features help make game tools more accessible, with a little help from WarioWare D.I.Y.. You can buy Ohmygod are you alright here for $2, and support her ongoing works on Patreon here.

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