Macro-Empathy: Feelings and data

Pixel Pop 2017, Photographer Unknown,   Pixel Pop Festival

Pixel Pop 2017, Photographer Unknown, Pixel Pop Festival

I recently started thinking about Macro-Empathy. I’m no expert but I feel that this isn’t very well defined. A few searches online and finding mostly business articles for some reason, I kept thinking internally about what this means to me and what I think it means for creators at large. I’m going to try my hand at defining it but first a little context as to how I stumbled into the term at all.

This past week I was at the 2018 Pixel Pop Festival showing off Chroma, a mobile puzzle game that teaches you about light and non-Euclidean space. My experience there, I feel, was fraught with nervous jitters, a deep need for approval, and a sense of relief and satisfaction that washed over when I found that people actually liked what I made.

So my showing was great. Not perfect — there was a game-breaking bug in the first 10 minutes that I, thankfully, fixed — and there was plenty of constructive criticism but I’m not here to specifically talk about my game at this convention. Instead, I want to talk to a concept that sort of hit me pretty hard after essentially showing a lot of people the last few months of my life.
I can’t help but compare the way I felt at this festival to how I’ve felt going on dates or meeting people I’ve been romantically interested in.

I put myself in a position of vulnerability and all I wanted was the other party’s approval. Did my booth look nice? Will they like my game? Did I pick the right outfit? Did I forget to wear deodorant? All these questions and more rushed through my head at a rapid pace as I kept wondering if it just wouldn’t work out? What if no one liked my game? What if no one got it? In a way, a wholesale rejection of my game would have been synonymous with a personal rejection. I came here to show something I’ve put my heart and soul into. I wanted to make a good impression and I, more than anything else, wanted to establish a connection with festival goers.

Ok… That’s all well and good but… what do your festival jitters have to do with Macro-Empathy?

Simply put, I was attempting to better understand the feelings of not one person but a LOT of people. This is the main difference between macro and (for lack of a better term) “regular” empathy. I wanted to understand and feel not as one person felt but as many people would feel. And not just the people at the festival. People AT LARGE. I obviously am unable to talk to every person who plays puzzle games. And even if I did I’m not sure that asking for advice on how to improve my game would be very helpful as the cacophony of voices would prove too much to handle.

However, in my desire to find a way to better communicate Chroma’s themes with festival goers and taking notes on everyone’s experiences, I felt that I was becoming better acquainted with my audience. In doing so I was beginning to organize an idea of what future players would look like. I started to see what they would need from me so we could have a stable relationship via the game.
Now if you’ve talked to me about design or headed over to my site and saw my essay on empathetic design, you already know that finding the ties between game design and emotional/interpersonal connections is kind of my thing. I already thought that emotionally understanding players would be the key to bettering my craft as a game designer. What ended up being different about this event is that I understood that the skill I wanted to cultivate entails something different than understanding feelings in general. I need to come to grips with how to engage with men, women, and children. I need to understand the small annoyances of kids, teenagers, and adults. I need to know specifically what noises are humorous to some and annoying to others.

This is where I believe Macro-Empathy is an important skill to make better. In any profession that requires making a sort of tool or form of entertainment for a mass audience, being able to intuit what will and won’t appeal to that audience is important. It might seem as if taking a survey or asking people what they want isn’t a part of this intuition but that idea is an incomplete way of looking at what empathy is. Being able to accurately guess even one person’s feelings at any point is a daunting task. To multiply that number 100 or 1000-fold only complicates matters. Even with playtesting and public showings you’re not given a complete picture of what will work. After doing these things and asking your audience what they like and what they want, you have to do the mental and emotional work of figuring out what suggestions are more important, which ones are misunderstandings and what some actually mean. Anything taken at face value that is either incomplete or too vague to be useful in the first place. And simply latching onto one person (even if they are an “ideal” person who fits your target demographic) is going to set aside the feelings and experiences of so many that even their crucial insight will be either useless or a lot less effective.

Research, developer tips, and personal hunches might help but I found that asking and openly communicating with my audience and actively trying to understand them as people is the best way for me to improve Chroma and my craft of game design.

Macro- empathy, then, is the elegant practice of going on a “date” with your players and finding ways to capture that spark you’ve been missing all this time.