Anempathetic Game Design

Using games to raise critical awareness is an issue that finds more and more interest among scholars and game designers. Using games in a radically different way was an idea that has been also discussed during the ludology-narratology debate, in particular by Gonzalo Frasca.  Frasca would later develop a group of games that felt quite different from “conventional” games, among them September 12.  Ian Bogost was another designer and scholar going into this direction, and together with Frasca they were influential in creating Newsgaming as a form of critical play. Ever since we have seen games that have been radically different in their content and form when compared to mainstream games. And finally, in 2009, Mary Flanagan devoted a whole book on the matter, outlining the various perspectives that are out there and pointing at the possibilities in using games to raise critical social awareness.

In this article I want to explore whether we can borrow a term from audio-visual analyses in order to enrich the conceptual basis of critical play and radical game design. The term that I want to have a look at is anempathy.

Empathetic and Anempathetic

In his book Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen, french film critic and composer Michel Chion (1994) makes a distinction between two types of musical score in the cinema: Empathetic and anempathetic.

Empathetic Music

In Chion’s words, “music can directly express its participation in the feeling of the scene, by taking on the scene’s rhythm, tone, and phrasing; obviously such music participates in cultural codes for things like sadness, happiness, and movement. In this case we can speak of empathetic music, from the word empathy, the ability to feel the feelings of others.” (1994: 8) This is music “whose mode matches with the mood or rhythm of the action onscreen.” (1994: 222)

Anempathetic Music

On the other hand“, continues Chion, “music can also exhibit conspicous indifference to the situation, by progressing in a steady, undaunted, and ineluctable manner: the scene takes place against this very backdrop of ‘indifference’.” However, “this juxtaposition of scene with indifferent music has the effect of not freezing emotion but rather of intensifying it, by inscribing it on a cosmic background. I call this second kind of music anempathetic (with the privative a-). […] the frivolity and naivete reinforce the individual emotion of the character and the spectator, even as [this] music pretends not to notice it.” (1994: 8) This is sound “that seems to exhibit conspicous indifference to what is going on in the plot, creating a strong sense of the tragic.” (1994: 221)

The question I ask at this point is whether we cannot speak of rule design that functions in this way, i.e is it possible to speak of empathetic or anempathetic game rules and systems?

Empathetic and Anempathetic Game Design

I  call empathetic those games whose rule designs and systems are geared towards participation into established cultural codes rather than challenging these codes in a radical way. These are designs that frame their subject within “common-sense” categories. Such designs would be often culturally one-sided (or even biased), appealing to the sentiment of ‘mainstream’ lifestyles in their way of abstracting and representing the simulations of their worlds. And in quite some cases they would be built around concepts and values borrowed from reactionary rhethoric.

On the other hand, in anempathetic games we’d see the intention of breaking interpretative practices based on common-sense by using figurative devices in the form of game mechanics that exhibit a conspicous indifference against the ongoing plot, thereby not freezing our emotions, but rather intensifying them, which creates a strong sense of the tragic. We are forced into a different perspective which creates a rupture in common-sense. The position we took as a subject and felt ‘natural’ to us before we started to play the games, is suddenly exposed to ourselves: our initial inner stance feels awkward now, its ‘normality’ can no longer be maintained. We are forced to think differently, and if we should give up, we are faced with our own insincerity: we don’t want to think outside of the box. These are games that remind one of her conscience.


Command & Conquer: Generals – Iraq is empathetic; September 12 is anemphatetic.

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