Thursday, August 6, 2015


In a way, competitive gaming taught me empathy. That's not to say that I didn't have any to begin with. But it definitely encouraged me to think about it from a different perspective.

That’s not exactly where I’m going to start though.

At a group dinner (might have been a holiday), I remember somebody saying, “rationality is not part of empathy, it’s an emotional process,” and I stared at them funnily for a bit.

You have to legitimately think your way into another person’s mind to try and understand them. Why do they think how they think? If you don’t already agree with them, then your emotions probably won’t do the trick. You will just go, “no you’re wrong,” and the process will shut down. Anytime you see somebody screaming “you need to be more empathetic!!” at somebody, they should probably be screaming at themselves. Because it’s really hard to scream and yell at somebody if you have actually bothered to understand them.

Rationality becomes an important part of this process. You do not experience the world the way others do. So if you try to use empathy, but you do it lazily, you just wind up being yourself, except in a slightly different perspective. The two phrases “if I were you” and “if I were in your position” sound similar, except they’re very, very different. Empathy is the process of using the first sentence to more fully understand the world. The second one is used for advice, or angry blogging.

One case I see in real life is religion. You may believe that tolerance is a virtue, and you should never force your belief down somebody else’s throat. But this is only virtuous if it’s a value that you already hold.

But let’s imagine. Let’s use a bit of rationality too.

Imagine that you live in a world where you truly believe that there is heaven and hell. Let’s imagine that you truly believe that the wrong behaviors, thoughts, and attitudes will send you to a domain of eternal pain and suffering. Now stop panicking, because that’s actually terrifying.

Now let’s pretend that you truly care about your fellow human beings. You tell them these things (because apparently they don’t know) and they say “go away you’re annoying me.” Your response?

I’m annoying you? That is nothing compared to having malevolent spirits torture you and your soul for an unfathomable length of time. This tiny amount of irritation you feel, the social discomfort I feel knowing that people find me a bit insufferable, this is literally nothing (as a ratio) compared to the evils that await non-believers and non-practitioners. You do not understand. I am trying to help you. And if I let a bit of social discomfort stop me from doing my damndest (ha) to save you from an eternity of pain because it annoys you? What kind of awful, terrible person would I have to be? That is so awful that *I* would go to hell. How can you honestly ask me to do that? If tolerance, as a virtue, means letting my fellow human beings endure infinite pain, then it’s not a virtue I want to have!

Empathy is such a strong tool that people don’t really want to exercise it. I think it’s because they fear that using it on somebody they dislike means becoming what they dislike. And in a way, it is. But not really. You can have empathy and sympathy for a viewpoint without adopting it. I am not religious whatsoever. But I imagine somebody religious, who truly wants to be good and save people's souls (remember, they honestly believe your soul is in danger) would think this way.

It’s the kind of thinking that makes a missionary give up a comfortable life at home to travel into a foreign land filled with disease and spiders and angry natives, to try and save their souls when they don’t even want to be saved. If you ask somebody filled with that belief to stop because they’re being annoying, you probably have not bothered to try and understand.

What About Video Games

“In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him. I think it’s impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves. And then, in that very moment when I love them.... I destroy them.” -- Ender’s Game

To compete against somebody successfully often means seeing the world the way they do. You must know what they want so that you can prevent them from getting it. To do this most effectively, you must have a tremendous empathy for them. You must adopt their worldview, you must know what they are looking for, and then you can prevent it.

You do not understand how to defeat a certain character in a given matchup. What do you do? Well, you might think the best thing to do is to study the best players who have won that matchup. However, it can be equally effective--if not more effective--to try playing as the opponent’s character. This gives you a significantly greater feel for their weaknesses and frustrations. You may come to understand that things that seemed invincible were full of holes. You may find a technique that seemed broken and overpowered was risky and preventable.

You are suddenly your opponent. Where do you find yourself weakest? Where do you find yourself strongest? What suddenly becomes your gameplan, your target? Once you understand those things and you reverse the situation, you can begin the process of defeating them.

Curious sidenote: At some point, almost everything in Splatoon frustrates me when I’m trying to win. But there is one thing that has yet to actually annoy me, which is the Inkzooka. It is easily one of the specials with the most raw power; it’s a long range, one-shotting cyclone of ink that can take out an entire team, shut down any weapon in the game, and is especially brutal in a laggy online environment.

This special, however, is part of the kit of my favorite weapon, the Tentatek Splattershot. My strategies with that weapon depended, in part, on using the Inkzooka to win situations that would otherwise be unfavorable. I have used that special too much to get mad when it’s used against me, because I understand how important it is for it to exist, otherwise the weapon would not be nearly as effective. Compare that to other weapons I use far less; when they beat me, I have decent odds of thinking, “ugh, that’s so stupid.” But not for something that I know in and out.

I also know when somebody on the other team will want to use it. As a result, I attempt to shut down the other person when it would be most inconvenient for them. This helps me win. By thinking my way inside the mind of the other person (because I’ve been there) and this provides me an advantage. It helps me come up with answers to it faster, and the nice part is, when I see things I don’t expect, I can relate them back and use them myself.

So the act of putting myself in another’s shoes makes me stronger, in a variety of ways. Use empathy, and destroy your enemies. That sounded better in my head.

This isn’t just about the game though. It’s also more about the spirit of competition in general.

I had a brief and silly conversation with a friend after losing a tournament match against them. I jokingly admonished, “how could you beat me? I wanted to win.”

So they said back to me, “yeah but… I did too.”

This seems like the dumbest, most obvious conversation two people could have after having a tournament match. But let’s think about it anyhow.

You and I both show up to a tournament. We both play to win. We both do what we think will lead to victory. Neither of us want to be eliminated. Neither of us want to play badly. Both of us prepare and practice, both of us are looking for ways to advance. Only one of us gets to. Only one person gets to win a tournament. How do you get to be friends outside an event while trampling each other’s dreams inside it?

Well, empathy. You know what it’s like to be them. So you understand. That’s what the “good luck” is for at the start of the game, and the handshakes after. It’s partially for politeness, but also an acknowledgment that you both are there to play and win. This is why you don’t hold it against somebody for defeating you; you both know why you’re there and what you want.

Of course, you don’t always use this empathy. Sometimes we hate on people for doing something, when we would have done the same thing in their shoes. We don’t stop to think from their mind. Sometimes it takes a lot of extra thinking and questioning. Questions like, “what would it really be like to be this person? If I really was in their position?” You have to use imagination and reasoning that can lead to uncomfortable conclusions.

But it certainly does help. It can help you win, and can also help you when you lose.

Thanks for reading.