(NeMLA 2020) Living in Someone Else’s Shoes: Exploring Culture, Diversity, and Empathy in Video Game Narratives

deadline for submissions: 
September 30, 2019
full name / name of organization: 
Rowan M. Lucas / North Eastern Modern Language Association
contact email: 

51st Northeast Modern Language Association Convention

March 5-8, 2020

Boston, MA

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In their book Rules of Play (2003), authors Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman refer to video games as having the potential to provide what they call ‘transformative cultural play.’ In this type of play, video games become vehicles of culture, in which there is an exchange of meanings between the game, the player, and culture at large. Video games become a space in which the ideals of culture are challenged, explored, and perpetuated. As they state, “it is possible for games to take the concept of cultural rhetoric by the horns, not only representing and challenging ideologies, but also changing them” (526). Video games in this sense function as cultural microsystems, creating and perpetuating cultural values.

There are many video games that explore complex social and political issues, with the player becoming the main agent of narrative events. From racism, to homophobia, and even to questions of artificial life, games allow players to closely experience a wide variety of social situations, some of which they might not otherwise be exposed to. They often do this by requiring players to "play" as a character who is marginalized. There is the potential for video games to cultivate empathy with others by requiring players to actively participate in a simulated cultural/social situation. Further, video games require players to inhabit the space of a character potentially different from themselves as their in-game avatar.

What happens when a video game requires a player to become a cultural agent? What happens when games require players to "live" in the space of an avatar that is marginalized in the context of the game? Certain video games offer more levels of player agency than others, but what does that indicate about the nature of narrative messages video games convey? What are the differences between the avatar in an RPG vs. pre-established game characters? What are the implications of "inhabiting" the space of the ‘other’ in a video game? What are the implications of allowing the player choice in how a narrative unfolds? Could games and their narratives be used to foster empathy and understanding? What value do video games have as tools of culture and empathy?

Empathy and diversity in games is a broad topic, so there are many ways to approach this conversation. This panel particularly seeks papers that discuss the ability of video games to cultivate empathy and diversity within its players. It seeks papers that analyze games whose narratives feature the representation of complex social issues, and characters that represent/live those issues. The goal is to discuss how games can cultivate empathy and diversity in their communities and the real world by examining both the nature or mechanics and video games (such as reward systems), and the narratives themselves. Discussion will then hopefully revolve around considering games as vehicles of cultural discourse.  

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Please submit abstracts of 250-300 words and a short bio by September 30th, 2019. Abstracts are accepted through the NeMLA website via: https://www.cfplist.com/nemla/Home/S/18337

Final decisions will be made October 15th, 2019.