I spend a lot of time in this column talking about the various skills needed to be a good game designer. Today, I thought I'd talk about a skill that I don't think I've ever mentioned in my column before, but one that's very important—empathy. I plan to use today's article to explain why empathy is so important to game design and how you can be more empathetic with your audience (and other people, for those of you who like to apply my game design lessons to real life).

Let's start with the basic question—what is empathy? Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. That basically breaks down into two parts. First, understanding what it is that other people care about. Second, connecting to the emotion that they have about that thing. Today's column is going to dive deep into each of these two areas.

"But Why?"

Before I get to that though, why should we, as game designers (or just human beings) care? The answer is that it makes us better at our job (and better human beings). I'm the head designer of Magic. What does that mean exactly? I'm responsible for figuring out what exactly we should be doing with the game so that we're making product that all of you want to buy. How do I do that? By understanding what all of you want out of the game. And remember, as I often say, Magic is really not one game but a series of different games connected by a shared rule set and game pieces.

The reason I'm always stressing this is because it means that our audience has a wide variety of expectations. Why and how our audience plays varies greatly from person to person. For example, what format you play has a huge impact on your game experience. Whether you're playing with real cards or digital cards makes a difference. Whether you're playing alone or with one person or with many people matters. And none of that is even getting into that fact that Magic is a game where each player chooses which pieces to play with. Two people playing the same format at the same place with the same people can vary greatly because of the choices they make when choosing what deck to play.

The challenge of my job (and all the awesome people I work with day to day) is making each Magic set relevant to all the players regardless of how they approach the game. That's a tall task, and one of the things I've struggled with over the years. So why does empathy matter? Because, being good at my job (and I'll argue any game design) requires empathy with your audience.

What People Care About

We'll begin with the first part. Here are the things you can do to better understand what people care about.

#1: Listen

In college, I had a creative writing class with a professor I adored. This is how she started her first class (with a little dramatic license on my part):

Hello, everyone. I assume you're here because you want to be a good writer. Well, I'm not going to waste your time. I'm going to start this class by telling you exactly how to do it. It's not a secret. You want to be a good writer? Write. Every day. Then once you're done writing, rewrite. Every day. Once you're done with that, put it aside and start writing again. Every day. Every once in a while, you can go back and rewrite things. Do that every day, and you'll get better. Do that long enough, and you'll get good. There's no shortcut to becoming good at something. It's just a matter of doing it, getting feedback, applying the feedback, and continuing the loop. You get good at something because you put in the time and the energy to get good.

I tell this story because there's no shortcut to listening. How do you get good at listening? By doing it. Every day. How do you know what other people want? Listen. They'll tell you. With some people, you have to ask first (and I'll get to more on this in a second), but in general, people want you to know what they want. The reason this is difficult for some people is that listening is hard. It takes time. It takes energy. It takes focus. It's so easy to get caught up in your own issues that you don't take the time to understand what other people's issues are. The good news is that it's a very doable thing. You just have to prioritize doing it.

Take me as an example. One of the reasons I'm good at my job is because I take the time and energy to interact with our player base. I have a lot of social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, and Google+). I interact with our fans daily. For example, I have a blog where I answer questions from players every day. I average about 30 to 40 questions a day, and I've answered almost 100,000 questions since I started the blog. I do this because I need to know what our audience cares about. It's not an accident that we keep doing things that the players want us to do. We knew you wanted it because we listened to you.

One of the things I try to do with any comment, no matter its presentation (although, I do encourage you to ask your audience to give criticism constructively and in a polite manner), is try to understand the comment being made. If they dislike something, what do they dislike, and more importantly, why do they dislike it? Every interaction with your audience is a piece of information. Do your best to find it.

#2: Create Opportunities for People to Talk

Just listening is good, but there are things you can do to increase the amount of talking your audience will do and to have some control over the subject matter they talk about. The latter is important because often in game design you're aware of areas that need work, and it helps if you can steer your audience to talk about the aspect you're trying to improve. Here are ways to encourage your audience to talk:

  1. Open up about yourself – One of the good ways to get others to share information is to start by sharing information about yourself. I work hard on my social media accounts to let the audience get a sense of who I am as a person. I share stories about my personal life, both my present and my past. My early dating years, my courtship with my wife, my wedding, the raising of my kids—I've written articles about them all. I post pictures of key personal events so that I can share what's going on in my life. This is important because this makes our players see me as a person and not just some faceless corporate entity. It increases people's willingness to share the details that will help me better understand why they want what they want (more on this below). My one caveat here is that you only open up publicly to a level you're comfortable with. As a professional writer, I'm a little more willing to share personal info than the average person.
  1. Share information – Not only do I spend a lot of time on social media, I also create a lot of content. Why is this important? Numerous reasons. One, it helps me open up about myself. Two, it educates the audience about the product and allows them to give more insightful feedback. Three, it helps me organically move the questions to the topics I'm interested in (more on this next). Four, it helps me give larger context to certain issues so I can ask about them. Five, it creates more equity. It's easier for people to give you information when they believe you've given them some as well.
  1. Ask questions – It's a lot easier for people to talk when they have a goal of what to talk about. Also, people in general enjoy answering questions if the thing being asked of them is something they want to talk about. Usually with games, if someone is taking the time to interact with you, the game designer, odds are they want to talk about your game. The tip I give is that it's okay to be aggressive with your questions (within reason and as long as they focus on your game) if you let the audience know that they only need to answer the questions they're comfortable answering and be willing to move onto a new question if it's clear no one else is interested in answering the current question.
  1. Create a community – One of the interesting things about my social media accounts, especially my blog (Blogatog), is that over time, the people who interact with it start to get to know one another and the site starts feeling more personal. This, in turn, makes people feel more welcomed and relaxed, and they become more willing to share.

The major point here is that listening is important, but there are many steps you can take to increase the audience's willingness to share additional information.

#3: Go Deeper

One of the biggest ways people get caught up with listening is when they hear something they don't agree with. Our gut response is to think, "Well that's wrong" and stop listening. The key to listening is not agreeing with what the other person is saying, but rather understanding why they feel the way they do. Part of listening is going deeper into the understanding of what they're feeling.

For example, someone asks me to make a red spell that destroys enchantments. My gut response is that it breaks the color pie—red is supposed to be bad at dealing with enchantments, but I shouldn't stop there. When someone tells me they want that, I usually will ask a follow-up question: why do they want that? Why would us making that help them? Usually when I dig deeper, I'll learn more about the crux of the problem. The player has a mono-red deck they love to play, but their friend has a problem card that they just can't deal with. The core of the problem is that they're frustrated because they feel helpless. Understanding that allows me to explore ways to help them feel less frustrated and less helpless, but in a way that doesn't violate other design issues.

The key here is that part of understanding something is going to the root of why they want it. If you stop at too high of a layer, you can create conflicts that can't be solved ("I want A, they want B"), but if you dig a little deeper and get at the root of what's causing the problem, often you'll find solutions that can make everyone happy.

From a game design standpoint, this is why playtesting is so important, and why you don't only want to observe your playtesters but also talk with them after the game. Remember not to simply ask what they did and didn't like, but why.

#4: Understand Motivations

The next step is digging into psychology and trying to understand the large issues underlying your player base. This, for example, is what led me to create the player psychographics (aka Timmy/Tammy, Johnny/Jenny, and Spike—you can read more about them here and here). I realized if we wanted to design cards players liked, it helped to have a better understanding of what it is exactly that drove players to play.

This final category takes time. It's much easier to hear what individuals think and feel than it is to understand how larger subsections of players function. The bigger your game, the more access to hard data you'll get and the more you can dig deep into what psychologically drives your players. I will note that the basis for the psychographics predates our big data, so a lot of it came from intuition and interacting with so many different players, meaning that even a new game will offer plenty of material to work with.

Connecting to the Emotion

Now we get to part two. I'll be blunt—of the two areas required for empathy, this is the harder part. Listening requires dedication, but it's something you can do if you expend the energy. Connecting to emotion requires a bit of introspection, and for some people, it can be very hard to do. Nonetheless, it can be done, so let's walk through what it entails.

#1: Understand the Emotion Being Felt

You'll notice above, I mentioned a few times the importance of understanding why the audience feels the way they do. Part of that is understanding the specific issues at hand, but another big part is for identifying what the root emotion is at the core of the problem. Let's take my red enchantment destruction request from above. As I dug in deeper, I was able to uncover that the player was feeling frustrated because they felt helpless. Frustration, helplessness. Those are emotions. And they're emotions that make people feel bad. Why was the player upset? Because the game was bringing up emotions in them that they didn't like. They were writing to me because they wanted a solution to those emotions.

#2: Find Those Emotions in Yourself

Back in the day, I was very into theater. I auditioned for every play I could, and every Saturday for many years, I took theater classes (at the Cleveland Playhouse Youtheatre, for my Cleveland readers). One of the classes I took was called Finding the Truth. In it, I learned a very important skill.

Let's say you're doing a scene as a character who just lost their mother to cancer. How do you capture the reality of the character if you personally haven't lost your mother to cancer? How can you as an actor find the truth of that character? The answer we were taught is to dig deeper and find the emotion at play. What emotions might that character be feeling?

The first step is to go and find someone who's experienced that. You have both the option of finding someone to talk to in person (which the teacher preferred as you get to ask questions) or watching someone in a video, listening through audio, or reading a first-hand account. In short, this is the listening part. Go find someone who knows the truth you're seeking, and listen to them.

The next step is to isolate what emotions they were feeling. The reason listening is so important is that the answer is often not what you might think. There's a lot of nuance to human emotion, and sometimes the response is multilayered and unexpected. As an actor, you need to do the research and then isolate the emotions.

Once you know the emotions you're trying to emulate, you have to dig into your own life and find those same emotions. For example, let's say your research says that the person feels betrayed. You need to look into your own life and find an experience where you felt betrayal. It doesn't matter if the circumstances are the same. You're trying to get to the heart of what that emotion feels like, the idea being that at its core, betrayal is betrayal. If you can evoke betrayal through your own experience, it will be read by the audience as being of the scene and not the circumstances of your own life.

I bring all this up because the secret of understanding someone else's emotion begins with you relating to that emotion. For instance, I talked about the player feeling frustrated and hopeless. If I'm to relate, I have to be willing to revisit my own feeling of frustration and hopelessness. For instance, I've played a lot of Magic. I've had plenty of frustrating moments as well as a host of hopeless ones. When I hear the player talk about that, I have to recall my own experiences. I have to put myself back in that moment because if I'm to truly understand what they're feeling, I have to connect it to how I felt. That's the core of empathy. I relate to what someone else is feeling because I can remember feeling the same way.

#3: Don't Judge the Emotion

To explain this last lesson, I must talk about the Care Bears. For those unaware of Care Bears, they're fictional, colorful teddy bears that each represent a different mood. Besides having various entertainment properties, they're toys—teddy bears, obviously. I bring this up because they're key to the following story.

In high school, I spent my summers as a camp counselor. I was the sole boy counselor who volunteered to work with the youngest campers (six- and seven-year-olds if my memory serves me). One day, I had a little girl named Stacy who was very shy. This was her first time at camp, and she was nervous about playing with the other kids. I knelt down to talk to her (you want to physically get at the same eye level as the child). She was holding a yellow Care Bear with a sun on its tummy. Trying to make small talk, I started with "Is that Sun Bear?" She replied, "No, that's Funshine Bear," and started crying hysterically. It took me a while, but I was eventually able to bring her out of her shell and get her to go join the others. As I walked back to my co-counselor, I said, "I've got to learn the Care Bears' names."

My co-counselor looked back at me with incredulity. "Why would you waste time doing that?" I explained that Stacy was going to be a camper that required extra effort and that the Care Bears mattered a lot to her. If I was going to connect with her, it would help for me to have a basic understanding of the thing she cared about. "But it doesn't matter?" my co-counselor shot back. "No," I replied, "It does matter. . .to her." I wasn't going to be able to connect with her if my attitude was that the things she cared about didn't matter. I had to respect that they mattered to her.

I bring this up because the final piece of empathy is respecting the fact that other people can have emotions about things differently than you might have, but that doesn't make them any less valid or true. They're feeling those emotions. You dismissing something because it's not how you would feel about it is disrespectful and, as a game designer, prevents you from being able to understand what's causing a problem in your game, a least with a subsection of the audience.

To bring this back to Magic, let's talk about the red enchantment destruction request. Players wanted something. I dug deep to understand what was upsetting the players. I realized they were feeling frustrated and hopeless. The solution was to find a way to let red interact with enchantments and give the mono-red player something they could do. For game purposes, we didn't want red destroying enchantments, but we were able to come up with a red answer to enchantments that both let the player do something (make them less frustrated and hopeless) while still staying true to the essence of the color. The result was this card from Commander (2018 Edition):

All the Feels

As a Magic designer, I'm never going to be all the things that our player base is. I don't play every format with regularity. I don't have experience with every style of deck. I'm a particular psychographic (Johnny, if that wasn't already pretty clear). Many of our players aren't like me, but I still have to make cards for them. That means I not only have to listen, but I must relate to what they care about. It takes time, it takes energy, it takes focus, but it's important and makes me a better designer.

I know today's column was a bit different, so I'm interested in hearing all your thoughts on it. You can email me or contact me through any of my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, and Google+).

Join me next week when I talk about reasons not to design something.

Until then, take the time to listen and connect.

#611: Lorwyn Cards, Part 1
#611: Lorwyn Cards, Part 1

This podcast is the first in a four-part series about the card-by-card design stories of Lorwyn.

#612: Lorwyn Cards, Part 2
#612: Lorwyn Cards, Part 2


This podcast is the second in a four-part series about the card-by-card design stories of Lorwyn.