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How Empathy and Vulnerability Radically Transformed My View of Video Games

There are moments in life that change you. Some obvious, others subtle—influence only obvious in retrospect. But in my life, each radically shifted how I came to think, write, and report about games.

by Patrick Klepek
Dec 25 2018, 7:00pm

Image courtesy of Square Enix

Welcome to Waypoint's End of Year celebration! This year, we're digging deep into our favorite games with dedicated podcasts, interviewing each other about our personal top 10 lists, and reflecting on the year with essays from the staff and some of our favorite freelance contributors. Check out the entire package right here!

Playing The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit, I wasn’t thinking about how Dontnod evolved its interface design from Life Is Strange or how the sequel’s take on youth culture was different than the original’s melodrama. Instead, I was hung in paralysis over what my own life would be like if my wife passed away, and how I might fail as a single parent. In God of War, the revamped combat was only a brief reprieve from a constantly reminder of a complicated relationship with my father, things left unsaid after he passed, and how I want to avoid a similar fate with my daughter. In Dead Cells, I—okay, in Dead Cells, I killed stuff, it felt good, and was a reminder that it’s fine if a game mostly connects mechanically.

There are moments in life that change you. Some obvious, others subtle—influence only obvious in retrospect. But in my life, each radically shifted how I came to think, write, and report about games. It’s impossible to look at my list for 2018 and not see their influence.

Growing up, here’s how I thought about games: Are they good? Are they bad? As someone who spent their days and nights buried in the pages of magazines like Electronic Gaming Monthly and GamePro, my framework was Graphics, Sound, Gameplay, FunFactor, and Challenge—actual ratings in GamePro years back—and that remained true for a long time, even as I fancied it up with better rhetoric. Eventually, that changed. Sometimes this change was subtle enough it seemed to lack an origin story. Other times… trauma came knocking.

I joined Giant Bomb in April 2011 as news editor. Sometime in 2012, though, I was given another title: social justice warrior. Six years doesn’t seem like a long time, but it’s long enough I hardly remember most of the pieces I wrote during my four years there. Given how ingrained social justice and politics have become in my work, especially at Waypoint, I’ve often been asked when that shift occurred, and I’ve never had a particularly good answer. My go-to explanation has been Twitter, because it’s exposed me to people and viewpoints so different from anything I grew up with (which is true!). But as I did research, I realized that there was something a bit more specific that set me down this path.

One of the biggest stories I reported on in my first year at Giant Bomb was the gross shit said during a Capcom-sponsored livestream, where a player argued sexual harassment was “part” of fighting game culture. The comments on that piece got heated, mostly over fighting game fans being concerned this incident would come to overly define what their scene was about, but it doesn’t take a scientist to spot the undercurrent that would later crest as GamerGate.

Nine months later, #1reasonwhy, a hashtag of harrowing stories about why there aren’t more women in the games industry, happened. I reported a story with the headline “Gaming’s Women Raise Sexism Awareness With #1reasonwhy Movement on Twitter,” and wrote this:

[Even] if you look at these tweets, and roll your eyes at this latest flareup, take a deep breath, scroll through the hashtag, and try to imagine yourself in their place. The tweets are genuine, the stories are real, and it's not mindless complaining about how hard life is. As a male, the hardest part about this discussion is you really can't imagine yourself in their place, which is why I suspect these movements have, like clockwork, intensely negative responses. I can't profess to know what it is really like to be a female in the video game industry, and I'll never know, but I can do a better job of listening to those who are living it right now, and do my part to make it a better environment for them.

(One way you can tell this is 2012? The use of female vs. woman. In a follow-up piece, I said I “did not consider myself a feminist” but “know bullshit when I see it.” Oh, Patrick. Buddy.)

It’s true that “Twitter” is responsible for opening my eyes, but it was #1reasontobe that asked me to A) confront the poisonous elements in Giant Bomb’s rabid audience and B) direct my reporting towards confronting the problem. It’s in the months after the “social justice warrior” moniker stuck, I asked women in the gaming industry to comment on Dead Island Riptide’s sexually exploitative pre-order bonus, interviewed the developers of Shank about why it removed a cutscene with a rape threat, repeatedly wrote about Internet harassment (one about Fez II, another time about Flappy Bird), and highlighted the work of marginalized game developers like Zoe Quinn, Porpentine, and others on Giant Bomb’s big, influential platform.

My story about harassment in a Street Fighter tournament was an accident—it was just a story. These other pieces, though, were part of a larger mission to recognize there was a responsibility to use my own power and privilege to raise awareness and enact change. I suddenly saw games in a much larger context, and this permeated my writing and reporting.

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Now, I can praise Spider-Man for how exhilarating it feels to swoop through the skyscrapers of New York, while pointing out how weird it is that Spider-Man puts unflinching faith in the cops. I can scream to the heavens after taking down Nergigante in Monster Hunter: World, while acknowledging it makes me uncomfortable to be hunting down enormous beasts for no reason. I can admire the stupefying attention to detail in Red Dead Redemption 2, while recognizing it was built on unfair and exploitative labor practices that require radical industry change. I doubt that’s something I would’ve done in 2012, but now it’s part of my DNA.

While only clear in retrospect, this was just one of three personally seismic changes.

I have this vivid memory from high school, while in my first real long term relationship. Though not a thumping diehard, she was religious, and was really, genuinely excited for Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. I grew up in a “religious” household more than a religious household, where we went to church on Christmas and Easter, a down payment of performative faith to stay out of Hell. And because I loved this girl—and it really was love—I wanted to take interest in her interests, so that meant buying a bible, skimming through the pages, questioning my own lack of faith, and trying the whole thing out like a pair of clothes.

I’d taken the whole endeavor seriously enough that when we sat down for Gibson’s flick some months later, I found myself weeping as Christ’s body was beaten and bloodied. It was a strange sensation precisely because this—cathartic sobbing— never happened for me. At the time, it seemed like an aberration, possibly a reaction to the theater full of people doing the same thing, but in retrospect, it was probably my body throwing up a red flag.

Yet today, I’m the person who watches a sappy commercial about dropping your off kid at school and it’s over. I think… I think I used to process sadness at a distance, a defense mechanism of sorts. Now, emotions hit me in the gut, shaking my body to its core, ripping at scabs and leaving fresh ones, the past’s way of saying “Hello.”

I’ve spent a lot of time wrestling with how these events are connected, often unable to specifically articulate what exactly happened, but knowing something did. It’s taken years to untangle. I know the puzzle pieces fit together, but the angles—it always feels like the angles are slightly off. But I don’t think it’s an accident my shift towards aggressively engaging with social justice in my work came at the same time my personal life hit its roughest patches.

What binds them, I think, is how each one chipped away at a coat of armor I’d been using my whole life to avoid emotional release, a way of preventing myself from being vulnerable. Being personally vulnerable is part of building empathy, and that’s really what my expanded work at Giant Bomb—and later Kotaku, and now at Waypoint—was about. “Social justice” was another word for showing empathy, and my reporting another avenue of expression.

Then, there’s the summer of 2012.

I don’t know how many calls I’d missed. 15? 30? 45? It might as well have been 100. Every few dials, there was a voicemail attached, and the voice on the other line sounded more and more frantic. That voice—that call—was my brother, trying to relay to me that, at first, my father had a heart attack. Soon after, he was on the way to the hospital. The doctors rushed in, but it was too late. Not long after, he was pronounced dead at 56. Life was now different.

“Call me back,” said every one of the voicemails, without additional detail, except new panic.

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It’s that moment I’m channeling when I watch Kratos. He loves his son, but does not say it. His son probably knows it, but it’s not said out loud. I am not, so far as I can tell, an all-powerful being with a violent streak, but I still saw myself. I know that God of War—both as a series and distinctly in this game—treats women like shit, while going out of its way to find a redemption path for a character who doesn’t deserve one. I mentioned all of this in my review, and critic Dia Lacina expounded upon it wonderfully in a follow-up piece, but I nonetheless found myself taken in, if not blinded by, Kratos and Atreus’ relationship.

My father and I had a good relationship but it wasn’t especially warm—he just wasn’t that type of guy with anyone. He was a terrific father, always supporting my interests and passions. I’m only here because he took chances on my bullshit, even if he never quite understood what they were. When I was 13 years old and walked into my parents room to ask about attending E3 in Atlanta, most parents would have (should have?) blinked. My dad got on a plane, helped me figure out how to register online, and sat in on appointments with me. One year, when the website IGN was supposed to snag me an underage media badge—a thing they don’t even do anymore—he wandered into the E3 show floor, stumbled into the IGN booth, and wouldn’t leave until he found someone who could help me out.

(God, when my dad realized I was on podcasts, he asked me to load one during a family party, and had people sit around and listen for a few minutes. I immediately left the room.)

I hoped we’d find a way towards something different in the future, once he’d retired, become a grandfather, and we were less father/son and more like equals. We never got that chance, and I regret the things left unsaid. I do not want my daughter to assume she’s loved, and I want her to feel comfortable sharing her emotions. If she’s struggling, she shouldn’t have to climb a mountain to find peace, like Madeline in Celeste. I’ll hold her hand the entire time if she needs it, and if she feels the need to do it alone, I’ll be right behind her, in case she falls.

My father’s death constantly mingles with the birth of my daughter. The two events emotionally uncorked me in ways I was not prepared for, and am constantly learning from. Combined with my political, activist, and empathy-driven turn in reporting, the way I think about video games in 2018 is so different that it makes me want to replay old games and wonder what this version of Patrick, a better version of Patrick, would make of them. For a time, I worried my constant discussion of these events in my writing was a distraction, but in reality, it’s my strength. The lens through which I experience life is the same lens through which I experience video games, and to pretend otherwise would be entirely disingenuous.

Follow Patrick on Twitter. If you have a tip or a story idea, drop him an email: patrick.klepek@vice.com.

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