Some cooperative (co-op) video games allow you to choose how much you interact with the other players. You could play Don’t Starve Together completely isolated from your companions, for example, but it’s much easier to survive if you join forces. Overcooked allows you to do your own thing without communicating, but you’ll have a tough time making progress that way. Other co-op games, like A Way Out, force you to work together and think about the other person’s perspective. And that turns out to be a compelling model for empathy.
A Way Out follows two criminals who are determined to escape from prison so they can get revenge on the crime boss who put them there. As soon as I began playing, I noticed a metaphorical chasm between my life experience and the characters’. One of the two inmates, Leo, is a hardened criminal, willing to do anything to get the job done. He gets frustrated with difficult situations and tends to punch his way out of them. Like most of the prisoners, Leo has a foul mouth, which is one of the many details that reminds me how different his culture is from mine. I relate slightly more to Vincent, who says he is innocent of the crime that put him in jail and tends to talk first and punch if it’s the only option. Whether I’m playing A Way Out as Leo or Vincent, living in someone else’s shoes is uncomfortable. But maybe I need some of that discomfort in my life.
At various points in A Way Out, the two characters will offer different opinions on how to move forward. My partner and I have to agree on choosing either Leo’s way or Vincent’s way. For example, as they are on the run outside of prison, they can choose to go over a bridge and steal a cop’s car (Leo’s way) or go under it to avoid conflict (Vincent’s way). I find myself always leaning Vincent’s way, but I still force myself to consider Leo’s perspective (partly because, in this instance, he’s being played by my fiance and we’re trying to learn to make decisions together). As the characters’ backstories unravel, I understand them more. What’s more, the bond grows between them as they interact with each other. One of my favorite parts of the game is when Vincent and Leo climb back-to-back up the walls of a narrow alley. My fiance and I time our button-mashing with each other to avoid falling. Leo also hates heights and Vincent has to persuade him to do it, which results in some humorous dialogue as they’re ascending.
The game’s split screen merges at points to focus on one character over the other, so even if I don’t care about Leo at first, I’m forced to learn more about him. But the tables really turn for me when Leo drags Vincent along to find Leo’s family and make sure they are OK. The two play basketball with Leo’s son, and though the mechanics of this segment are not difficult, I am still the one pressing the buttons to initiate the gameplay. I am Vincent, watching a loving father who wants to connect with his child.
A Way Out forces you to work together and think about the other person’s perspective.
These characters may be criminals, but they are still human. How often do I forget about others’ humanity when I’m interacting with real people? How often do I write them off because they don’t behave according to my moral code, considering them two-dimensional beings I can dismiss because I don’t understand them? The end of A Way Out, which I won’t spoil here, is heartbreaking because of the friendship the two characters have formed, but also because of the connection my fiance and I have made with the characters and the teamwork we’ve employed with each other throughout the game.
I can’t help but wonder if Jesus intended his followers to exhibit the type of empathy that A Way Out encourages players to enact. After all, this is how he behaves when he’s on Earth: searching out those who do not follow biblical principles and understanding their perspective. He does not throw a stone at the woman caught in adultery, even though he is the only one who has a right to do it. I certainly don’t have the right to throw a stone at anyone.
As I get older and interact in a variety of different circles, meeting others whose life experiences, opinions, and beliefs differ greatly from mine, I find myself increasingly appreciating empathy. I feel respected when people don’t discount me because we’re different. No one can live in my shoes the way I can control a video-game character, but if we seek to understand each other, we may be better able to love others as we love ourselves. If we only surround ourselves with like-minded individuals and ignore everyone else, we may find ourselves trapped in a prison of our own making that is not God-honoring. Experiencing empathy is a way out.