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How I Learned to Empathize From a Video Game

"I have autism, and am aware of the misconception that we lack empathy."

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Author: Milo Arson
Photo: Alexander Jawfox

“I want you to witness the fate of the town of Nipton… Nipton was a wicked place, debased and corrupt… the town agreed to lead those it had sheltered into a trap. Only when I sprang it did they realize they were caught inside it, too… Each clutched his ticket, hoping it would set him free. Each did nothing, even when “loved ones” were dragged away to be killed.” -Vulpes Inculta, Fallout: New Vegas

It took me until the age of eighteen to realize that I’m not good at empathy. I have autism, and am aware of the misconception that we lack empathy. I’ve always thought ‘that doesn’t apply to me’; I’m a good person, and I’d always thought you needed empathy to be a good person.

Like autism is a spectrum, so is our experience of empathy. There are autistic people who are hyper-empathetic, just as there are autistic people who cannot experience empathy. None of this determines one’s morality.

I thought I was good at masking my lack of empathy. Really, I’m good at sympathy. I don’t understand how to put myself in someone’s shoes.

I adore fiction, specifically RPGs. My favorite game is Fallout: New Vegas.

At first glance, New Vegas doesn’t seem immersive. It was released in 2010, and you can tell. Characters’ blocky faces don’t emote when they talk. ‘FalloutNV has stopped working’ is a common meme.

The game’s story is what sucks you in. The first time I play an RPG, I play as myself and make the decisions that I would. I embellish things, but the perspective I play from is uniquely mine. I feel as though I’m traveling the Mojave, deciding the fate of Mr. House’s Vegas empire.

There’s something special about experiencing a story as yourself. RPGs give you a stake in the world. For a long time, I didn’t recognize the effect RPGs had on my empathy. I only recently thought to pick that apart, after a meeting with Vulpes Inculta.

From the get-go, the Legion is the bad guy of New Vegas. In layman’s terms, they’re incels cosplaying as ancient Romans. In post-nuclear America, they’re a brutal empire of slavers. I’ve always understood factually that their actions are atrocious. I’ve always hated them, because (like many autistic people) my moral compass is extremely strong. I understand when a villain is well-written, but I can never like them.

I’ve played this quest many times. The NCR has lost contact with nearby Nipton, and Ranger Ghost asks you to investigate. When you approach, a man cheers at you that he won the lottery. If you explore the town, you’ll come across someone whose lottery ticket allowed his life to be spared, but his legs to be mutilated. He’ll be the first to tell you of the Legion’s atrocities: everyone else was either killed or enslaved, even those who helped the Legion.

Further down, you will see a line of crucified townspeople. Activating them explains that if you to let them down, they would die. Then, you meet Vulpes Inculta, a member of Caesar’s Legion. He explains that the townspeople fell into their own trap and were killed as punishment for their debauchery.

When I play, I walk into Nipton already knowing what happened. I have a strong imagination and visualize the lottery as Vulpes describes it. I can imagine people being dragged off to be killed as fellow citizens watch. It’s horrifying from an outside perspective.

But this time, I noticed something different: I felt as though I could understand the emotions of the scene from the inside.

Vulpes’ voice struck fear into me. This was why the townspeople did nothing, I realized. They felt that terror… and now, so did I. I got chills down my spine.  The bad guy gained dimension he’d previously lacked.

This isn’t a new experience for me. For years, I’ve been building empathy through RPGs. My experience with the backstory of Paladin Danse from Fallout 4 stands out. He had to kill his closest friend after he’d been captured by super mutants. It takes vulnerability for such a serious man to tell you something so personal. It explains his hatred of ‘abominations’. It gives him depth. I see myself in Danse: loyalty, awkwardness, strong morals. I project; in my mind he’s trans and autistic.

I made a wasteland backstory for my own character, a fictionalized version of my trauma. When Paladin Danse told me his backstory, I imagined my character telling him about the decisions that shaped his own identity. I connected the emotions of our stories. I empathized.

I’ve done this many other times. I cried for the loss of my father and Tali’s in Mass Effect 2. I understood Flowey’s bitterness in Undertale because I had been failed by those around me. Existing within these characters’ worlds connected me to their feelings. 

Choices in an RPG have always been important to me. You can go back to the same scenes over and over and experience different outcomes. This time, my courier takes no shit. This comes in contrast to the courier I played as myself. I converse and act as she would.

The ability to make decisions without real life consequence has allowed me to quite literally put myself in other peoples’ shoes. In the reactive setting of an RPG, I can simulate others’ experiences. It’s a valuable tool that I’m glad to learn from.

I still go through life unable to fully comprehend emotion. I wish I could be more empathetic, but I’m glad to know that I’m getting there. Understanding people isn’t easy, and for some of us it takes more work. 

I want to close with a message about accessibility. This is accessibility; It’s unconventional: RPGs are one of many accommodations that help make life more approachable for me. They’re part of my toolkit, and I believe every autistic person should have the freedom to choose their accommodations. We know ourselves best.


About the Author:
Milo is a normal average person who happens to be trans and autistic. His greatest joys in life are video games, his friends, and his cat. If you’d like to check out his art, visit https://www.instagram/clownmeat666. If you’d like to just check out… him, visit https://www.instagram.com/c.azzi.miei. If you like his writing or just want to buy him more video games, you can support him at his venmo: milomaltedmilk.


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