PAXsims

Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Connections: on the power of empathy

Raspberry the WATU Wren bear and Smuggie, mascot of Connections North, proudly sporting Derby House Principles pins
Get your own adorable Wren bear from the RN Museum online shop!

Something that came up again and again in the excellent Connections North diversity panel discussion was the importance of empathy as a skill for wargamers:

  • Yuna Wong raised it as one of the top five skills she’d look for in a wargamer, and it’s certainly been my experience that the people who are great to work with are the people who get all the work
  • Paul Strong raised it in the power of narrative (and all wargames are a form of collaborative storytelling), pointing to the advent of the novel as a means for social change by giving people new perspectives
  • Brianna Proceviat raised it in answer to a question from Cath Jones about educating people about diversity and inclusion by flipping the power dynamic

And everything I’ve done this past year in support of the Derby House Principles has been successful because of empathy.

Isn’t it beautiful that what works to improve diversity and inclusion is the exact same thing that makes people good wargamers?

What is empathy?

Teressa Wiseman defines four attributes of empathy:

  • taking another’s perspective
  • staying out of judgement
  • recognising emotion in other people
  • and communicating that understanding

Key skills for helping a friend in a difficult time—and equally in red-teaming a hostile power without falling prey to stereotypes, reading the other players, and contributing to the game analysis and insights.

Why does it work for D&I?

Some years ago, I had to fight hard to get reasonable adjustments for dyslexia. Just a screen-reader, nothing earth-shattering, but between being good at my job and the perception that real dyslexics are functionally illiterate, it was incredibly difficult to convince people of my need. Facts and figures made no impact on people who perceived me as perfectly capable. What I needed was a way to make them feel how difficult and frustrating and exhausting it was to be working so hard to keep up.

Enter stage left a serious game about dyslexia, where, through the magic of science, I make a room full of otherwise competent adults lose the ability to read, write, and speak coherently, to remember anything, to recognise familiar objects, and even tell the time. It’s hilarious and stressful and eye-opening, and it literally works because it is a lesson in empathy.

Wargame instructions in English but with the words broken in all the wrong places to make it really difficult to read
What’s wrong, you can’t read these very simple wargame instructions? Are you stupid?? ;-)

People come away from this workshop having experienced dyslexia. Having felt the glare of the spotlight on them trying to read when reading is hard, or trying to make a coherent argument when they can’t find the words they want, or having stared and stared and stared at something that makes no sense at all while everyone else just gets it.

It literally changes people’s perception of dyslexia and disability (non-ironic feedback includes: “This saved my marriage. I thought my husband was doing all these things just to annoy me.”) And it does it because it makes people feel what it’s like. I don’t tell people dyslexia is frustrating, I make them frustrated. And the lesson sticks because it gets encoded with that powerful emotion…and also because it’s an absolute blast and a compelling magic trick they want to tell everyone about.

Enter the Derby House Principles

One of the first things that came up in Derby House Principles conversations was how to help smaller wargaming organisations talk about diversity when they don’t have anyone to speak to the experience. 

The diversity card deck, inspired by Tom Mouat’s excellent Migrants card deck, is the diversity missing from the room. Players draw a card and relay the vignette to the group in the first person, as if it happened to them. That act of imaginative empathy: what if this happened to me? is followed by a group discussion of whether the same situation plays out differently for them and why. For a lot of men, it’s genuinely the first time they’ve even considered that these things happen, or what it would feel like to be on the receiving end. And it’s had such a massive impact on the culture where I work. 

We went from a place where well-intentioned men would respond, “I’m sure it’s not like that,” whenever I said this is my experience as the only woman in the room, to one where they genuinely realised there could be another perspective. And it didn’t just convert the good-eggs. People who harrumphed loudly at the idea of the card deck found their wives or girlfriends looking over their shoulder, saying, “Yes. Yep. That too. Oh my god all the time. And that one,” and the clouds parted, the heavenly choirs sang, the god rays shone down, and they realised (gasp) all women and minorities are human beings with thoughts and feelings just like their significant other—and that people they care about suffer these indignities and incivilities and injustices all the time too. It has meaning because they’ve connected it to someone they care about, not the ‘other’.

Walk a mile in our shoes

Another big inspiration for me in experiential learning is Jane Elliot’s anti-racism work. It works because she makes people feel discrimination:

And Brenda Romero’s mechanic is the message games: the Middle Passage, Trail of Tears, the Irish Game, and most famously Train.

And the same leap of imaginative empathy is at work in the RPG Dog Eat Dog by Liam Burke. (More on my project to use that to start conversations about discrimination here.) What’s stuck with me most about the games we’ve played so far is that it’s the role-playing that makes it real to straight white non-disabled men—it’s feeling that awful sense of this is wrong and I am powerless, and tying themselves in knots managing the emotions of the dominant group when they’ve never had that perspective before, and being disabused of their naive ideas that minority groups just haven’t done it right so far and here comes a white/male saviour to show them the way… it’s the role-playing that makes them open their eyes and really hear what women and minorities have been saying. It’s the act of imaginative empathy that teaches. 

Empathy is why nobody who plays this game can forget it.

How do we make more connections?

Another point made in the diversity panel was that the heavy lifting of D&I should not be left—or piled on—to the minority wargamers. That, by virtue of being the only woman, or BAME/BIPOC, or LGBT, or disabled person in the building, everyone expects them to lead on D&I and be the diversity, and do the hard work so everyone else can congratulate themselves that its being done without getting their hands dirty.

The biggest challenge of all of this has been how do I get men to talk about women’s issues, straight people to talk about LGBT issues, non-disabled people to talk about disability issues, white people to talk about race. Too often a minority person is left to do all the talking, all the leading, all the fixing. Silence is complicity. Even when I write an essay about exactly that…folks talk about it in private where nobody will disagree, not in public spaces, not to minority wargamers, not where it will make a difference.

Vulnerability isn’t weakness, it’s strength

The first time I saw the needle move was when a straight white man in a position of authority admitted on a VTC that he’d read a blog on Black Lives Matter and wanted to comment to show support but panicked because he didn’t want to say the wrong thing. That admission of vulnerability, I wanted to do better but I didn’t know how, opened the floodgates for others who’d been silent, who supported D&I but didn’t know how to show their support and were afraid to intrude on a space they didn’t think was theirs.

Men: you have so much power to set the tone and start these conversations, just by saying I don’t have all the answers but I want to learn. Worry less about saying the wrong thing. You only have to say I see you, I’m listening.

Make it easy for allies to show their support

Derby House D20 pin badge

The Derby House pins look great so people want to wear them. 

I learnt the power of ally badges presenting to the board of executives. It just so happened a good number of them were wearing LGBT Ally badges. Walking into that intimidating space and seeing those silent messages of support—completely unrelated to the topic I was presenting on—was magic. Seeing people wearing Derby House pins—or “I’m not a dickhead” badges, as they’ve come to be known—is knowing who your friends are in a room full of strangers.

Get your pin here.

The hardest work of all

It’s possible to talk someone out of bigotry. Watching some of the D&I trolls see the light—go from posting misogynist nonsense to amplifying Derby House Principles messaging—has been a delightful, heartwarming, life-affirming D&I soap opera. It’s also been hard hard work. I’ll be the first to admit I am not a good-enough person to be able to meet trolling and bigotry with the compassion and kindness and patience required. Not because I don’t agree it’s the right way to achieve change, but because I’m human and flawed and quite frankly because it’s hard to treat people with the respect and dignity and compassion that they do not show in return. Being on the receiving end of trolling and just vile comments on PAXsims does not make me all that disposed to generosity towards the marginal comments and well-intended-but-oblivious comments and idiot-but-not-actually-bigotted comments.

Jamil Zaki: It can be really exhausting to empathise with people who are different from us. Especially if they have opinions that we might fear or abhore.

Laurie Santos: Now I try really hard to be an understanding person. And I truely beleve in the importance of Jamil’s battle for kindness. But almost every day I see some view online that makes me see red. When people seem to be so hateful, it’s really really hard to see them as deserving of my compassion or my emotional energy. I was surprised that the guy who literally wrote the book on empathy got exactly what I was saying.

Jamil Zaki: Trust me, I feel that way all the time. I still remember when the New York Times had this whole very sympathetic portrayal of a family in Illinois that happened to be Nazis. And I remember a detail where they were trying to humanise this family by talking about how they cooked their pasta and I just remember thinking “I don’t want to hear about your Nazi pasta. I don’t want to humanise you.” It’s exhausting to connect. And it’s especially exhausting to connect with people who say things that are awful and that don’t really deserve a platform.

[…]

Laurie Santos: I want to make sure that all this empathic labour is a bit more evenly distributed. That the hard work of deep connection doesn’t just fall to historically marginalised groups who’ve long been on the recieving side of all the injustice; these are the folks least likely to have the emotional bandwidth to make connections.

Listen to the whole Happiness Lab episode here.

Ok, but what can I do?

Empathy is a learnable skill, an improveable skill. Do it to be a better wargamer. Do it for a better wargaming culture. Do it for better wargame outputs. Do it for whatever reason you like, but please hear Yuna and myself when we say women and minorities cannot carry the whole D&I load for all of wargaming.

Listen to the follow-up Happiness Lab episode for an excellent guide on how to be a better ally.

Read about the Derby House Principles for diversity and inclusion in professional wargaming here.

One response to “Connections: on the power of empathy

  1. Sue Collins 23/02/2021 at 2:11 pm

    Empathy is a huge skill to have as a facilitator. I used to think ‘difficult’ people who were arguing or disagreeing with everything were just being a$$holes, but I switched my thinking to try and understand their perspectives and concerns, and since then I have been the resolver of many an argument in meetings and workshops. Nearly every argument I’ve seen is the result of not understanding the other person’s perspective.

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