Empathy is tricky. It’s quite difficult to understand what another human being is feeling without having had a similar experience. And, even then, we can falsely assume that our experiences are equivalent, which is dangerous in its own way. Empathy is a hard thing to understand, and an even harder thing to implement compassionately and respectfully.
I grew up in the Evangelical Christian church, my family usually falling on the conservative and exhaustively theological sides of religion. I left, about three years ago. I find that the less time I spend around Christians, the harder it is to have empathy for their ways of seeing and living.
That’s why I was so happy when I began to learn spiritual empathetic lessons from a videogame.
By now, I’m sure you’ve encountered at least a tip of the Commotion Iceberg, into which Proteus has rammed. You know, that game where you “just kind of muck about a bit,” there’s some pretty music, and it ends. The game that warns you that it’s not what you’re used to. Well, I tiptoed into this ocean — or was it an iceberg — in order to get some of this “is it even a game” experience for my greedy self.
At first, Proteus tickled my ears and my eyes with beauty on both fronts. The soundtrack adapted to the environment as I walked, with every frog-leap or chicken-scatter there came an appropriate addition to the cacophony of blips and beeps. I started poking my head under trees, scaling peaks, and standing inside circles of Pretty Weird Statues to observe meteor showers. I was enraptured.
Then, as I continued to explore, I realized that my senses weren’t being so tickled. I was getting bored. Call it the influence of the 21st century TwitterVerse and television, or blame it on AAA gaming and “cinematic action.” Either way, my brain expected MORE. It foolishly expected the overwhelming stimulation of Skyrim. I started disengaging, thinking about how to make the landscape change, or even thinking about making a sandwich. I started becoming antsy.
What happened next was spiritual.
I remembered the times I had been strolling outside, and been a bit disengaged or mentally distracted. I remembered that it was always helpful to sit down, and take in my surroundings. Do a little meditating, at least meditating of a simple sort. So, as I recognized my own restlessness with Proteus, I did just that.
I approached a beach, and as the moon was rising over the ocean, I sat down underneath a great sprawling oak. I started admiring the leaves, slowly falling from the trees. I admired the bugs, the rabbits, and the sounds. The soundscape, curved and sliced through the otherwise silent evening. I was alone, isolated, but surrounded by systems. Systems of teeming life, swaying in the breeze — or croaking, if you were the sort of teeming life that was frog-shaped. I started admiring the creativity that it took to put all this into motion.
Proteus is a created world. Ed Key and David Kanaga had arranged this world, for me — and others — to enjoy. The structures around me, the pulsating natural structures, were created by two humans. I started thinking about the work that it would take, the hours they spend making that tree look just so. The squirrels weren’t just fun to look at, they were created to be fun to look at. That gives them a different sort of meaning. The meaning that Christians see in God’s creation. I recognized these feelings, these moments of appreciation as I looked around at the world that a being had created for me.
I was having the experience that my Christian friends speak of, the experience they have when they look around at the actual natural world.
They see unity, order, and beauty, all at the hand of a creator. I was admiring Ed and David as the creators of the world I was inhabiting, and it made the world better. It made the world more beautiful, because it was created with intention. The trees swayed because they were programmed to sway. Programmed in order to create beauty.
And, all of a sudden, this realization increased my understanding and empathy. Thanks to Ed and Dave, I was at least a little bit closer to the Christians in my life, in a way I would have never expected. I know now a bit of what they feel, even if it is just a parallel sensation. Now, when a bible-believer talks to me about the awe they feel, as well as the subsequent worship that such awe produces, I get it. I get it a little.
I know what it is to sit and purely admire a creation.