“Empathy Game” by Anna Anthropy is an installation piece in which players can wear a pair of her old shoes and walk around in them. The shoes have a pedometer attached to them, and players receive one point for every literal mile they walk in Anthropy’s shoes. A chalkboard is provided on which players can keep score.
The piece was conceived as a reaction to the discourse around the game “Dys4ia“, one of Anthropy’s early works, which took the form of small vignettes about the 6 months following her decision to begin hormone therapy. As the game found popularity, Anthropy became frustrated with the way that people talked about “empathy games”, praising Dys4ia for allowing them to experience what it’s like to be a trans woman. To her, the idea that a game allows you to truly empathize is bullshit, and the whole conversation was just a bunch of people praises themselves for being good allies without having done any of the real work. Finally, fed up, she came up with the idea of literally sending her shoes to an exhibition that was requesting to show her game.
As a statement, “Empathy Game” is effective through its simplicity. By simply making the metaphor of the shoes and the mile literal, and by presenting the futile game that comes from crudely putting them together, the artist presents her take on things in a way that still invites viewers in. The energy of the piece is frustration, but it’s presented in a way that still invites the audience to enter into it. One thing “Empathy Game” doesn’t do is make an argument for what a method for actual empathy-building would be, but then again, I don’t think that was part of its mission. It is interesting to contrast the energy with the piece with an initiative like “The Machine to Be Another” – a very different kind of project that has the word ’empathy’ floating around it.