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Using Games to Inspire Empathy - Pros and Cons

Can we use games to empathize with others and understand other's perspectives, identities, and experiences? In this blog post, I describe a UNESCO working paper by Karen Schrier & Matthew Farber on the pros and cons of using games as "empathy machines."

What is it like to be a cat? A dog? A bird? A tall person? A short person? A billionaire? A person without a home?

Now close your eyes and imagine for a moment. What would it be like to be an older person with limited mobility, a baby living in an orphanage, or a person on Death Row? What was it like to be a WWII fighter pilot? What is it like to be the President of the United States?

The show, Black Mirror also asks this question. The episode, "Black Museum," features a story adapted from Penn Jillette's "Pain Addict." The story (and episode) explores the ability to directly feel another's suffering -- and what happens when this goes awry. 

This story taps into something very human. We have all tried to imagine what it is like to be someone or something else. We've all wondered: what is it like to see the world another's eyes or to walk in their shoes? And perhaps we have also wanted the reverse. We have yearned for others to understand us or “get” what we have gone through or experienced. 

If only we had some type of “machine” where we could break away from our selves, and step inside another. Could virtual reality and gaming be that ultimate “empathy machine” and transport us to another world, life, and viewpoint?

In a new working paper by Matthew Farber and me (Karen Schrier), “The Limits and Strengths of Using Digital Games as ‘Empathy Machines,” we grapple with some of the questions around how games can help inspire empathy. For instance, how can games enable us to take on new perspectives and identities? How can games help us to connect with other people, and even computer-generated game characters?

Empathy is the act of feeling what another feels and taking on their thoughts, perspectives, and responses. It involves stepping away from our self and temporarily identifying with someone else. This is distinct, for instance, from sympathy or compassion, where we consider and care about others, but do not necessarily feel their feelings or enact their suffering.

There are biological, behavioral, and cognitive aspects to this. Scientists refer to something called “mirror neurons” or nerve cells in a person’s brain that respond to the stimuli that they see another person affected by. These neurons help to “mirror” to a person what is happening to someone else, as if the person were being directly stimulated.

Empathy seems to be important for supporting connection and intimacy among people. Having a partner, parent, or pal who can really understand what you are going through can deepen that relationship; having many people understand different facets of humanity can deepen society. It may even help to compel people to lift each other up and reach out to those in need, to assist others in situations that we ourselves may never have experienced. We cannot all experience all forms of suffering or strife, but we can imagine what someone might feel going through this, and it might help us to connect with others and cultivate a more connected society.

On the other hand: empathy has its drawbacks, as the Black Mirror episode explored. It may even be more important to cultivate compassion or sympathy, rather than empathy. 

Since we cannot experience all of life’s possibilities first-hand, we have stories we can read, movies we can see, and games we can play that can give us a taste of what it is like to be in someone else’s shoes. But how might games support empathy differently than, say, a book or a television show?

In the game, That Dragon, Cancer, for example, players immerse themselves in the world of a family who is coping with their young son being diagnosed with terminal cancer. In the educational game series, Mission US, players take on the role of different historically-based characters, such as a Jewish immigrant in the early 1900s, or a Cheyenne boy in the 1800s. In the game, Spent, players make choices for a person who is experiencing financial hardship. 

But no matter how hard we try, we cannot fully leave ourselves and step into another’s shoes. We cannot fully inhabit another person, being or thing. It is the ultimate boundary and one that cannot be crossed no matter what. While we may never be able to be a cat, a dog, or a person different from ourselves, perhaps games can enable us a glimpse into another’s lives, and time in a world where we can care about them for a little while.

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