Empathy: 1. the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions
2. the ability to share someone else’s feelings
So much of our gaming time requires us to shoot, slice, hit or use other forms of violence to progress. And it’s a lot of fun, which is why we keep coming back to these types of games time and time again. But there’s been a rising trend of games where the goal is pretty much the opposite, games that want you to empathise with characters rather than hurt them.
While we have yet to see a conclusive study linking video games to violent behaviour, such studies have shown that constant exposure to violent images is detrimental to a child’s ability to feel empathy
But this article isn’t about that seemingly never-ending story of violence in video games. Rather, it’s a look at how games are now being designed to actually foster empathy with some clever and thoughtful subject matters. An extreme example is the children’s tablet game If, which was spearheaded by former EA boss Trip Hawkins after he managed to raise $6.5 million from investors. If is designed for 7-11 year old kids to teach them skills in social and emotional learning (SEL) by guiding them through situations like bullying and helping others in need. Hawkins has described the project as being a bigger accomplishment than creating the blockbuster Madden NFL franchise.
But you certainly don’t need a multi-million dollar budget to make gamers feel empathy, nor do you need to appeal to children by dancing around with cute animal characters. Last year’s indie puzzler Papers, Please put you in the shoes of an immigration officer in a fictional communist nation where your job is to make difficult decisions such as denying or approving entry to a woman fleeing a human trafficking trade. You may choose to empathise and let her through, but doing so risks a fine that will directly impact you and your starving family. In Papers, Please there’s no Renegade/Paragon dichotomy, you simply have to live with the choices you make.
In psychology, the empathy’s evil twin is known as schadenfreude: “the antisocial response of glee that we feel when someone else is writhing in physical or emotional pain”. It’s the kind of awful stuff you see in the characters of Tarantino movies and perhaps experience more subtly in daily life when you see people around you get their just deserts. In 2010, researchers at the University of Innsbruck conducted a study on whether students in their late 20s experienced a change in schadenfreude after playing a Lemmings-style game involving saving the lives cute and cuddly creatures. The students were then shown some vignettes of the misfortunes of Paris Hilton after she was sent to jail following several parole violations. The study was conclusive that the students all felt reduced levels of schadenfreude towards Hilton after playing the Lemmings game and the result was backed up after the subjects read a story about a man who was attacked in his own home and robbed of $60,000.
The emotional outpour of crying is not something people generally look for in video games, but one indie project is managing just that. That Dragon, Cancer is the story of parents Ryan and Amy Green and the experiences they go through raising their son Joel, a four year-old in his third year of fighting terminal cancer. The adventure game lets players relive Ryan and Amy’s memories as well as the heartache and hope as Joel’s health slowly deteriorates. This is a game where there is no winning. Joel died in March of this year, just five years old. The game’s ending is already pre-determined and the experience comes from the journey. That Dragon, Cancer is currently being developed by Josh Larson in cooperation with Ryan Green.
The more you look for empathy in video games, the more you find. Recently our news wiz Joe Martin penned a feature on how Outlast helps gamers understand sexual abuse, showing that empathy can be just as much interpretive as explicit. Looking for those moments of empathy in ourselves while gaming could help offset the obtuse amount of violence we expose ourselves to.