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Can video games teach people to be more empathetic? Maybe.

Designers and scholars say there are many complex challenges and limits in achieving such a goal

(Katty Huertas/The Washington Post)
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In the video game “Path Out,” the main character, Abdullah, is a 17-year-old Muslim youth lost in the forests of northern Syria during his country’s civil war. The game player must help him flee, dodging land mines and gunfire and passing through checkpoints controlled by rebels, government forces or religious zealots. If he dies, a video of the real Abdullah Karam, whose successful flight to freedom in 2014 is the basis for the game, pops up in the corner of the screen and says, “You just killed me, man!”

Path Out is one of a growing number of video games designed to engender empathy in those who play them. Karam, whose story was turned into a video game by Causa Creations after he settled in Austria, says he saw that empathy firsthand when, at a music festival in Budapest, he ran into some young Israeli men who had played it.

Muslims and Jews have been “taught to hate and kill each other,” said Karam, who now goes by the name Jack Gutmann. And yet here were these Israelis at this music festival who had played Path Out, he said, and they “were showing me empathy about my journey, so much that they starting crying and we hugged,” and we started “talking about how we’re all humans, and we don’t want wars and that we just want to live in peace.”

Games that try to induce empathy, like Path Out, are growing in popularity. They include “What Remains of Edith Finch,” where players explore the family history of the Finch house and try to figure out why Edith is the only one in her family left alive. In “Bury Me, My Love,” a Syrian migrant named Nour must make it to Europe while her husband, Majd, remains behind in Syria and tries to guide her to safety through a messaging app. In “Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice,” the main character, a Celtic warrior named Senua, must save the soul of her dead lover but she suffers from psychosis and hears voices.

“We are now starting to realize the power that games can have at evoking certain competencies such as empathy and compassion,” said Matthew Farber, a professor of educational technology at the University of Northern Colorado and author of “Gaming SEL: Games as Transformational to Social and Emotional Learning.

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“That Dragon, Cancer,” about a couple who lost their son to cancer and their grieving process, is used by the University of Buffalo’s Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences to help staff be more empathetic toward their patients.

“I have students [in my classes] who are crying and are so overwhelmed when they’re playing this game that they have to take a break,” said Karen Schrier, associate professor and director of the Games & Emerging Media program at Marist College, who uses the game in class to illustrate empathy.

Playing games with other people helps us develop stronger “cognitive empathy,” which is the ability to see the world from someone else’s point of view — even when it doesn’t match our own, said Jane McGonigal, a video game designer. She also wrote the book “Reality Is Broken,” which argues that people can improve their lives and solve real-world problems by playing games.

She cites chess, in which you must constantly view the game board from the opposite side of the table, looking at the position of the pieces from your opponent’s point of view.

“What is she likely to be thinking about as a next move? What might her strategy be? You can’t just play the game from inside your own head. You have to get in the other player’s head, too,” McGonigal said in an email. “We don’t usually think of this as empathy, but it absolutely is. It’s active perspective taking, which is one of the most fundamental skills of empathy.”

She added, “To me, this is the real power of games, because those [neurological] pathways can be activated in any situation — not just while playing the game.”

Research provides some support for this idea. In one small study, researchers at the University of Wisconsin created a game based on Jamal Davis, an imaginary Black male science student who experiences discrimination in his PhD program. Players took the role of Jamal Davis and experienced what he experiences because of his skin color. When questioned afterward, the players said they understood how he felt and could take on his perspective, indications that they felt empathy.

In another study, researchers divided 150 middle-schoolers into two groups and had half play an experimental game called “Crystals of Kaydor,” created specifically to teach empathy, for two weeks. The other half played a commercially available game called “Bastion” that does not target empathy. Students were given functional magnetic resonance imaging of their brains before and after. Those who played Crystals showed an increase in areas associated with what is called empathic accuracy — the ability to perceive another person’s emotional state — as well as more activity in brain circuits related to empathy and emotions. Researchers surmised it was possible that games like Crystals can produce neural changes in fewer than six hours, at least in adolescents.

But Farber, co-author of a 2017 working paper on “The Limits and strengths of using digital games as empathy machines,” said a misconception exists about empathy.

Most people think it is the idea of walking in someone’s shoes, and so if you play as an avatar of some marginalized group, you are suddenly going to be empathetic to your avatar and thus that group. But empathy is not so much being in someone’s shoes as having the ability to project yourself onto someone else, Farber said.

The character for whom the player feels empathy is sometimes not the character they are playing but another character in the game who may be nice to them. He cites the game “Never Alone,” where players are Nuna, who is on a “Hero’s Journey” with a mythical Arctic Fox who helps Nuna along the way and ultimately sacrifices itself and dies (although it comes back to life). Farber said a journal article reported that many players were more concerned about the fate of the fox than of Nuna.

“If I trip and fall, I don’t have empathy for myself. If I am walking with somebody, and I see them trip and fall, I’ll think, ‘Oh my gosh, are you okay?’ ” Farber said. “Because that’s literally what empathy is: a projection of yourself onto others.”

Some games engender empathy simply because players have feelings, and they have agency in the game, meaning they can choose the outcomes that will affect people around them in the game.

“Sometimes it’s, do I order waffles or pancakes at the diner?” Farber said. “And then sometimes, it’s a really heavy decision and you get to think about it, and the consequences of those decisions. And that’s where games can be really powerful drivers of empathic concern.”

Empathy can arise not just for the characters in the game but also for the people with whom you’re playing. Schrier, who is also author of “We the Gamers: How Games Teach Ethics and Civics,” studied the game “Way” several years ago in which people played anonymously and had to rely on one another to attain a goal. The game lasted only 20 minutes but by its end, she found the players were referring to one another as “my friends,” and saying things like, “We’re friends now.”

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“There’s something about playing together and having those shared goals that you both care about, that made you rely on each other, that builds trust and intimacy really quickly,” she said. But Schrier noted that some games foster cruelty and competitiveness.

Researchers need to figure out what can make it work in some instances and not in others, she said.

“There are games that have been designed with the explicit purpose of fomenting hate,” asking players to hit a stereotyped representation of someone who is Jewish in one case, or a person of color in another or to punch a woman who is a feminist, Schrier said. “These are games I feel terrified to even mention because I don’t think they should get publicity or attention.”

Not everyone buys into the idea that someone can be made more empathetic through video games.

Ian Bogost, director of the Program in Film & Media Studies and professor of computer science and engineering at Washington University in St. Louis, said he doubts that the emotions induced while playing can be incorporated into how someone acts in the real world.

“People have lots of deep, spiritual, emotional, social connections with media forms, and that becomes incorporated into their perspectives in some way. But beyond that, it’s all very murky and complicated,” said Bogost, the author of “Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames.”

Others said that games that are supposed to evoke empathy spark curiosity more than anything else. For instance, one game takes players using virtual reality headsets through a refugee camp to show how hard life is there. Critics said players are mostly just getting a tourist’s view of the camp and do not come away understanding the feelings of loss and uncertainty about the future actual refugees feel.

“I wish these games would use different wording, like, ‘raising awareness,’ ” instead of empathy games or games that allow you to walk in someone’s shoes, said Kishonna Gray, associate professor in Writing, Rhetoric, and Digital Studies at the University of Kentucky and a faculty associate at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society.

She recalled playing the video game “Darfur Is Dying” about eight years ago, a game that won in 2006 the Darfur Digital Activist Contest, which was sponsored by a unit of MTV to create a video game that would also be an advocacy tool about the crisis in Western Sudan. Gray thought, that’s a bold claim.

The game opens by saying “Help stop the crisis in Darfur,” and then you proceed to play as a family victimized by war, conflict, colonization and western neglect, Gray said.

“There’s no way you’re going to be able to sit at a console and play a video game for five minutes and feel like you’ve walked in the shoes of someone who’s dying in Africa,” she said.

During the height of the Black Lives Matter protests, Gray said, some university researchers hired her as a gaming consultant to help them make a virtual reality video about how Black youths experience the police. She asked them to walk her through the narrative. They said it would be the final moments of the life of a Black boy who is dying at the hands of police. She asked them what their goal was. They told her they wanted people to be aware of the issues between Black people and the police.

“They had to showcase Black death to simulate that experience?” she said. “They were well-intentioned, and it’s the same for most folks making these tools, but they all say the same thing: We need people to see what happens in order to generate empathy.”

Still, for many people, the right video games can produce an emotional response that seems to open them to others.

Nicholas Fisher, a junior at Marist College and one of Schrier’s students, recently played a game called “Spiritfarer,” where players take on the role of Stella, who roams the world in a boat, picking up lost souls and helping them come to terms with their deaths before allowing them to pass on. He said he was moved by the game, largely because the designers did a lot of research to make the souls compellingly authentic characters with relatable storylines.

For him, it was an older spirit called Alice, who departs the game after the player has helped build a house for her spirit. Sending her off reminded him of how he felt when he lost his grandmother, which happened recently.

“Anyone who’s had to live with or be with a grandparent toward the end of their lives will definitely be able to resonate with that,” he said. “I’m usually not much of a crier during games, but her send-off almost brought me to tears.”

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