Video Games Can Boost Empathy
Note: This article is the first in a series that captures game industry experts' opinions on game titles and mechanics that might boost players' positive habits, mindsets, and skills. These insights arose from discussions at an iThrive-sponsored think tank with game developers and scholars.
Researchers and policy advocates have spent decades tallying the dangers of video games. But there is growing scientific evidence that prosocial video games—those with opportunities to help instead of harm others—can boost players' empathy and prompt them to be more helpful towards others in the real world.
Many games that demonstrate prosocial outcomes in research (Lemmings and Super Mario Sunshine are two examples) were designed first and foremost for entertainment, not to leave players hankering to do good. So the empathy boost captured in much of this research appears to be a happy byproduct of great game design, not—at least not always—an outcome developers deliberately target. It turns out even games with violent themes can prompt prosocial behavior in players who play in cooperative mode.
This made us at iThrive wonder, what other great games already out there might be brimming with opportunities to hone skills and habits that benefit teens? And what would happen if more developers did aim to boost skills like empathy using principles of great game design?
ITHRIVE GAMES' DESIGN HIVES
To gather some insights into these questions, we hosted a think tank ("Design Hive") with six expert video game developers and scholars. These industry experts met with us over a long weekend to trade reflections on games and design features that open the door to positive practices like empathy, even if by accident. We left with a curated list of promising "empathy games," shared below.
We launched the discussion on empathy with iThrive's evidence-based definition (adapted from the work of emotion researcher Dr. Jamil Zaki): Empathy means feeling what others feel, imagining how they view situations, and being motivated to do something with that knowledge. Here's what the developers had to say.
INHABITING THE MEDIUM
One insight permeates the rest: video games are special in the world of media. Games researcher Katherine Isbister (who attended the Design Hive) writes in her book, "At their heart, games differ from other media in one fundamental way: they offer players the chance to influence outcomes through their own efforts. With rare exception, this is not true of film, novels, or television."
The ability to fully inhabit the world of a video game, to embody characters with agency and a chance to impact the world and characters around them, is foundational to many of the experts' other insights about games and empathy. The action in a game, unlike in most other media, is the result of something "I, the player" have done. This stands to make players uniquely invested and immersed in the story before them. And research shows that immersive presence can be linked to increased empathy.
So, from the perspective of "me," the agentic player, these are a few of the ways games offer chances to develop empathy:
- I see other perspectives as valuable currency. In some games, I have to consider points of view different from my own in order to succeed. I must examine both sides of a family feud in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, decide how probing a question to pose to each character in Telltale's The Walking Dead, and interview characters in detective games like Nancy Drew to piece together what really happened. I take my time to listen because missing something important has real consequences for my success.
- I act from different points of view. In games like Never Alone, Brothers, and Telltale's Game of Thrones series, I can switch from one character to another. This lets me see the same world through many eyes and viscerally explore and appreciate each character's unique perspectives and abilities to move the action forward.
- I inhabit difficult circumstances. Even though I may never do it in real life, I can experience the perils of war in This War of Mine and 1979:Revolution, embody someone who is different and marginalized in Dys4ia, see the world through the eyes of a boy with autism in Max: An Autistic Journey, and care for a child with a terminal illness in That Dragon, Cancer.
- I lose someone important. When I lose characters or companions who have helped me or kept me company throughout the game—like in Passage, Fable 2 or Dragon Age: Origins—I wonder if there was something I could have done differently to save them. I have to strategize about what I'll do without them and adapt to their absence. I might feel more empathy for the experience of loss in general.
- I make choices that impact others. In Mass Effect, I choose which character will perform a potentially fatal mission. In Undertale I decide which characters to help and which to fight, and in Papers, Please I find out how willing I am to break the rules to help someone else at a personal cost. In multiplayer online games like World of Warcraft, my choices have an impact on real players. I weigh whether to cooperate or compete, whether or not to share my loot, and learn how it feels when others make these decisions about me. I watch the consequences of my choices play out for better or for worse.
One thing was clear after this session: video games can model and prompt empathy, and it doesn't happen in a vacuum. It helps if players are willing and able to reflect on what they encounter and have the supports necessary to do so effectively. At iThrive, we strive to identify or create the supports that allow games to be meaningful for teens' well-being. But starting with great game design certainly doesn't hurt.
In that spirit, our Design Hive experts recommend 8 games that are developmentally appropriate for teens and may provide opportunities to practice empathy*:
- 1979 Revolution: Black Friday
- Never Alone
- Papers, Please
- Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
- That Dragon, Cancer
- This War of Mine
Have you played them? How have these or other games helped you or someone you know to develop empathy? Share your story!
Note: iThrive produced the curated games list in a joint effort with expert game developers and scholars. Their recommendations are rooted in evidence-based definitions and examples of empathy provided by iThrive. These games have not been scientifically proven to boost empathy, but they contain features that appear to provide opportunities to develop it.