Decades ago, video games were seen as nothing more than a waste of time. Nowadays, gaming has evolved to help change the world and make us better people. Amidst the button mashing and flashing lights, can playing games give you more empathy?
A two-week study
In 2018, University of Wisconsin (UW)-Madison researchers studied empathy in teens through gaming. They created a game called Crystals of Kaydor, which forces players to collect spaceship pieces through emotions. In the game, players have to decipher the proper emotions from the local residents.
Researchers split 150 teens into two groups: one that played Crystals of Kaydor and one that played Bastion. Unlike Kaydor, Bastion contained no empathy-building gameplay. The official study showed teens playing Kaydor gained increased empathy in two weeks. The children playing Bastion showed no change in empathy. “The realization that these skills are actually trainable with video games is important because they are predictors of emotional well-being and health throughout life, and can be practiced anytime — with or without video games,” researcher Tammi Kral told Psych Central.
Video games are one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the world. A 2018 study by the Electronic Entertainment Design and Research determined 70 percent of Americans play video games. On average, each person can spend around 12 hours every week on their game (or games) of choice. With the Kaydor study, researchers hope gaming can be used more as a learning mechanism. “Our long-term aspiration for this work is that video games may be harnessed for good and if the gaming industry and consumers took this message to heart, they could potentially create video games that change the brain in ways that support virtuous qualities rather than destructive qualities.” Dr. Richard Davidson also told Psych Central.
A negative outlook
With every point, there’s a counterpoint. In a 2018 Wiredarticle, writer Julie Muncy declares games shouldn’t force empathy on anyone. “Even if games and first-person experiences can increase the player’s emotional activation, empathy is more complicated than that. Empathy is active: it involves both mental acuity and changes to behavior. Understanding without change isn’t empathy. Emotion without action to help others isn’t empathy,” they said in the piece.
In a 2015 Vice article, Dr. Douglas Gentile believes video games aren’t the proper replacement for a real experience. “Games help you understand something outside of your normal experience, but that’s different from understanding someone else’s experience,” they told the publication.
Empathy games on the rise
Aside from Crystals of Kaydor, there are many other games trying to help build empathy for certain causes. In 2015, Project Syria debuted at Sundance to rave reviews. The VR game finds the player in the middle of an attack on Aleppo before landing in a Syrian refugee camp. Developer Nonny de la Peña wanted to bring people closer to real-life tragedies in the world. “I want to tell important stories, and I want to do that in a way that brings them to life as much as possible and helps the audience find out about, or better understand, or feel more strongly about a particular situation. Virtual reality has the unique ability to make you feel present on scene, and that in turn generates a very powerful feeling of empathy,” they told Telegraph.
Developer Ryan Green created That Dragon, Cancer to document his son’s own cancer battle. Tragedy struck when Green’s son succumbed to the disease at age five. Instead of canceling the project, he continued working on it. Upon its release in 2016, That Dragon, Cancer gained rave reviews for its heartbreaking storytelling.
While more empathy-based games are in the works, the real question is if they can actually evoke emotions. If they can, how will the player use what they’ve learned to better themselves?