According to Farber and Schrier (2017), video games can support socio-emotional learning (SEL) and skills. The ability to be empathetic is a social awareness competency, particularly for youth. To discuss whether video games can help in fostering empathy, we should first define what empathy is.
What is empathy?
Empathy can be defined in different ways, it is often debated, and it is difficult to agree on a common definition (Farber & Schrier, 2017, Wulansari et al., 2019.) However, generally, it is the ability to feel other people’s emotions and to be able to imagine what someone else may be feeling or thinking, i.e. “being in someone else’s shoes”. In addition, empathy can increase social understanding, caring and emotional competence, as well as diminishing prejudices (Farber & Schrier, 2017.)
Happ (2013) discusses the general decrease in charity, altruism and empathy in today’s society. Moreover, there seems to be a growing division among groups, rising prejudices and racism (Farber & Schrier, 2017). This shows the need to find ways to foster empathy and related skills, starting with our educational systems and learning environments. Surely, empathy is an essential skill in an ever-changing globalised world, and it is needed to solve and support intercultural differences, improve international collaborations and create an inclusive society.
Can video games foster empathy and related skills?
Video games and digital technologies are intertwined in our everyday lives and more than 2.5 billion people worldwide play video games (Wulansari, et al. 2019). This number shows that digital skills overall are of a great importance in today’s world. Therefore, schools and learning environments should convey the competences and knowledge that are needed for the 21st century.
According to Happ (2013), video games engage players in fictional stories more than television. This immersion creates stronger emotional and personal experiences (Wulansari, et al., 2019).
One common myth about video games is that they cause addiction, aggression and anti-social behaviour (to read more about debunking myths about video games, check out our Booklet on video games in education). Recently, there has been more research about how video games can enhance social skills and empathy in youngsters (Hamilton, 2019). In any case, playing a video game triggers emotion, which means that video games can be used as a tool to foster empathy (Walunsari et al., 2019). Marks (2018) stated that “A book or movie can show us what it is like to be in a character’s shoes, but it is the video game that can put us into those shoes”. Therefore, video games have qualities to support and foster empathy (Farber & Schrier, 2017). In addition, some game developers specialise in finding ways to incorporate empathy-building in their video games (Hamilton, 2019).
According to Wulansari et al. (2019), video games have great potential for raising awareness about different issues today’s society faces. Therefore, virtual worlds can help students learn about the real world (Aranas, et al., 2021).
This makes video games suitable to use in education and learning environments. Moreover, being more empathetic can help students understand different perspectives and experiences. Through video games students can experience different cultures, societies and perspectives, which enables them to relate to something unknown to them.
Which games can we use?
As mentioned, the immersive nature of video games allows the players to see the world from another perspective. In the Gaming for Skills guide “Practical approach to video games in the classrooms” we mention different games that can be used to teach about empathy, as well as about other topics (war, cooperation, communication).
Below you can find two examples of games that can be used to foster empathy among students:
- Papers, Please
Papers, Please can be described as an administration simulator. The game places the player in the role of a customs officer at the border post of a totalitarian state, confronting them with dramatic moral dilemmas and involving the player emotionally. The player has to make difficult choices, considering aspects like efficiency, humanity, family and democracy, and is later confronted by the consequences of their choices (Annart et al., 2019). You could use this game to introduce Hannah Arendt’s concept of the banality of evil, ethics and the consequences of personal choices in general, either by playing in front of your students or having them play themselves.
- Life is Strange, by Dontnod Entertainment
Life is Strange is a narrative game set in a high school environment in which the player inhabits a teenager who discovers she can slightly go back in time. By making different decisions, the player influences how the story unfolds. The game addresses problems teenagers may face, including depression, bullying, suicide, domestic violence, mental illness and the loss of loved ones. It is made clear to the player that personal decisions and social interactions have immediate and long-term consequences. You can use the game to discuss any of the subjects it addresses or to illustrate how small decisions can have a big impact on our lives.
To get more ideas and explore the potential of video games in education, look at the booklet available in 5 languages, which can be downloaded here.
In addition, we are currently developing 88 pedagogical sequences on how to use video games in education, so stay tuned for more results!
Aranas, K., Elmergreen J., Gordon K., Gouglas S., Groten S., Kegel B., Robinson C., Sollazzo A. (2021). Benefits of Video Games in K-12 Education. Higher Education Video Game Alliance & Entertainment Sofware Association. https://www.theesa.com/resource/report-benefits-of-video-games-in-k-12-education/
Farber, M., & Schrier, K. (2017). The strengths and limitations of using digital games as “empathy” machines. UNESCO MGIEP.
Hamilton, J., (2019, March) Can Video Games Be Used to Teach Children Empathy? Game Developer. https://www.gamedeveloper.com/business/can-video-games-be-used-to-teach-children-empathy-
Happ, C. (2013). Empathy in Video Games and Other Media. PhD Dissertation Psychology Department of Philipps Universitaet Marburg.
Wulansari, O. D. E., Pirker, J., Kopf, J., & Guetl, C. (2019). Video games and their correlation to empathy. In International Conference on Interactive Collaborative Learning (pp. 151-163). Springer.