Walking in another’s Virtual Shoes – Can Gaming increase Understanding and Empathy?

Originally written for Just Gushing

Gaming has gone through its years of being feared. Like records, cinema, T.V, arcade games, gin and most good things. However, more recently, researchers are finding that video games can increase feelings of empathy. At Innsbruck University 4 years ago, psychologist Tobias Greitemeyer decided to see if video games can turn schadenfreude (enjoyment/amusement at another’s misfortune) into empathy. They asked half the participants to play Tetris – a neutral game – and the other half to play a version of Lemmings in which you saved other lemmings from their doom. After gaming for 10 minutes, they were asked their opinion on Paris Hilton’s arrest (yes, I don’t really know why they chose that case either). Those who played the lemming game felt lower levels of shadenfreude at Hilton after reading the story. The also were read other stories about every day misfortune (heartbreak, physical accidents) and they scored higher on a scale assessing their compassion and sympathy.

It’s a strange experiment, but the concept is fairly sound – why wouldn’t walking through virtual life in someone else’s shoes create some kind of connection? even if a subtle one? If the results are close to the truth, the future’s bright, as there are now more games than ever being created which show a personal, or empathetic, viewpoint.

Game creation software is simpler than ever, with tools like twinery.org making it possible to create a game without needing to know a stitch of code. This has opened up game creation beyond independent die-hard programmers, or big business games, into the realms of pretty much any one. This changes the narratives of games. From the embarrassingly obviously marketed big breasted woman warrior stereotype, or the same game (*ahem* Age Of Empires, COD + Sims) remade a million, similar, ways, that larger game companies can tend to pump out, or even the niche puzzle games that make my mind do somersaults. There’s a space for those and more, but in the realm of first person RPG’s in particular, there are some very simple games putting you in some everyday, but difficult, situations.

Papers, Please

You don’t need Nazi zombies, for example, to make Papers Please a tense game. Living the day to day life of a border guard, you see people killed trying to access your country, you turn away those with desperate stories, and if you fail to do this, or do it adequately, the game shows you that your money for food is gone, and your family has died. A day-to-day situation for some people, placed in front of your screen. Rather than a satisfying killing spree, or empire building, you’re stuck between moral dilemmas.


Papers, Please gameplay
Papers, Please gameplay

Games like this may not drastically change the world – but they may make someone more empathetic to, say, the current issues facing migrants across the world, as well as those working at those borders. A previously maybe black and white issue – let people live, or ‘protect the country’ (you can see where I’m situated..) – becomes revealed in more complexity through Papers Please, as seen through the eyes of the normal worker with no other choice.
Freshman Year

Freshman Year was made by Nina Freeman, with art by Laura Knetzger and music by Stephen Lawrence. Going through the evening of a girl in her late teens, a ‘Freshman’, with a few simple choices over which text to send, or when to go out that evening. Again, it’s a simple game – yes, you may not choose to say ‘lol’ as much as Nina does, but things would get convoluted with too many options – but as you continue, your choices change and limit. It’s short, so have a go:

Screen Shot 2015-06-18 at 09.27.14


What’s interesting about this Freshman Year is how options over a choice of clothes, where to meet, whether to try and arrive with friends etc are all given, but there are shown to be no options when Nina is harassed later on. All standard points, stated over and over, that these are not factors to focus on – but victim blaming is insidious and often internalised. When you find yourself in the final scene, and are unaware of the insignificance of your previous choices within the game, you question any decision you made previously in the game, highlighting this insidious nature. However, the inability to escape, and re-playing the game with different choices, felt genuinely theraputic. You are again in control, and can see you actions don’t impact the result. You still end up in a bad situation, but you know there is nothing you could do to prevent it – no matter what the police say afterwards about what you were wearing. In a similar, but different, situation, there was no option for me to stick my keys in his eyes, or run away, like I would see myself doing in my imagination. My head was frozen and my body was a rag doll, thinking over how the whole situation had come to be, and how ‘could’ have prevented it. Family and friends who saw me in that state asked what I was wearing, seemingly unaware of the madness of it (I was in a full length dress and velcro trainers…barely palatable at the best of times), and again that guilt rose up inside. Trite as it may seem, playing this game, and showing it to those who asked such questions, helped me regain a feeling of control, through a realisation of the lack of control the situation provided. In the final scene, you cannot choose any options, but you can chose not to second guess those you’ve made.

These are just two of my favourite games, which I’d call empathetic games, but you can call what you like. There are many more, playing with our ideas of free will, morality and justice. When I was young, lots of people were worried about video games damaging their kids. Now that anyone can make games, the damage, or beauty, in a real world can be looked at through an individual’s perspective.

In the future, I’m working over at Just Gushing on a series of ‘Day in the Life’ games, detailing some first hand choices and experiences. If you would like to submit material for a story, or work on one yourself and would like advice, please e-mail justgushing@gmail.com


4 thoughts on “Walking in another’s Virtual Shoes – Can Gaming increase Understanding and Empathy?

  1. There was a very good Ted Talk about Empathy during a social experiment involving participants playing Monopoly. Their findings showed that Wealthy people put into a virtual disadvantage in the game would feel more empathy for poor people in real life. Overall, it was a very fascinating Ted Talk.

    Liked by 1 person

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