Can games foster empathy and understanding around mental health issues?

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Can a game teach us what it’s like to experience depression if we don’t or to deal with crushing poverty if we haven’t? Depending on the gaming circles you travel in, this may seem like an answered question: of course. Empathy games are niche, but they aren’t new. Games have been trying to share people’s real journeys with us for years, and they’re doing so in increasingly complex ways.

But as Dan Solberg explores this week for Kill Screen, empathy games aren’t always successful. They may encourage players to feel like they understand someone’s experience when they’ve only seen the surface details, or players may twist the author’s intent.

For one, the focus on player takeaways and outcomes often outweighs consideration for the artist’s intent, a particularly vexing practice in the context of autobiography. Many applaud empathy games for the stories they bring attention to, but the long-term impact of such brief mediated experiences in terms of changing player behavior still proves questionable.

While “Empathy Game” comes off as a biting critique of the categorical label it’s named after, it isn’t cynical about the power that games have to create meaningful or educational experiences. Rather, the piece questions the sometimes superficial rewards and self-applying merit badges players win for merely sympathizing with someone else’s struggle.

Morris notes that ultimately it is important that games motivate supportive action, not just empathy. “Real world” actions are the most important outcome measures.

Late last year, Gina Roussos discussed the issue of empathy in games at Psychology Today. She studied players’ reactions to a game that simulates the experience of poverty by having players try to make it through 30 days in the life of a poor person without losing everything.

Her findings were discouraging, to say the least.

After I analyzed the results from this study, I was dismayed to find that playing the game had no effect on positive feelings toward the poor. In fact, the game had a negative effect on attitudes among certain participants—including some people who were sympathetic to the poor to begin with.

What was missing from my initial appraisal of this game was an understanding of how the experience of playing a game differs from the experience of watching a film or reading a book. When I’m playing a game, I feel like I have complete control over my outcomes. I click on Door A instead of Door B, and I find a treasure chest full of jewels. I found that treasure because I choose Door A. This feeling of control over one’s outcomes is called personal agency. The belief that people in general have personal agency is a central component of the American ideology called meritocracy (link is external), and it’s highly correlated with anti-poor attitudes.

Neither Roussos nor Solberg condemns the idea of empathy games entirely, though. There’s no doubt that some players learn a lot from playing these games, and there’s room for them to teach much more.

Ultimately, it seems that creators need to remember that trying to create empathy for any broad group of people is a great responsibility. Going about it without enough care can do worse than fail to foster empathy – it can do harm to the people they’re trying to help.

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