Gaming as an Empathy Tool

In a world traditionally known for Minecraft, MOBAs, and first-person shooters, a sub-genre is forming. Those taking only a peripheral glance may mistake gaming as ‘just another’ entertainment platform, but the medium itself offers an immersive gaze at the human condition. After all, with gaming comes the ability to live through experiences – and not just fantasized scenarios, but those that resemble the realities of life. ///


Gender issues. Dementia. Real war.

It’s true that elements of empathy have been present in gaming for decades, and even games like The Last of Us rely heavily on hitting those emotional notes for their success. But games that put empathy at the core are emerging as a genre of their own. Intrinsically, they’re more than just a form of play; they’re an education, immersive stories that enlighten players by making them a central, evolving part of it. Whether it’s a puzzle or point-and-click, the primary intent becomes evoking an emotional reaction from the player, while simultaneously informing them of a new perspective on a personal topic. True “empathy games,” as they’ve been coined, delve far deeper than the fleeting feeling that comes when a beloved character dies in battle. There’s emotional residue, one that pervades our subconscious and lingers long after we put the controller down.

Imagine, for example, experiencing the emotional journey of a mother and father whose child has just been diagnosed with cancer. In the game That Dragon, Cancer, creators Ryan and Amy Green solemnly shared their son Joel’s story. The game itself became a source of self-therapy – a nurtured coping mechanism – to both deal with the loss of their late son, and memorialize him. Ryan Green recounts how his personal experience informed the game’s emotion-based play: “Initially it was important to us that players understand all the ups and downs, therapies, medications, sickness, hospital visits, tumor recurrences, and hard conversations we had over the four years of his illness. In the end, we didn’t have the time or resources to share that, and if we did, a video game experience would read more like a novel or our family blog. In light of that fact, the details of design and story became subject to the question ‘Does this help me love Joel?’ So even in the hardest most emotional scenes in the experience, caring for Joel is the goal.”

Green was also surprised by how quickly and intensely players connected with their project, the experience becoming an opportunity to help change the way we view games – and the people in our lives. “My hope is that it causes us to see each other,” he says. “Really see each other, rather than the caricatures we’ve created of each other. And as a result of that, we can temper some of the toxicity that rules the rhetoric around video games.”

While That Dragon, Cancer takes the player through the everyday turmoil and inner dialogues of its emotive premise, other games explore empathy using more familiar gameplay tropes and mechanics, creating a narrative mask that lowers the barriers to adoption. For example, Papo & Yo is a puzzle game that takes you into the imaginary favela of a young boy and the monster he befriends – who happens to be a representation of creator Vander Caballero’s alcoholic father. While the creature first appears to be kind and helpful, it’s prone to inexplicable and sudden fits of rage, brought on by its unquenchable addiction to eating frogs. In these moments, the player becomes a target of vulnerability, having to run, hide, and avoid being swallowed whole during the monster’s rampage.

But the metaphor extends beyond the barrier to play, and into an intentional mechanic that Caballero employed to create a game capable of attracting younger players who might be struggling through the same situation as Quico, the main character. In it, Papo & Yo becomes a catalytic experience, one that inspires both empathy and a feeling of understanding for those who relate to it on a personal level.

Although both the games mentioned come from their developer’s personal experiences, it’s not always a necessity for creating an immersive empathy-based game narrative. This War of Mine was inspired by the inhumane conditions experienced by civilians during the 1992–1996 Siege of Sarajevo. As a survivor-based strategy game, players are placed in the role of an omniscient being, one with the goal of ensuring war-torn survivors are kept alive by maintaining their health, hunger, and mood. While on the surface its mechanics might seem similar to those of The Sims, This War of Mine uses it to sharply juxtapose its grim environment, one fraught with the constant threat of death and real-war association.

As Brendan Frye, editor-in-chief of CGMagazine, suggests: “This War of Mine is easy to understand. Even watching someone else play will give them an idea of what is going on. These [empathy games] are games that anyone can understand, and it is through the experience that they will know why these games matter.”

There is no shortage of empathy games tackling different, stigmatic themes: Depression Quest looks at one of the most widespread and taboo topics in mental health; Ether One guides the player through reconstructing the memories of a patient with dementia; Dys4ia explores gender dysphoria. Thematically, they touch upon current social movements, family situations, or struggles that most people have, at the very least, a preconceived thought or association with. These become emotional anchors; ones that ground the player in the subject matter through a shared connection and evolve from there.

Now, more than ever before, gaming has transcended its 8-bit roots into the realm of kinesthetic learning, with the ability to inform not only games, but society at large. With immersive environments and storytelling, these games become a powerful empathy tool – or, in more relevant terminology, a playable version of a journey map. Consider again, for example, That, Dragon Cancer. From initial diagnosis to tragic loss, both the physical and emotional journey of childhood cancer is explored. How could a physician use this experience to transform the care process? How could a healthcare supply manufacturer create intuitive product offerings that alleviate in-home strain?

Above and beyond an informed perspective, it becomes an informed solution. Now imagine it as a tool in any number of industries requiring a little understanding. Could world leaders experience war from the civilian point of view in order to make wholly informed political decisions? How about parents gaining insight into the mind of a young transgender child?

Peruse the internet, and you can already find social work websites talking about the use of games in therapy; nursing schools using simulations like VitalSims for training; doctors practicing virtual surgery; and first person shooters used in military programs. Using these applications for emotional understanding becomes a natural next step. From the micro to the macro level, the individual to society, it may be one of the most powerful tools we have for encouraging user-centered principles.

The question is, are we ready to play?

the author

Esther Rogers

Esther is co-head of IC/ publishing at Idea Couture. She is based in Toronto, Canada.

the author

John Wither

John Wither is a creative strategist and writer at Idea Couture. He is based in Toronto, Canada.