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The Limits and Strengths of Using Digital Games as "Empathy Machines"



This working paper grapples with questions related to the intersection of digital games and empathy. Many people are playing games—but are they also engaged in empathy-related skills such as perspective-taking, communication, reflection, relationship-building, and choice-making as part of their game playing? Are games “empathy machines” that support greater insight into our human condition? In this paper, we seek to (1) identify strengths and weaknesses of games in relation to empathy, (2) consider how player agency, transportation, perspective-taking, communication, and other factors may affect the practice of empathy, and (3) develop initial questions, guidelines, and recommendations for creating policies and programs around using games to inspire empathy.
Mahatma Gandhi Institute
of Education for Peace
and Sustainable Development
United Nations
Educational, Scientific and
Cultural Organization
Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education
for Peace and Sustainable Development / UNESCO
Working Paper: The Limits and Strengths of Using Digital Games
as “Empathy Machines”
Matthew Farber, Ed.D.,
University of Northern Colorado
Karen Schrier, Ed.D.,
Marist College
Mahatma Gandhi Institute
of Education for Peace
and Sustainable Development
United Nations
Educational, Scientific and
Cultural Organization
United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization | Mahatma Gandhi
Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development
35 Ferozshah Road, ICSSR Building,1st Floor, New Delhi- 110001, INDIA.
December, 2017
Matthew Farber, Ed.D., Assistant Professor,
University of Northern Colorado
Karen Schrier, Ed.D., Associate Professor,
Director of Games & Emerging Media, Marist College
The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors and are not
necessarily endorsed by UNESCO MGIEP. UNESCO MGIEP is not responsible for
discrepancies, if any, in data and content.
Any communication concerning this publication may be addressed to:
Printed in India
Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education
for Peace and Sustainable Development / UNESCO
Working Paper: The Limits and Strengths of Using Digital Games
as “Empathy Machines”
Matthew Farber, Ed.D.,
University of Northern Colorado
Karen Schrier, Ed.D.,
Marist College
Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development / UNESCO
2 | December, 2017
This working paper grapples with questions related to the intersection of digital games and
empathy. Many people are playing games—but are they also engaged in empathy-related skills such
as perspective-taking, communication, reflection, relationship-building, and choice-making as part
of their game playing? Are games “empathy machines” that support greater insight into our human
condition? In this paper, we seek to (1) identify strengths and weaknesses of games in relation to
empathy, (2) consider how player agency, transportation, perspective-taking, communication, and
other factors may affect the practice of empathy, and (3) develop initial questions, guidelines, and
recommendations for creating policies and programs around using games to inspire empathy.
December, 2017 | 3
The Limits and Strengths of Using Digital Games as “Empathy Machines”.
Throughout the last two hundred years, new
media formats have been continually lauded as
being “the next empathy machine.” At the turn of
the 20th century, Wagner’s opera performances
were seen as being so immersive that audience
members felt like they were transported from
their seats and onto the stage, interacting
alongside the actors (Vaitl, Vehrs, & Sternagel,
1993). In the last century, movies were also seen
in this way. Roger Ebert remarked that, “Movies
are the most powerful empathy machine in
all the arts. When I go to a great movie I can
live somebody else’s life for a while. I can
walk in somebody else’s shoes” (2005, para.
2). Recently, researchers and journalists have
started to connect empathy with newer media,
such as games and virtual reality (e.g., Burak &
Parker, 2017; Greitemeyer, Osswald, & Brauer,
2010; Isbister, 2016; Mahood & Hanus, 2017;
Darvasi, 2016). Games, for instance, have been
referred to as “empathy engines” (Sampat,
2017). Going further, virtual reality has been
called the “ultimate empathy machine” (Milk,
2015). Filmmaker Chris Milk stated, “[Virtual
reality] is a machine, but through this machine
we become more compassionate, we become
more empathetic, and we become more
connected. And ultimately, we become more
human” (2015, para. 17).
Have we overstated the potential of games
for engaging empathy (e.g, Madigan, 2015)? Is
any one medium especially empathy evoking?
Rather than designate one medium as “the
ultimate empathy machine,” we take the
approach that every medium can possibly
enable new ways to connect, communicate,
and understand each other and ourselves; and
that each medium (whether game, VR, film,
literature, or website), platform, and even
each particular experience, has strengths and
weaknesses. Game experiences are one of many
“empathy machines”—all of which have aspects
that are organic and artificial, connective and
disruptive, social and antisocial, and distracting
and reflective.
We, as human beings yearn to communicate
exactly what is in our minds and hearts; yet,
we can never fully appreciate what is in the
minds and hearts of others. Each medium for
communication can be viewed as simultaneously
supporting greater human connection and
understanding, while also being in other
ways, disruptive and divisive, or antisocial
and apathetic. Literature may be able to relay
inner desires and intimate perspectives, but
can also be seen as diluting verbal expression
and oral traditions (Ong, 1982). Film may be
able to transport people to another moment,
time, and space, but it can also be seen as
distorting truths and appeasing the masses
(Murphy et al., 2011). Likewise, newer media
formats such as digital games may enable us to
inhabit another’s decisions and relationships,
but they may also misrepresent them through
the use of point systems, or by privileging goal-
oriented experiences over meandering ones.
Other emerging playful experiences, such as
virtual reality (VR) games, may enable people
to interact in hybrid realms and virtual spaces,
but may not yet enable people to co-experience
these worlds, or they may distract people from
the real-time, complex interactions needed to
fully understand another (Turkle, 2011).
The purpose of this paper, then, is to start to
extract out the who, what, why, how and what
ifs around games and empathy. In other words,
what is the unique quality of particular playful
experiences that support the production of
• What is empathy and how do we measure it
using games? Is there a more useful concept,
such as compassion, perspective-taking, or
sympathy that we should use?
Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development / UNESCO
4 | December, 2017
• Under what conditions can particular games
support empathy?
• What are the strengths and weaknesses of
games in helping us explore, reflect on, and
connect with the human condition?
• What are the types of elements, contexts,
processes and design principles that better
inspire the practice of relevant skills?
• What are some initial guidelines and best
practices for using and designing these types
of game experiences or creating policies
around them?
• What are the gaps? What open questions
should we explore next?
This working paper builds on Darvasi’s (2016)
recent UNESCO Mahatma Gandhi Institute
of Education for Peace and Sustainable
Development (MGIEP) working paper, Empathy,
Perspective and Complicity: How Digital Games
Can Support Peace Education and Conflict
Resolution, which looked at connections among
playing video games, empathy and peace
education. Our working paper investigates
initial characteristics of games in relation to
empathy more generally, starting with elements
proposed by Schrier (2016a; 2017) and Belman
and Flanagan (2010), such as perspective-
taking, identity, reflection, choice-making,
agency, storytelling/narrative, relationship-
building, and communication. To generate initial
questions and guidelines, as well as reveal any
gaps, we will share relevant empirical evidence
and scholarly research, useful anecdotes, and
analyses of case studies.
Why Investigate Games and Empathy?
We sought to investigate the intersection of
games and empathy for four key reasons:
(1) Games are increasing in popularity and
pervasiveness and are becoming more necessary
to investigate.
Digital games are an increasingly ubiquitous
part of today’s popular culture. Digital games
are played in approximately two-thirds of
all United States households (Entertainment
Software Association, 2017). Like social media
and instant messaging applications, online
digital games have been increasingly pervasive
in the digital landscape in which teens cultivate
friendships (Anderson et al., 2015). Teenage
girls tend to connect with others using social
media tools, in addition to games and other
media, and “teenaged boys use video games
as a way to spend time and engage in day-to-
day interactions with their peers and friends”
(Anderson et al., 2015, p. 4)1. Appreciating the
audience and sociocultural context to game
playing (such as its relationship-building,
connective, and emotional facets) is therefore
imperative to furthering not only our knowledge
of games, but also our understanding of
humanity and how we develop intimacy and
connection with and empathy for others more
(2) Games may erroneously be considered
antisocial and we need to research their contours
and complexities.
Compared to non-interactive, or “traditional
media (i.e., books, film), digital games are
1 In a separate study, published at the same time as the Anderson et al. report, Wiseman and Burch (2015)
discovered issues with asking girls in surveys to self-report and identify as being a “gamer;” that term can be a
loaded word. Girls reported that they play a variety of types of games, and sometimes play as different genders
(Wiseman & Burch, 2015). It is also possible that girls may have self-reported playing fewer online games
because of the toxic culture of bullying and harassment that can exist among players (Sholars, 2017).
December, 2017 | 5
The Limits and Strengths of Using Digital Games as “Empathy Machines”.
perceived as a new medium (Behringer, 2016).
As a new medium, it also has invited “moral
panic,” such as the ways it may be either
corrupting humanity, or that its existence is a
sign of decaying values (Ferguson, 2008). For
example, in the popular and mainstream press,
as Darvasi (2016) notes, the possible limitations
of games are often cited and emphasized (in
terms of antisocial behavior, such as violence,
aggression, addiction, and isolation), rather
than its strengths. Burak and Parker (2017)
compared the new media bias games receive
to that of comic books, a storytelling genre
that has similarly gone through years of
growing pains to achieve cultural acceptance.
However, like other once-new media, games
are evolving, maturing and are continually
being reinterpreted. For instance, take comic
books. Once considered frivolous, Spiegelman’s
(1986) Holocaust-set Maus: A Survivior’s Tale:
My Father Bleeds History, along with Persepolis:
The Story of a Childhood (Satrapi, 2000) and
V for Vendetta (Moore & Lloyd, 1988) elevated
many people’s perceptions of comic books as
a medium, “ushering in a new era for the art
form” (Burak & Parker, 2017, pp. x-xi). While
it is not our goal to legitimize games and
gaming, as we believe it is already a legitimate
medium, art form, technology, and/or form of
entertainment, in this working paper, we want
to highlight features of gaming that move the
conversation away from “panic” and instead
toward “possibility.” Each time we create and
interact with a new medium, we also need to
explore its boundaries and experiment with its
possibilities, while also realizing its limitations
and weaknesses. Thus, a purpose of this paper is
to readdress and reconsider games, even those
games made for commercial aims and popular
enjoyment, and propel further conversations
about what games can (and cannot) do.
(3) We need to more rigorously investigate if
games can help teach essential socio-emotional
Games have been implicated in supporting
skills and practice in a variety of areas, from
mathematics and art, to historical thinking
and music (Gee, 2007; Schrier, 2016b). Can
games also support socio-emotional learning
(SEL) and skills? For youth in particular, the
ability to be empathetic is a social awareness
competency and part of the Collaborative for
Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning’s
evidence-centered Social Emotional Learning
Framework (Core SEL Competencies, 2017).
Social awareness includes the ability “to take
the perspective of and empathize with others,
including those from diverse backgrounds and
cultures,” and it is a desired 21st century skill
(Core SEL Competencies, 2017, para. 2). Games
have also been implicated in areas of SEL, such
as understanding, reflecting on, and regulating
one’s own emotions. For instance, Bréjard et
al. (2016) observed those who frequently play
digital games being more adept at regulating
their emotions than those who report occasional
play; however, those same players may “express
their emotions less than irregular gamers” (p.
347). We should also explore whether games can
help build other types of SEL skills. This paper is
a call to move beyond colloquial applications of
empathy to gaming and interactive experiences,
but to more rigorously applying and investigating
it and understanding how games can support
(or even destroy) connections and caring among
(4) We need to cultivate new ways to teach
empathy-related skills amid a possible lack of
such skills in everyday practice.
The mediasphere is saturated with reports of
a growing divisiveness and incivility among
groups, rising prejudice and racism, and the
perpetuation of “echo chambers” where people
only hear their own perspectives and do not
engage in civil discourse with others who do
not share their views (Yusuf et al., 2014, p. 1).
Regardless of whether this is actually increasing,
or has always existed, we need to find new
ways to cultivate empathy-related skills and
attitudes. For instance, how do we negotiate
Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development / UNESCO
6 | December, 2017
and reflect on others’ (and perhaps even our
own) fear, racism, disrespect for others, and
xenophobia? How do we manage and de-escalate
behaviors like trolling, online harassment, and
cyberbullying? How do we empower people to
take on perspectives, to listen, to deliberate
effectively, to act respectfully, and to consider
others compassionately online and in public?
We need to find new ways to help people
connect, form relationships, bridge gaps, take
on new perspectives, engage in civil discourse,
gain respect for others, and learn about cultures
and peoples different from themselves. Can
game experiences help support the practice
of essential empathy- and compassion-related
skills, behaviors, and attitudes? What are the
How Do We Learn Through and With Games?
Players cannot help but learn while playing
a game. In fact, there is no experience which
fails to teach us something—even if it is just a
glimpse into a new world, view, system, or set
of rules. Games are no different, and through
the very act of playing a game, players are
learning about that game system, its rules and
boundaries, its constraints and possibilities,
and its way of addressing and communicating
its values and worldviews.
What is a game? A game can be defined as “a
system in which players engage in an artificial
conflict, defined by rules, that results in a
quantifiable outcome” (Salen & Zimmerman,
2003, p. 80). Well-designed games present
players with an ordered series of meaningful
choices that are usually intended to be optimally
challenging to the player (Gee, 2007; Salen &
Zimmerman, 2003) and “are crafted in ways
that encourage and facilitate active and critical
learning and thinking” (Gee, 2007, p. 38).
As a type of interactive media, digital games
offer particular affordances, or characteristics,
that set it apart from other types of media,
such as film and literature. Participants actively
play, inhabit, and interact with an experience,
rather than just view, watch or embrace it. Play,
which occurs within the bounds of a game’s
system, is a “voluntary” activity (Huizinga,
1938/1955, p. 28), in which “everyone knowingly
and willingly” participates (McGonigal, 2011, p.
21). Suits (1978) describes this acceptance of
imagined experiences as a “lusory attitude”—a
playful mindset to willingly accept arbitrary
constraints and goals of a game’s “possibility
space,” as prescribed by the rulesets (p. 121).
Games, therefore, may have distinct qualities
that may support (or limit) the practice of
empathy. In some games, for instance, players
may perform the game using an avatar, or
digital representation of them in the game or
virtual world. When a player has an avatar, each
game experience may be unique depending on
the choices and decisions players make as that
avatar; and their avatar may even grow and
change based on these choices. For instance, in
the role-playing game (RPG) Fallout 3 (Bethesda
Game Studios, 2008), players can customize
avatars, adjusting gender, race, facial features,
height, build, and hair (Graber & Graber, 2011).
The player then controls this avatar as they
explore a post-nuclear apocalyptic world, go on
missions, interact with other characters, and
fight zombies, “radscorpions,” and “deathclaws.”
The avatar’s stats (statistics), such as moral
alignment, strength, and charisma, change
based on the decisions players make for their
avatar, as well as the perks, objects and points
they acquire and missions they complete. These
stats then affect how the avatar can interact
with other characters, what areas, storylines,
and missions they can access, and the groups
with which they can align.
Aside from role-playing games that use avatars,
there are many other genres and types of games,
such as first-person shooters, puzzle games,
platformers, online social games, rogue-like,
and interactive narrative games. Each of these
types of games may have their own strengths
and weaknesses, and approaches, to supporting
December, 2017 | 7
The Limits and Strengths of Using Digital Games as “Empathy Machines”.
(or limiting) empathy. For one, games do
not need to even have avatars or any other
characters or people in them to evoke empathy,
and can even just use abstract symbols and/
or systems. For example, in abstract games, a
symbolic grammar tells a story, as the game’s
“designers tried to implement values through
player actions, rewards, narrative premise
and goals, and rules within the environment”
(Flanagan & Nissenbaum, 2014, p. 108). In
Loneliness (Necessary Games, 2011), the player
moves a small black square around a white
screen while other black squares react to its
movements. The game simply and evocatively
enacts, performs, and evokes emotions and
conditions such as sadness and exclusion. POX:
Save the People (Tiltfactor, 2010) uses colored
tokens to symbolize sickness, tasking players to
create vaccination circles, actions that illustrate
“herd immunity” (Flanagan et al., 2011, p. 1).
The game’s designers used dots to represent
people in society vulnerable to illness, rather
than illustrating largescale pandemics facing
cities or nations; the idea was that players
would have more empathy for individual people
(Flanagan et al., 2011). The game Layoff, from
the same design studio as POX: Save the People,
(Tiltfactor, 2009), also abstracts real world
issues, this time with “a mod [modification]
of the casual game Bejeweled,” to represent
corporate layoffs (Belman & Flanagan, 2010, p.
13). (Note: an NPC is a non-player character, or
character controlled by the computer game,
rather than another person). Instead of falling
gems, tiles represent employees, each with “a
detailed personal biography that pops up when
their tile is selected,” which serves to build “a
bond of empathy” between player and NPC
(Belman & Flanagan, 2010, p. 13). In abstract and
puzzle-based games, players demonstrate what
Belman and Flanagan (2010) call a “reactive
empathy” to each tile’s biographies, which may
also be dependent on how players personally
connects and relates to the NPCs’ backstory (p.
14). Reactive empathy describes “an emotional
response that is unlike what the other person is
experiencing” (Belman & Flanagan, 2010, p. 6).
Clark Abt (1970) originated the term “serious
games” to describe games primarily intended
for educational applications and other non-
entertainment pursuits, such as research,
training, or healthcare, or digital games “that
serve purposes other than pure entertainment”
(Arnab et al., 2013, p. 15). Examples range from
the aforementioned Layoff to the U.S. Army-
commissioned military training game America’s
Army (2002) to Harvard Business Publishing’s
teambuilding and leadership simulator Everest
(2013). Serious games, “especially training
games, usually target very specific market
segments” (Michael & Chen, 2006, p. 6). For
example, the serious game Re-Mission (2006),
designed by the HopeLab Foundation, has the
goal of educating young cancer patients.
While some games are specifically made
for educational purposes, all games could
conceivably be used, modified, or contextualized
for educational purposes. For instance, in a
classic example, Squire modified Civilization
III (Firaxis Games, 2001) to be used in a social
studies classroom (Squire, 2004). Schrier uses
the previous year’s Global Game Jam games
(games that were made for the festival in only
48 hours) to teach students about playtesting,
observation, and listening by having pairs of
students take turns watching each other and
playing the games. Thus, regardless of the
initial purpose, games not initially created for
empathy could potentially be adapted and
contextualized in a way to teach and help people
learn or practice skills related to empathy, or to
test our assumptions about it.
Using games in educational contexts can
“harness the spirit of play to enable players
to build new cognitive structures and ideas of
substance” (Klopfer, Osterweil, & Salen, 2009,
p. 5), such as those related to mastering game
mechanics that are balanced with learning goals.
Using games for learning purposes “structures
learning activities around real-world or fictional
challenges that compel learners to take on a
variety of roles as they actively identify and seek
Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development / UNESCO
8 | December, 2017
out the tools and multi-disciplinary information
they need to generate solutions” (“Institute
of Play,” 2015). A balanced design aligns core
game mechanics, or actions players take, with
the designer’s intended learning goal (Beall et
al., 2015). In a balanced design game where
player empathy is the goal, “desired behaviors
can be modeled through game mechanics.
For example, a game about assisting peers at
risk for suicide might require players to notice
symptoms of suicidal ideation in non-player
characters (NPCs)” (Belman & Flanagan, 2010,
p. 10).
For this working paper, we are interested in both
existing commercial games and also games that
were intentionally created to teach empathy. In
the next section, we define empathy and these
related skills.
Defining Empathy
First, we need a working definition of empathy—a
concept that is often debated and difficult
to define. A popular conception of empathy
is that it involves “being in another’s shoes,”
“understanding what someone else is feeling
or thinking,” and considering someone else’s
lived experience and inner emotional state.
According to Batson, empathy includes “feeling
for another person who is suffering” (Batson,
2009, p. 8). This is distinct from other concepts
such as compassion, which we feel is also
important to understand in relation to games.
With empathy, for instance, we take on other’s
suffering, joy, heartbreak, or pride, whereas
with compassion, we value others, care about
other’s needs and want to address them, without
necessarily enacting their pain (Bloom, 2017).
In fact, as discussed below, Bloom argues that
there are distinct neurological and behavioral
consequences for empathy and compassion
(Bloom, 2017), and that compassion might be
a better fit for inspiring prosocial behavior and
moral decision-making.
Empathy is often described as having emotional,
behavioral, and cognitive components. For
instance, building on Jean Decety’s (Decety
& Jackson, 2004; Decety & Moriguchi, 2007)
definition of empathy, Gerdes et al. (2012)
identified four core components of empathy
by Gerdes et al. (2011): “(1) the capacity for an
automatic or unconscious affective response
to others that may include sharing others’
emotional states; (2) a cognitive capacity to
take the perspective of another; (3) the ability
to regulate one’s emotions; and (4) a level
of self-/other-awareness that allows some
temporary identification between self and
other, but also ultimately avoids confusion
between self and other” (p. 112). Notably, the
second component suggests that perspective-
taking is a key part of empathy. This involves
trying to understand someone else’s views and
see another’s experience as they experience it
(Brown, 2013). In other words, people who act,
think, and behave empathetically: 1) see the
world as others see it; 2) are non-judgmental;
3) have an understanding of another’s feelings;
4) and can communicate this understanding
(Wiseman, 1996, p. 1165).
Batson (2009) identified eight common
applications of empathy. People who are
1. Know a person’s internal states, including
his or her thoughts and feelings
2. Adopt the posture or match the neural
responses of an observed other
3. Come to feel as another person feels
4. Intuit or project oneself into another’s
5. Imagine how another is thinking and feeling
6. Imagine how one would think and feel in the
other’s place
7. Feel distress at witnessing another person’s
December, 2017 | 9
The Limits and Strengths of Using Digital Games as “Empathy Machines”.
8. Feel for another person who is suffering
(Batson, 2009, pp. 4-8).
Moreover, research from neuroscience also
suggests that imitative-observation behavior is
correlated to empathy, emotions, and related
thought processes (Carr et al., 2003; Jackson et
al., 2005). Iacoboni (2009) argues that neuron
mirroring systems help people understand
actions. Biologically, this occurs in the limbic
system, where mirror neurons respond to stimuli
of images of facial expressions (Carr et al.,
2003). This process of action representation,
in which people imitate emotions of others, “is
a cognitive step toward empathy” (Carr et al.,
2003, p. 5501). Media, such as literature, film,
or digital games, can support the process of
action representation, which can affect one’s
empathic abilities. However, as Chen explains,
“not all stories trigger mirror neurons. The
listener needs to feel so enraptured by vivid and
concrete imagery that the listener feels like this
is a living world filled with believable characters
and situations” (Chen, 2017b).
Other disciplines approach and define empathy
differently. For instance, Sutherland (2015)
uses a philosophical, cultural theory, and
computation approach and uses the concept
of “staged empathy” to investigate how virtual
reality may support empathy, which she argues
consists of a reflexive and performative process
that involves the “externalization of an inner
imitation in a virtual reality system” (p. 9).
Furthermore, the primacy of empathy has
been debated. Bloom (2017), for instance,
argues that compassion is the more relevant
concept. Empathy, Bloom argues, can lead to
feeling what another feels, but that does not
mean the outcome of decisions and actions are
appropriate and effective. Bloom cites research
that shows that when people are prompted to
put themselves in someone’s shoes, they make
biased and often unfair decisions, such as caring
about the needs of one person rather the many,
or empathizing more with those in their “in-
group” than the “out-group,” possibly leading
to biased decisions. This means that people
may not be able to resonate with longer-term
policies that can help many people because they
are focused on one victim or one type of person
in the short-term (Bloom, 2017). Empathy can
also be exploited to disadvantage some groups
or activate people against people they believe
to be enemies (Bloom, 2017).
Thus, Bloom argues that compassion may be
more relevant for supporting empathy, but the
relationship between empathy and compassion
is still not clear, and one may support the other,
even if they are distinct. Moreover, empathy
is important for mother and baby, friends, or
partners, to support intimacy in a relationship,
though it may not work as well with inspiring
prosocial behaviors or ensuring fair decision-
making around strangers or policies (Bloom,
We acknowledge that the behavioral,
cognitive, and neurological mechanisms and
consequences of compassion and empathy may
be different. For the purposes of simplicity, we
will focus on empathy for this paper. However,
compassion may also be useful to consider
further in relation to games, gaming, and play,
and we invite future research on this topic.
Why Be More Empathetic?
Why might it be so important to be empathetic,
and to use games or other media to enhance
empathy? We have created an initial list of
possible reasons, based on prior research on
the intersection of games and empathy (Darvasi,
2016; Flanagan & Belman, 2010; Schrier, 2016b;
Greitemeyer, 2013).
1. Understanding of different perspectives
and experiences. First, being more
empathetic can help us understand
different types of experiences and human
perspectives, which can help us learn
more about other cultures, religions,
and communities. Empathy allows us
Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development / UNESCO
10 | December, 2017
(even if temporarily) access into other’s
perspectives and enables us to relate to
what a character, avatar, society, culture,
or creature needs and is experiencing
(Gerdes et al., 2011). This enables us to not
just focus on our own needs, but to also
care about what is being communicated to
us through a game or other media about a
particular person, creature, place, object
or thing, and to engage in their journey and
2. Caring for others. Second, being an
empathetic person can compel someone to
tend to others (Mencl & May, 2009). Mencl
and May (2009) explain that empathy is
“the moral emotion concerning the welfare
of others that facilitates interpersonal
relationships and positively influences
people to engage in prosocial and altruistic
behaviors” (p. 208). Likewise, according to
Feshbach and Feshbach (2009), empathy
can “increase social understanding, lessen
social conflict, limit aggression, increase
compassion and caring, lessen prejudice,
increase emotional competence, and
motivate pro-social behavior” (as cited in
Darvasi, 2016, p.6). Thus, empathy may
be used to help individuals connect, to
temper self-interest and harm of others,
and to sustain societal dynamics over solely
individual needs. While researchers have
noted that empathy can be used both to
induce altruistic and prosocial behaviors,
it can also be used to manipulate and take
advantage of others (Noddings, 2010), and
that solely empathizing does not necessarily
also lead to prosocial behaviors (Vascocelos,
Hollis, Nowbahari, and Kacelnik, 2012)
and may instead depend on other factors
such as one’s identity and status (Jollife &
Farrington, 2006; Hardy, 2006).
3. Self-reflection and self-compassion.
Third, being more empathetic may help us
understand our own emotions and identify
our needs. It makes us feel less isolated and
alone and can help us to see that others are
going through what we go through. It can
help us become more self-compassionate
(Neff, 2003), or caring toward ourselves,
because we can see that our trials and
tribulations, vulnerabilities and flaws are a
part of the greater human condition.
4. Help in making ethical decisions. Moreover,
empathy-related skills may be related
to ethical decision-making and moral
development (Joliffe & Farrington, 2006).
Schrier (2016a) looked at ethical decision-
making in games, and found that skills
such as perspective-taking and emotional
awareness play a role in making choices in
the role-playing digital game (RPG) Fable
III (Lionhead Games/Microsoft Studios), a
game where players need to decide how to
rule a fictional world and treat its citizens
(who are NPCs or non-player characters).
In the following sections, we will consider
particular affordances or characteristics
of digital games, and how they may relate
to empathy based on current evidence,
observations, and research. We will introduce
different concepts (such as transportation) and
then support that with related case studies,
examples, and scholarly research. The working
paper’s structure is as follows:
1. Immersion and transportation into game
2. How player agency supports (and limits)
3. Perspective-taking and identity
4. Relationships with non-player characters
5. Connection and communication
December, 2017 | 11
The Limits and Strengths of Using Digital Games as “Empathy Machines”.
Immersion and Transportation
into Game Worlds
Anybody can relate to being invited into a
place of intimacy. It means that you’re welcome.
You are not a fly on the wall. You deserve to
be there, emotionally.” (R. Green, personal
communication, May 11, 2017)
One of the strengths of good storytelling
whether during live storytelling, or through a
book, film, or game—is the ability to engage
an audience and invite them to step inside an
imaginary world. When describing how readers
accept events in fictional worlds, poet Samuel
Taylor Coleridge coined the phrase “willing
suspension of disbelief for the moment” in
1817. This suspension “refers to a reader’s (or
audience’s) willingness to accept the author’s
vision of a time, place, world, or characters
that, were they not in a work of fiction, would be
unbelievable… even if it makes no sense within
our own world” (Schrier, Torner, & Hammer, in
press). One way of describing this form of deep
engagement is that it is a type of “transportation”
to other realms, such that we feel like we are
“really there experiencing the events” and
immersed in the storytelling experience. When
viewers emerge from the transported state,
they are often changed as a result of being so
deeply engrossed in the narrative,” such that
their attitudes and behaviors actually change in
relation to the story (Murphy et al., 2011, p. 411).
Transportation theory describes this type of
“mental transport” and attitudinal change,
which occurs based on the strength of a particular
narrative (Gerrig, 1993; Gerrig & Prentice, 1991;
Green & Brock, 2000). Transportation happens
when audiences become “lost” in fictional
worlds (Gerrig, 1993, p. 3) because a narrative
is so strong and engaging (Murphy et al., 2011).
For players to be transported into fictional game
worlds they must be invested in the narrative—
and, conversely, the creators of the narrative
should be invested in the player’s experience.
Typically, transportation theory is applied to
literature experiences, but researchers have
also started applying it to digital games and
suggested that certain digital games can
transport players into fictional worlds and even
potentially support empathy-related behaviors
and actions as part of this engagement (Belman
& Flanagan, 2010; Greitemeyer & Osswald,
2010; Flanagan & Nissenbaum, 2014; Mahood
& Hanus, 2017). In some digital games, for
instance, the player controls an avatar and acts
as the protagonist-hero, who actively embarks
on quests and missions to fulfill the goals of
the game. The player is able to explore the
world of the game, such that the player really
is interacting with a virtual world, meeting
its characters, traversing its topography,
and finding its treasures. Games may even
incorporate storytelling elements associated
with mythology and folklore to encourage
further player transport into the game’s system
(Bowman, 2010; Cragoe, 2016).
Meaningful play, ability to explore virtual
spaces, well-balanced challenges, and/or strong
storytelling can help transport players into a
state of “flow”—a state that one experiences
when an activity is neither boring nor overly
challenging (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). When
in the “flow channel,” people have “a sense of
discovery, a creative feeling of transporting the
person to a new reality” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990,
p. 74). In digital games, players are able to enter
this “flow state” when they are well-matched
with the game’s pacing and progression;
such as when the skill and the difficulty levels
increase in way that makes the experience
neither frustrating nor boring (Lazzaro, 2009;
McGonigal, 2011; Schell, 2014). Lazzaro (2009)
points out that flow can occur when someone
is immersed in a well-balanced activity, such
as gardening, and not just in tense problem
solving situations. As it happens, “players
often cycle between states of deep engagement
punctuated by powerful emotional moments…
players clearly respond and seek out factors
outside of the flow model” (Lazzaro, 2009,
Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development / UNESCO
12 | December, 2017
p. 14). In the video game Fallout 4 (Bethesda
Game Studios, 2015), for instance, players can
spend time building affiliations with factions
(teams of NPCs), collecting items to level up
their avatar (which can be male or female), or
simply spending time exploring the landscape.
There is a balance between tense battles (such
as between one’s avatar and a deathclaw) and
more mundane tasks, such as talking, crafting,
and exploring. Moreover, players do not just
suddenly approach a deathclaw, but may fight
much easier, lower-level zombies, and learn
and grow until they are ready to approach
larger challenges. This balance of activity type
and progression of ability may help to maintain
engagement and a feeling of flow in the game.
A question is whether there is a link among
transportation, flow, emotions, and empathy. In
mediated narratives such as film and television,
viewers can have “‘parasocial interactions’
with characters, thus immersing them more
deeply in those worlds” (Isbister, 2016, p. 7). In
games, because of player choice, “an additional
palette of social emotions” are possible, such
as guilt (Isbister, 2016, p. 9). Researchers have
suggested a “synergistic effect,” or link, between
experiences that result in feelings of guilt, and
empathy (Tangney & Dearing, 2002, p. 83).
Guilt-proneness, or the ability to be receptive to
guilt emotions, has been “positively associated
with self-report measures of other-oriented
empathy and perspective taking” (Treeby et
al., 2016, p. 1509). The emotion of guilt is
focused “on specific incidents and behaviors,
and entails a sense of personal agency and
control” (Roberts, Strayer, & Denham, 2014, p.
465), therefore a person “in the midst of a guilt
experience is more likely to recognize (and have
concerns about) the effects of that behavior on
others rather than on others’ evaluation of the
self” (Tangney & Dearing, 2002, p. 82).
Mahood and Hanus (2017) tested whether
player transportation in the fictional worlds of
certain role-playing games (RPGs) can bring
out emotions of guilt and shame in players.
Two groups of participants played the post-
apocalyptic set RPG Fallout 3 on an Xbox 360
after viewing digital clips of past actions their
on-screen avatars took; some participants’
avatars had a “positive moral backstory,” while
others had a “negative, immoral backstory”
(Mahood & Hanus, 2017, pp. 65-66). Player’s
emotions, as well as the degree players were
transported into the Fallout 3s fictional
narrative world, were measured. Their findings
supported transportation theory in RPGs in that
“players that felt transported or ‘wrapped-up
in the narrative felt the most guilt” following
negative actions they took in the game. This
supports Mahood and Hanus’ (2017) hypothesis,
which relates transportation theory to guilt,
and perhaps, to empathy as well (p. 69).
Thus, if we want to inspire empathy, should we
create games that transport us? To what extent
do we maintain a balance between immersing
someone in a virtual world and story space, and
enabling people to connect further with others
(and themselves) in their everyday lives? Could
players become so wrapped up in a game that
they forget to care about themselves or others
in their lives? How much immersion is necessary
to inspire emotions?
Moreover, not all stories, virtual worlds, or
playable experiences are equal. Some games
can engage our hearts and minds, and some
may not. The same game may be immersive for
one person and not for another. Many games use
other types of techniques and characteristics,
beyond storytelling or exploration of open
worlds, to engage and motivate players.
Many game players are not even particularly
motivated by storytelling, role-playing or
immersion, and prefer the many types of
experiences, such as ones involving destruction,
chaos, action, strategy, or social interactions
(e.g., Yee & Dicheneaut, 2016). Thus, while
transportation theory and storytelling may help
to describe some of the potential of games for
supporting empathy, this is only one possible
December, 2017 | 13
The Limits and Strengths of Using Digital Games as “Empathy Machines”.
Further questions
• What is the relationship between engagement
(or “transportation”) in a game, and the
practice of empathy?
• What roles do narrative and storytelling play
in cultivating empathy in games? Do games
need these elements to not only transport
players, but also support empathy-related
How Player Agency Supports (and
Limits) Empathy
How does agency play a role in empathy? Agency
is “the satisfying power to take meaningful action
and see the results of our decision and choices”
(Murray, 2017, p. 159). Agency is defined as the
understanding that “actions taken by the player
[will] result in significant changes within the
world” (Gibbs, 2011, para. 4). Film and literature
tell stories where the audience is not able to
affect the outcome or embody the decisions
of the narrator or characters. Does this mean
viewers or readers have no agency? Regarding
literature, for instance, Mendelsund (2014)
has argued that readers do have agency in how
they visually interpret and make meaning of an
author’s words, although they cannot directly
control the direction of the narrative. On the
other hand, in many digital games, players can
feel a sense of control over outcomes in the
game’s system (Salen & Zimmerman, 2003).
For instance, role-play in narrative-based
games can give players a sense of agency
over their virtual destiny (Fullerton, 2003).
These feelings of agency are a distinguishing
characteristic of games as opposed to other
media—players experience the cause and its
effects in games because the player is allowed
to make meaningful choices (Isbister, 2016) and
control their game experience. However, choice
and agency typified in game systems are not
necessary for evoking emotion (Isbister, 2016;
Juul, 2003; Kokonis, 2017).
On the other hand, the sense of agency that a
game player feels may be illusory. A player may
feel they can make meaningful choices that
affect the outcome of a game, but in fact, the
story may actually be “on rails” and all multiple
story threads may lead to a single outcome no
matter what someone chooses. This section
considers how digital games may expand or
limit player choice and the relationship between
agency and empathy.
The online text-based game SPENT (2011), from
brand awareness agency McKinney, is an example
of a digital game intended to inspire empathy
for the poor—specifically for the homeless
shelter, Urban Ministries of Durham. It has been
“played by 4.5 million players from around the
world and generated over 100 million media
impressions with one press release” (McKinney,
2011, para. 1). Although McKinney stated that
the game was not created to raise funds for
the Urban Ministries of Durham, it has raised
over $70,000 (McKinney, 2011). SPENT presents
players with two difficult financial decisions,
such as whether the player should spend money
on new shoes for their kid or pay to fix a broken
toilet. As the player progresses in the game and
makes a series of financial choices, the player
can watch as their funds deplete, which serves
as their score in the game (McKinney, 2011). At
the end of an in-game month, players can see
if they went over budget (the “lose” situation)
or if they were able to maintain a score “in the
black” (the “win” situation).
Roussos (2015) tested whether playing SPENT
increased player empathy for the plight of the
poor. She hypothesized that the choices in
the game, which were presented to align with
perspective taking, would in fact increase
empathy and reduce prejudice. However, she
found that playing SPENT actually had a negative
effect on attitudes toward the poor among
certain participants—“including some people
who were sympathetic to the poor to begin
with” (Roussos, 2015, para. 5). Roussos (2015)
attributed the lowering of empathy for the
Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development / UNESCO
14 | December, 2017
poor to the participant’s preconceived beliefs
of society being a meritocracy. A meritocracy
is the idea that success is determined by how
hard one works and that there are no external
influences that affect how well one does
(Kluegel & Smith, 1986). The ability to make
in-game decisions implied to players that poor
people have personal agency over outcomes.
Some players brought to the game preconceived
beliefs and biases to the game, such as that
poverty is controllable and caused by people
who made a series of poor life decisions (Tagler
& Cozzarelli, 2013). “When they played the
game, they came out of it with [even] more
negative attitudes toward the poor, which was
troubling because it was the opposite of what
[the game] was supposed to do” (G. Roussos,
personal communication, May 4, 2017). Roussos
and Dovidio’s (2016) findings suggested that
“because playing a game about poverty (and
thus having control over one’s outcomes) led
participants to believe that poverty is personally
controllable, it did not positively influence
attitudes toward the poor” (p. 14).
Roussos and Dovidio (2016) next evaluated two
groups: one that played SPENT and a second
group that watched screen recordings of it
being played by others. The researchers sought
to parse out “perceived personal agency” in
each of the two groups (Roussos & Dovidio,
2016, p. 5). When perceived personal agency
was removed for participants, such that they
did not have control over the choices, the
findings “supported past work indicating that
observation of adversity can evoke empathic
concern and other positive emotions” (Roussos
& Dovidio, 2016, p. 6). These findings are
related to those by Ahn and Shin (2016), who
similarly compared empathy from participants
of “viewable,” or passive media (i.e., television)
with “controllable,” interactive media (digital
games). Ahn and Shin (2016) reported a positive
correlation between observing media and the
ability to perspective take; whereas directly
controllable media “was negatively associated
with one domain of empathy, perspective-
taking, which in turn was associated with
weaker connectedness” (p. 488). Thus, while
having agency over one’s choices in a game may
be meaningful and personally relevant, and may
also perhaps relate to greater transportation
in the game world, it may also lessen empathy
because the player is not removed enough from
the choices.
On the other hand, the design of SPENT may
also be flawed in terms of supporting agency.
When Schrier played SPENT in a class of high
school students, the students noted that they
did not feel like they had control or agency over
their choices. For instance, since they had little
money in the game, the students wondered why
(in the game) their character decided to have
kids in the first place. Or, they would do things
they would not do in real life, like break their
kid’s piggy bank to ensure they had enough
money to get through the month. They also felt
that the game did not realistically simulate how
it feels to be financially insecure and insolvent,
nor illustrate the real choices they would face.
Moreover, the choices presented to players
in SPENT lack logic. Sande Chen notes that,
for instance, players are asked to pay car
insurance after they decided to not have a car
(Chen, 2016b). Although making so-called bad
choices in a game does not necessarily lead to
lack of moral sensitivity (Grizzard, Tamborini,
Lewis, Wang, & Prabhu, 2014), SPENTs players,
who are given a set amount each month and
have limited choices on what to do with it, are
constantly set up to fail (Chen, 2016b). “Game
designers call this forced failure—the game is
designed to make you fail” (S. Chen, personal
communication, May 10, 2017), which can lead
to frustration with players. These constraints
could also serve to reinforce that financially
struggling people receive a finite set of difficult
choices and just need to make better choices,
rather than the possibility that there are
systemic issues that oppress them and maintain
their financial struggle. Thus, while SPENT was
successful in gaining greater awareness of
December, 2017 | 15
The Limits and Strengths of Using Digital Games as “Empathy Machines”.
and financial support for a homeless shelter,
the design of SPENT is flawed. SPENT does not
adhere to the empathy game design principles
Belman and Flanagan (2010) proposed. To foster
empathy, players should be given “specific
recommendations about how their actions can
address the issues represented in the game”
(Belman & Flanagan, 2010, p. 10). The only
consequence to any choice is that players’
scores (their funds) decrease, but they do not
experience any other consequences to the play
of their game or their self in the game. These
limitations may in fact reflect the oppressiveness
and frustrations of being homeless. In reality,
homeless people may be told that they have
“win” options (e.g., apply for affordable housing
assistance and you are awarded a place to live).
Yet, this may not really be an option, because
there is a ten-year-long wait list for the housing.
It is not clear whether the game is simply poorly
designed, or, whether, with its narrow choices,
the game could be transmitting the “forced
failure” of real life. Because SPENT fails to follow
the principles necessary to show players how to
address financial issues in the game, players
may “guard themselves against feeling empathy
in the future to avoid similarly unpleasant
experiences” (Belman & Flanagan, 2010, p. 10).
While some games may enable choice and
active play, a designer may decide to purposely
constrain choice and agency, and intentionally
align more with passive media, to deepen
empathy. Bogost (2017) commented that
narrative games supplant agency for story. In
games like Gone Home (Fullbright Games, 2012)
and Dear Esther (The Chinese Room, 2012), “the
glory of refusing the player agency was part of
the goal” (Bogost, 2017, para. 22). For instance,
one reading of SPENT is that its removal of
meaningful agency may illustrate the irrationality
of chronic poverty and homelessness, which can
underscore how people can become hopeless in
dire situations. Likewise, in Depression Quest
(Zöe Quinn, 2013), an interactive fiction game
about a woman’s struggle with depression,
choices “appear mundane, but the protagonist,
slowed by depression’s fog, finds each one to be
tremendously burdensome” (Parkin, 2014, para.
3). Thus, some choices in Depression Quest get
grayed out to better simulate the lack of choices
that people who are depressed feel they have,
and simulate their constrained feeling of agency
over their own lives.
In That Dragon, Cancer (Numinous Games,
2016), agency is sometimes part of the
game experience, while at other times it is
intentionally lacking. That Dragon, Cancer is
an autobiographical game about Ryan and Amy
Green’s experience with their young son Joel,
who succumbed to cancer at the age of four.
In this game, players players assume different
roles, sometimes controlling Ryan, and at
other times seeming to float like a spirit among
non-playable digital actors, as if the player is
participating in a performance of interactive
theater. The on-screen player interactions in
the game often have no consequential effect
on the ludic system. For instance, halfway
through the game, there is a vignette in That
Dragon, Cancer titled, “Dehydration,” in which
the player acts as Ryan while he unsuccessfully
tries to console Joel, who is in his hospital room
crying incessantly. Nothing the player does
works: Joel refuses juice boxes and cradling
him is ineffective. The lack of player agency over
outcomes serves to underscore the feeling of
helplessness that the family faces in having a sick
child that they cannot help or soothe. No matter
what the player does, they cannot change the
game or story. When first demonstrated at the
PAX Prime Conference, players were observed,
“breaking down in sobs and quickly exiting the
booth” (Tenz, 2016, para. 2). “The emotion of
franticness, helplessness, and the stress of not
being able to stop a child from crying trigger
a common experience that many can imagine.
Even the sound is enough for most people” (R.
Green, personal communication, May 11, 2017).
In another scene, titled, “I’m Sorry Guys,
It’s Not Good,” the player sits on a couch
alongside the Green family as doctors tell
Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development / UNESCO
16 | December, 2017
the parents (and player, as eyewitness) that
Joel’s brain cancer has returned, and is now
untreatable. Rather than exercise meaningful
choices, in this vignette, the player can only
watch as the room fills with water. This part
of the game uses storytelling techniques such
as metaphor and visual imagery (the water
serving as the overwhelming emotions of the
parents) to further transport players into the
family’s world and the game world. Here, Green
uses “intimacy,” an affordance more typical
in cinema and photography used to “amplify
identification” with actors (Isbister, 2016, p. 7).
Intimacy refers to “an effort to employ visual
and narrative conventions like the close-up to
shorten the distance between spectator and
character” (Christian, 2011, p. 122).
Unlike in SPENT, in That Dragon, Cancer, forced
failure seems to be used to engage players to
reflect on what it is like to lack control, or agency,
in one’s life and the life of a child. Additionally,
because cancer has touched so many people’s
lives (as compared to the participants in the
SPENT study who may not all have experienced
poverty firsthand, and does not have the same
type of social stigma as poverty), That Dragon,
Cancer embeds “cognitive empathy” that can
“encourage people to perceive others as more
similar to themselves, and this in turn could
produce positive attitude changes” (Belman &
Flanagan, 2010, p. 11). Thus, the design choice of
using “forced failure” serves to evoke the sense
of hopelessness and despair of the Greens, who
were losing their son to cancer, “so players
would feel” his despair (R. Green, personal
communication, May 11, 2017). By removing
player agency and constraining player choices,
it helps us to see that, even if we think we have
choices in life, we often do not—just like when
facing fatal illnesses.
Many of the game’s sequences are embedded
with elements from the Green’s Christian
worldview. The game’s co-designer explained
to the website Christianity Today: “The fact that
there aren’t a lot of gamey mechanics is partly
because we’re trying to communicate grace”
(Larson as stated to Clark, 2015, para. 12). The
lack of player choice also exists to illustrate
the Green’s personal theological struggles,
including whether individual prayers and hopes
matter. Agency in digital games is an illusion of
choice perceived by the player, and it is “not
simply ‘free will’ or ‘being able to do anything.
It is interacting with a system that suggests
possibilities through the representation of a
fictional world and the presentation of a set
of materials for action” (Wardrip-Fruin et al.,
2009, p. 7). After all, games are designed, and
bounded in some way. Agency and control may
always be an “illusion” and in fact, player action
within the game is often more limited than
they realize. None of the choices players make
can affect the game as a system; the eventual
outcome of Joel’s illness cannot be altered.
However, one can argue that the core mechanic
of the game is acceptance, as players must
decide “to let go of Joel, and to move on” (R.
Green, personal communication, May 11, 2017).
Thus, That Dragon, Cancer complicates the
notion that a “lack of agency” leads to less
meaningful interaction with a game, and more
limited empathy. And, the notion of control and
agency itself should be further questioned. Can
any game really provide full agency to a player?
If a player has too much control or agency
within a game, might this even be too taxing
and take up too many resources, making it
more difficult to engage in empathy? We need to
further unpack the interlocking layers of agency,
choice, resources, as well as the perception and
expectation of agency.
Further questions
• What is the relationship between feeling
“agency” in a game, and the practice of
• What types of meaningful interactions and
choices in games are needed to support
December, 2017 | 17
The Limits and Strengths of Using Digital Games as “Empathy Machines”.
Perspective-taking and Identity
“Games are essentially a prosthetic suit for
you—as player—to take action. They offer
powers and possibilities and affordances, which
is quite different than in other media” (K. Isbister,
personal communication, May 23, 2017).
Perspective-taking is the act of taking on
another’s views such that we can better
understand them, even if we ourselves do not
hold these views or agree with them. Darvasi
(2016) explains that perspective-taking often
involves actively considering those who seem
initially very different (an “outgroup”) such as
by embodying their “mental state, points of
view, and motivation” (p. 3). Part of the process
of perspective-taking involves openness—we
need to first value other perspectives such that
we can embrace them and consider them more
fully. These perspectives need to matter to us,
and as part of this, perspective-taking involves
being persuaded that other perspectives are
meaningful and should be attended to (Cohen,
2001; Darvasi, 2016). Importantly, Darvasi
(2016) notes that games may be particularly
powerful at supporting perspective-taking
because they combine the enabling of other
perspectives with those persuasive techniques.
For instance, Bogost (2008) explains how games
use additional “persuasive” techniques such
as procedural rhetoric to mount claims about
the world (persuasion through “rule-based
representations and interactions”), rather than
only the techniques of other media, such as
framing, word, visuals, time and/or repetition.
The process of perspective-taking has been
shown to help reduce bias and improve attitudes
toward people who initially seem different from
yourself, partly because they end up seeming
more similar and less like an “outgroup” (Todd
& Galinsky, 2014; Darvasi, 2016). However,
perspective-taking can backfire. Darvasi (2016)
notes that perspective-taking has not been
shown to be effective in reducing bias if the
person doing it over-identifies with their own
group (in-group) and/or has low self-esteem,
and it often does not work if there is a highly
competitive or conflict-filled environment.
Moreover, what happens if you take on someone’s
perspective so much that you lose sight of the
big picture, or you get so overwhelmed with
another’s perspective that you cannot see any
other views?
A key factor involved in perspective-taking is the
ability to identify with a particular perspective,
or to identify with a character who holds a
particular view or embodies a type of belief,
way of life, or value. However, such gameplay
can raise many questions related to identity.
When playing, are players acting as themselves
or playing the role of another? If there is an
avatar in the game, to what extent do players
see themselves in their avatar (the digital
representation that players control in a game),
and to what extent does the avatar reflect back
on the player? (For instance, we can look at Gee’s
(2007; 2008) notion of the projective identity,
which describes a hybrid identity between that
of the avatar and player, and explores how
players make decisions based on what they
believe their virtual identity would choose). Do
players take on the identities of their avatar, or
do they engage in an inner negotiation between
their own identity and that of their avatar? Can
players form relationships with their avatar and
what is the nature of this relationship, and how
might it be involved in empathy?
Darvasi (2016) concludes that the “point of
view” of a particular digital game matters in
the process of perspective-taking and identity
formation. For instance, he explains that in
first-person games, the player embodies the
avatar but does not see the avatar. The player
may be less likely to engage in perspective-
• How do different contexts, audiences, and
prior experiences and expectations, factor
into empathy?
• How can “lack of agency” in a game also
support the practice of empathy?
Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development / UNESCO
18 | December, 2017
taking, and rather, their identity will blur with
that of the avatar. However, they may take on
the perspectives of other players or NPCs.
Other games enable a third-person (or even a
more removed perspective, like the “view from
the sky” perspective) perspective; or situations
where players can switch perspectives, such
as from first- to third-person. Darvasi (2016)
explains that in situations where players can
switch from first to third person, or can take
on a third person perspective, they are able
to more readily take on the perspective of that
character, as they can see the character and
can more easily empathize with the character’s
views, needs, and experiences.
We can look in-depth at the Mission US series
of educational games to explore further the
connections between perspective-taking and
empathy. The goal of Mission US is to enable
middle school students to better understand
historic moments through the eyes of a
(fictional) person who lived during that time,
and to practice historic empathy skills. Although
players make choices, historic events cannot
be altered. Each game in the Mission US (led
and produced by Channel 13/PBS/WNET and
developed by Electric Funstuff) series uses a
third-person perspective, such that the players
can always see their on-screen avatar while they
make decisions for them. Historical empathy is
embedded in the players’ actions, and can be
defined as the “reconstruction of others’ beliefs,
values, and goals, any or all of which are not
necessarily those of the historical investigator”
(Riley, 1998, p. 33). In For Crown or Colony? (the
first game in the Mission US series), the players
follow Nat Wheeler, a printer’s apprentice,
and help him make decisions as he completes
missions and tasks during the Revolutionary
War-era Boston. Other games in the Mission
US series include A Cheyenne Odyssey, which
centers on a Little Fox, a Cheyenne boy in post-
Civil War America, and City of Immigrants,
featuring Lena Brodsky, a Jewish immigrant
during the early 20th century.
In For Crown or Colony?, the Boston Massacre
is a pivotal moment. Each player experiences
this event using a random selection of vignettes
from different perspectives and vantage
points. For instance, some vignettes focused
on snowballs that the minutemen soldiers may
have thrown, while others depicted menacing
British soldiers marching into the street.
Teachers were encouraged to pause the game
to help students reflect on why they were
given different versions of what happened,
and how their different perspectives might
color a later decision, such as determining
which party was at fault for precipitating the
violence during the Boston Massacre (Schrier,
Diamond, & Langendoen, 2010). Then, in the
next part of the game, students playing as Nat
are participate in an official deposition, where
they are asked to relay their version of events.
Players can choose to either lie or not lie about
what they saw in the vignettes presented
to them. The players’ responses during the
deposition, then, have consequences for their
avatar, Nat, his relationships, and the ending
of the game. Education Development Center
(EDC) tested students who played For Crown
or Colony? in two New York City middle schools
using pre- and post-game assessments (as
described in Schrier et al., 2010). Students’
historical understanding and empathy were
assessed, in part, through a number of tasks,
such as analyzing an engraving of the Boston
Massacre by Paul Revere and explaining the
Patriot and Loyalist reasons for supporting or
opposing the crown (Schrier et al., 2010). The
researchers also observed and interviewed
students, interviewed their teachers, and
observed classroom discussions. They found
that the game enhanced skills such as historical
empathy, interpretation, argumentation, and
perspective-taking, including the consideration
of views from multiple historic roles (e.g.,
Patriot, Loyalist; Schrier et al., 2010).
Students who play For Crown or Colony? might
benefit from further discussion and deliberation
within their classes, as well as teacher and
December, 2017 | 19
The Limits and Strengths of Using Digital Games as “Empathy Machines”.
curricular support. For instance, in regard to the
Boston Massacre, students may not realize that
they received a different series of vignettes than
others who play the game unless they engage
in a discussion with their classmates—which
teachers were encouraged to support. This is
both a limitation and an opportunity in that it
suggests games do not just “stand alone” but
require a community around which to deliberate
and reflect, as well as a mentor or guide who
can frame it and question its design, values, and
approaches. For example, when Schrier (2006)
created Reliving the Revolution, a location-
based history game where students decide who
fired the first shot at the Battle of Lexington,
she integrated an educator-led discussion into
the game experience, where students reflected
on the game, and worked together to compare
evidence, interpret biases, and deliberate on
possible outcomes. Schrier’s results suggested
that a number of factors may have contributed
to the practice of historical empathy skills (e.g.,
interpretation, deliberation and perspective-
taking), including working in pairs in a physical
location, participating in a reflective exercise
after the game experience, and the inclusion of
an educator (Schrier, 2006).
We have discussed how games can give
opportunities for perspective-taking, but how
does transportation factor into perspective-
taking? Reading literary fiction can have a
positive effect on people’s ability to take on new
perspectives (Castano & Kidd, 2013). Stories
in literature teach empathy by having readers
“vicariously” identify with how characters
view and interact with a fictional world. For
perspective-taking to occur, the narrative
fictional world must be immersive, compelling
and convincing to transport the reader
(Johnson, 2012). Bal and Veltkamp (2013)
studied two groups, measuring how suspension
of disbelief would transport readers into the
literary works of Arthur Conan Doyle and
José Saramago. Findings suggested a positive
relationship between transportation into fiction
and levels of empathy, and that readers had
to be totally immersed to become transported
into fiction to effectively take on perspectives
(Bal & Veltkamp, 2013), further suggesting a
relationship among transportation in a world,
perspective-taking, and empathy. Conversely,
“when a reader is not able to identify with
a fictional narrative and does not become
transported, this might lead to disengagement,
with the reader being distracted and frustrated”
(Bal & Veltkamp, 2013, p. 8). While games are
not the same as literature, Koster (2014) further
asserts that “games are not stories, though
players can tell stories from them” (p. 88), and
these relationships should be studied further.
Do we need to be fully transported into a
fictional world or story to be able to take on new
perspectives? What types of relationships with
one’s avatar and other characters help better
support perspective-taking?
Further questions
• What is the relationship among identity,
perspective-taking, transportation, point of
view (first, third, “view from the sky”) and
empathy in games?
• How do we better cultivate perspective-
taking through games, particularly those
with views different from our own?
• Which specific game elements support
historic empathy?
• How do the activities around the game,
such as teacher-led discussions, creative
activities, interpretative deliberations (such
as why each student received different
vignettes of the Boston Massacre), reflective
diaries, and other exercises, help to further
support empathy-related skills?
Relationships with Non-Player
“I don’t think feelings in games come just from
music and the animation of the character.
They come from having journeyed with a
Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development / UNESCO
20 | December, 2017
seemingly sentient other for a while, having
been interdependent through taking action
in this imaginary space” (K. Isbister, personal
communication, May 23, 2017).
The player of a digital game, particularly in an
action-adventure game, first-person shooter, or
RPG, is sometimes the protagonist who drives
the story and gameplay with their onscreen
avatar (i.e., their playable persona in the game).
Players might identify with their onscreen
avatars; however, the stronger attachments
may be to the non-playable characters (NPCs),
or digital characters that are controlled by the
computer/game rather than by the player. These
NPCs may even help to transport players into
fictional worlds. For instance, NPCs who share
their backstories have been found to contribute
to a player’s willing suspension of disbelief
(Harth, 2017; Ochs, Sabouret, & Corruble, 2009).
Players may also bond with non-playable virtual
characters, which can possibly evoke similar
empathetic emotions as one might experience
when building relationships with real people
(Harth, 2017; Isbister, 2016).
It may seem surprising that players form
attachments with non-human virtual objects
and characters; however, research by Turkle
(2011) and Isbister (2016) suggests that human
beings can build these types of attachments
with non-human and even virtual entities. Harth
(2017) analyzed how humans socially interact
with NPCs through extensive interviews with ten
experienced digital game players. Participants
were social with NPCs and exhibited “virtual
empathy” for virtual game companions (Harth,
2017, p. 19). Some participants reported that
the empathy formed with NPCs was not as
strong as with actual people, but more similar
to the emotional attachment an audience would
have with actors on a stage or characters in a
book (Harth, 2017). This was likely attributed
to the fact that participants knew that those
characters were within a bounded system of a
game’s fictional world (Harth, 2017).
Player interactions with NPCs often have no
impact or consequence on the game’s final
outcome or goal; however, in some games, the
treatment of the NPC affects one’s standing
in the game, as well as determine what parts
of the story and game the player can access.
In the space-themed Mass Effect 3 (BioWare,
2012), players can aid NPCs in side quests,
which are missions that do not necessarily
advance the main storyline. In Mass Effect 3,
“being a positive, kind, and friendly player,
during conversations and stories, will make you
more of a Paragon” (“Paragon,” 2012). Paragon
and Renegade points are one portion of the
game’s morality metric, gauging whether NPCs
view the player as a someone who follows or
flauts rules and laws. As they earn Paragon or
Renegade points which unlock upgrades for
the player’s weapons, strength, or spaceship,
players who help NPCs may also grow emotional
attachments to those characters.
In some games, NPCs are also integrated into
the overall game experiences as guides and
confidantes that lead the player on a journey or
quest. They also may be teammates who fight
alongside the player, and can even potentially
permanently die if they are killed or while
making a sacrifice for the player. This theme—
the death of the hero’s mentor—occurs midway
through the hero’s journey, or monomyth
cycle, as proposed by Joseph Campbell in
his (1949/2008) seminal book, The Hero with
a Thousand Faces. In Never Alone (E-Line
Media, 2014), players control Nuna, a young
girl on a quest with her companion arctic fox.
Halfway into the hero’s journey, the arctic fox
experiences Campbell’s (1949/2008) notion
of “death as rebirth,” as he is killed saving
Nuna (the player), but is later resurrected as
a young boy, becoming her spiritual mentor
and guide (p. 318). Similarly, in Brothers: A Tale
of Two Sons (Starbreeze Studios, 2013), the
companion dies, this time permanently, without
resurrection. Both characters, who are brother,
are controlled simultaneously by a single player
with a dual thumbstick game controller (the
December, 2017 | 21
The Limits and Strengths of Using Digital Games as “Empathy Machines”.
type used on PlayStation and Xbox consoles), in
which each thumb controls one of two brothers’
actions. When the older brother dies, half of
the controllers’ buttons become functionless,
which can message “mortality, grief, and
strength of family” to the player, making this
“an extremely powerful game to build empathy”
(Chen, 2016a).
Likewise, in the role-playing game The Elder
Scrolls V: Skyrim (Bethesda Game Studios,
2011), companion NPCs, or “followers” as they
are called, can die and will not respawn or come
back. This means, if the player wants to keep
his or her follower, such as J’zargo, a Khajit
(cat-like) mage, he or she would need to keep
reloading an earlier save prior to J’zargo’s death,
and then protect this character from death.
In Fallout 3, companions such as Dogmeat (a
dog follower) could die, which would result in
many players having to restart from before the
death. Therefore, for Fallout 4, the designers
decided to make companions unkillable. The
companions may get incapacitated but will
never permanently die. In Mass Effect 3, players
also form friendships with companion NPCs, who
can join the player’s team when they embark on
missions. Some of these companion NPCs can
be killed permanently (for instance, due to the
players’ choices in sacrificing a companion),
which reconfigures which NPCs can be available
for missions. A player may not even entice an
NPC to join the team, such as in the Mass Effect
series, when Wrex may not get convinced to join
the player as a companion, depending on how
the player interacts in diffusing a conflict and
how they had interacted in the past with other
Isbister (2016) has argued that an attachment
comes from journeying for a while alongside
an interdependent being. For example, in the
role-playing game Fable III, players play as
a Prince or Princess of the fictional world of
Albion and need to train and go on missions
to help the townspeople of Albion. During the
training sessions, an NPC, Walter, helps mentor,
protect, and guide the player’s avatar as they
undertake different trials. At one point, after
spending around ten hours of game time with
Walter, he gets hurt during one of the missions.
The player then must decide whether they are
going to drag Walter to safety—a physically
and technically demanding feat using the game
controller—or just leave him and escape alone.
Walter begs the player/avatar to leave him
behind and continues to plead as the player
drags him along. Schrier (2017b) researched
this moment in the game, and found that 19 out
of the 20 male Fable III-playing participants she
interviewed decided to drag Walter to safety,
even though there was no benefit to helping
him, and the game eventually forces you to leave
him behind. One of the participants explained
that, “Over the course of the game, I formed an
emotional attachment to Walter’s character.
I never even gave a thought to leaving him
behind, even though he was practically begging
me to.”(2017b, p. 852) Schrier (2017b) found
that when interacting with the NPC Walter,
players used “emotion, assessed his character,
considered their friendship with him, and they
took on his perspective to make their decision
more frequently than in other types of scenarios
(p. 853).
Another scenario in Fable III, which happens in
the very beginning of the game is relevant as a
comparison to the “Walter” scenario, because
it explores a relationship with an NPC that did
not have as much time to develop. In “Surrender
a Friend,” the player/avatar is asked to make a
sudden decision about whether to sacrifice an
NPC, who is a childhood friend of the player/
avatar, or three villagers. In that scenario, which
happens during the beginning of the game,
about half of the players decided to save their
friend, and most of them made the decisions
based on other factors, such as the number
of NPCs that could be saved, or whether they
believed this friend could help them later in the
game (Schrier, 2017b). They did not, however,
suggest that their decision was based on care
or attachment for the NPC, as they had only just
Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development / UNESCO
22 | December, 2017
“met” the character. On the other hand, they
had spent ten hours exploring and journeying
with Walter, and did not want to sacrifice him.
While the two scenarios are different, Schrier’s
study suggests that spending time and being
interdependent with a character can help
facilitate a relationship and attachment, which
could also lead to more use of empathy-related
skills (such as perspective-taking or considering
another’s emotion) when making decisions
about those characters. When a player builds
an interdependent relationship with a non-
playable character over time, there may be
increased opportunities to connect as well as
demonstrate one’s empathy for them.
In The Walking Dead: Season One (Telltale
Games, 2012), players control Lee, a survivor in
a zombie apocalypse charged with caring for a
young companion NPC girl named Clementine,
the emotional core of the game (Harth, 2017;
Smethurst & Craps, 2015). Madigan (2012)
attributes the game’s ability to create moments
of empathy to the digital facial expressions
on NPCs, positing it as a demonstration of
Iacoboni’s (2009) work on mirror neurons.
Regarding empathy from viewing characters
in The Walking Dead: Season One, Iacoboni
stated to Madigan (2012), “By being active even
when we do not move at all and simply watch
other people moving, they sort of create an
inner imitation of the actions of others inside
us” (para. 6). Thus, empathy can occur when
players mentally internalize actions from NPCs2.
The Walking Dead: Season One is used in
Norwegian-based high school teacher Tobias
Staaby’s classroom to instruct on moral
philosophy by exploring the game’s ethical
dilemmas (Tach, 2014). His students vote on
dialogue choices using Kahoot (a quiz game
tool) with the goal of “getting the class to
feel collectively invested in the outcomes”
(T. Staaby, personal communication, May
13, 2017). Staaby reported that his students
overwhelmingly consider how their decisions as
Lee would affect Clementine, the NPC. Staaby
Episode two of season one has a dilemma where
you vote who gets to eat. I have data [from
the electronic voting tool] from four different
classes on how they voted: 96% of students
chose Clementine, even though she is basically
useless—a resource drain to the group. But
students care about Clementine first. After she
gets to eat, we then discuss utilitarianism and
who is most useful. (personal communication,
May 13, 2017)
Designers should consider how best to create
emotional attachments through games, such
as between players and digital actors, or NPCs.
In an anecdote, Staaby recounted an occasion
involved the tabletop RPG Dungeons & Dragons:
“I wanted them to think about my NPCs as
characters, but they thought of them as stats with
experience points and loot” (T. Staaby, personal
communication, May 13, 2017). Anecdotally,
Staaby reported a surprising reaction when his
students played the serious game This War of
Mine (11 Bit Studios, 2014) to learn about ethics
and philosophy. “One girl burst out laughing
when someone died—clearly not conveying
empathy” (T. Staaby, personal communication,
May 13, 2017). In this instance, the student
2 “Watching other people move,” and the resultant processes that take place in a player’s mirror neurons,
may explain player empathy in That Dragon, Cancer, too. Interestingly, That Dragon, Cancer does not show
any facial expressions on characters. Ryan Green told the researchers that budget constraints were to blame,
and he did not want his character faces to be in the “uncanny valley,” the phrase Masahiro Mori (1970) used to
describe how realistic looking non-humans (i.e., robots) would disgust, and possibly frighten people. Speaking
about That Dragon, Cancer, Fortugno (2016) referenced McCloud’s (1993) observation about how cartoon faces
invite readers to project their own identities on the faces, and, perhaps Green’s technical limitation served to
lead players to project themselves onto his game’s blank faces.
December, 2017 | 23
The Limits and Strengths of Using Digital Games as “Empathy Machines”.
exhibited the emotion of schadenfreude, the
German word describing how people “feel
pleasure at another’s misfortune” (Greitemeyer
et al., 2010, p. 797). However, schadenfreude is
“not simply the mirror image of empathy, and
playing a prosocial video game seems to have
separate effects on empathy (increased) and
schadenfreude (decreased)” (Greitemeyer et
al., 2010, p. 800). It is unknown whether the
student laughed because she lacked emotional
investment in the NPC’s situation or because
she found the scene to be absurd or inauthentic
for other reasons.
Can game players become too invested
emotionally in these relationships, or take
on the perspective and experience of their
character, such that they make decisions that
are not in their or a characters’ best interest?
Bloom (2017) explains that emotion can bias
decisions, and can affect how people think
through ethical decisions, and even lead people
to make problematic choices. Schrier (2016a)
notes that emotion and other empathy-related
skills and thought processes are part of ethical
decision making, particularly when people
(and even characters) are a primary part of
a situation in a game—and that this may not
necessarily be good or bad. We need to further
consider whether emotions problematically
bias decisions and ethical choices, and if there
is a more nuanced understanding of the role of
empathy, relationships and emotion in regard to
Further questions
• What is the role of relationship-building,
even with NPCs, in supporting empathy
in games? How can we develop authentic
relationships based on intimacy and trust,
rather than just points and game rewards?
• How do emotions and emotional interactions
in games relate to empathy?
Connection, Communication, and
Gaining perspectives and views from NPCs can
be useful, and interacting with digital characters
can build relationships, but communication
and interaction with real people can also help
to support perspective-taking, role-playing,
reflection, agency, identify formation, and
relationships. For example, studies have
suggested the importance of social interaction
in practicing empathy-related skills and learning
ethics and morality (e.g., Belman & Flanagan,
2010; Maclagan, 2003; Noddings, 2010; Schrier,
2015). There are a number of ways in which real
people help to teach empathy skills:
1. Modeling. A key component of learning
involves the modeling of behavior (Bandura,
1977) or being able to directly observe how
others behave and then also behaving in a
way such that others learn from it and enact
it themselves.
2. Communication, dialogue and discourse.
People also learn from the act of engaging
in dialogue with others. Klein (2012)
explains that by listening to other people’s
arguments and viewpoints, people are able
to explore their perspectives and reflect on
their own. Nussbaum explains that “critical,
elaborative discourse” (Nussbaum,
2008, p. 347) is essential to moral and
ethical decision-making, which includes
compassion and empathy.
3. Expression of emotion and relationship-
building. Emotion is also a component
of communication and interaction among
people. People need to observe and use
each other’s emotional cues when they are
working on a group activity, and adjust their
interactions accordingly (Van Kleef, 2009).
Emotion, communication, and connective
Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development / UNESCO
24 | December, 2017
interactions work together to support
shared goals. People need to be “in tune
with another’s emotions (care about them
and even embody them) to be able to build
a relationship, develop intimacy, work
together, and communicate effectively to
achieve goals or shared purposes. Thus,
the practice of communicating and building
these types of relationships helps to support
and facilitate compassion and empathy for
one another (Iacoboni, 2009).
Way (Coco & Co., 2011) is an example of the
possible connections among communication,
emotion, and collaboration in games. Way
is a synchronous, two-person game, where
participants work together using only non-
verbal communication to complete the game,
such as taking turns communicating how to
overcome game obstacles like finding hidden
platforms or avoiding moving spikes (Schrier &
Shaenfield, 2016). The two players are separated
in the game and can only see each other via
a split screen. (The game is anonymous and
online and players are randomly matched so the
players do not know who they are playing with
and can only communication via their avatar
using nonverbal cues and gestures.) Players
need to work together to complete different
tasks that they can only do with the help of the
other person. Only once the players win the
game can they finally be in the same space as
the other. The researchers found that,
Participants in Way seemed to gradually earn
each other’s trust by collaboratively guiding
each other through the dangers of a game
board. They developed a relationship through
shared activities, and, as a result, felt more
attached to each other. The continual need to
rely on each other to get through to the next
portion of the game helped the participants feel
more comfortable with learning about not just
the game and its tasks, but about each other.
(Schrier & Shaenfield, 2016, p. 309)
The researchers found that attachment and
collaboration grew over time as the two players
were able to communicate, even with the limit
of not being able to speak. They were able to
share one’s emotions through the limited use
of emoticons, and they were able to use non-
verbal gestures in the game, such as lifting
hands, pointing, or moving. The collective
ability to take turns playing a game and helping
each other out, additionally, was also a type
of communication. Players needed to closely
attend to what their partner was telling them,
because communication was limited, and also
because they had to rely so closely on this
communication to be able to complete the game
and both be successful. Thus, players were more
empathetic and caring toward their partner
through the collaboration and communication
process itself. At the end of the game, some of
the participants remarked at how close they felt
toward their counterpart, whom they had never
seen and would never meet, because they had
journeyed together. Said one player, “I feel like
found a friend.” At the end of the game, once
both players win, they can write messages
to each other. Some of the partner players
were not from the United States and were not
English speakers. But all of them wrote or drew
messages of support and kindness to each
other and often called each other their “friend”
(Schrier & Shaenfield, 2016).
The exercise of players writing to each other
after the gameplay ends in Way also seems
to support reflective practice (Schön, 1983).
Reflection-in-action occurs while someone
is doing something: they make an action,
reflect, and continue (Schön, 1983). Reflection
and reflective practice helps people to think
back on their experience and to reconsider
it given new information, relationships, and
learning. Schönian reflective practice includes
reflection-in-action, while practice is occurring,
and reflection-on-action, which takes place
afterwards (Schön, 1983). Reflection-on-
action in digital games can help to strengthen
connections with content and other people, and
frame new knowledge, and it “happens outside
December, 2017 | 25
The Limits and Strengths of Using Digital Games as “Empathy Machines”.
the game entirely. It’s the thing the teacher must
package around the game” (Shaffer as stated in
Farber, 2018, p. 184).
In SchoolLife (GiantOtter, 2016), players
communicate with NPCs and even other players
to help the game learn the best ways to teach and
support empathy around bullying behaviors and
situations (Schrier, 2016b). Players of SchoolLife
participate in bullying-related scenarios and
respond to dialogue expressed by the NPCs.
The participants do not speak aloud, but write
out their responses to the NPC, who is able to
process the dialogue using natural language
processing. The participants and NPCs continue
to respond to each other improvisationally, just
as in a typical conversation. For instance, NPCs
alter what they say based on what the player
writes, and vice versa. Part of the impetus for
SchoolLife was to cull natural responses to
bullying scenarios. The NPCs would continually
learn from these responses and their interactions
with real people. Then, in subsequent games,
the NPCs could more and more organically
interact with people and they could also adjust
and adapt to the players to be better able to
teach players how to use empathy-related skills
(e.g., such as listening to others, deliberating
with others, and considering other’s emotions)
and better manage bullying scenarios (Schrier,
2016b). Subsequent versions of the game also
incorporate multiple players responding to the
NPCs and each other; however, the game is still
in progress.
While we have considered the benefits of
social interaction and community, we have
not discussed their limitations. Just as social
interactions may be empowering, they can
also be enervating and even toxic. And, just as
games may seek to find solutions to bullying,
games, game players, and game communities
can also potentially reward and even promote
bullying and uncivil behavior, toxic talk, and
problematic norms. What are the drawbacks of
emergent communities around game playing,
and how can their design and culture possibly
limit empathy? How might communication
platforms promote or limit empathy, rather than
negative talk (such as how Splatoon (Nintendo,
2015) only allows friend group communication
or League of Legends (Riot Games, 2009)
includes hot keys and conversation starters that
relate to gameplay and collaborative strategy).
How might participation in a community that
rewards competition rather than teamwork
limit empathy for others?
Further questions
• What is the role of communication in building
relationships and supporting empathy
through games?
• How can community features, emergent
communities, and cultural contexts support
or limit empathy?
• How is reflection and reflective practice
involved in empathy in games?
Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development / UNESCO
26 | December, 2017
Discussion and Conclusion
In this working paper, we sought to ask questions and share initial insights into the intersections
among games and empathy. Our discussion was driven by some underlying questions, such as: are
games really unique in their ability to support (or limit) empathy? Are there elements, processes, and/
or actions related to digital games that inspire empathy-related skills? What are any limitations and
gaps in our understandings, and what are the recommended next steps? In this paper, we specifically
looked at storytelling, flow, and immersion (transportation); perspective-taking and identity; agency,
choice and control, relationship-building and emotion; and connection, community and reflection.
We used a mix of empirical evidence, anecdotal perspectives, case study analyses, and textual
analysis to share initial observations. As research and empirical evidence in the intersection among
games and empathy is limited, we often asked more questions than provided answers. In the future,
we recommend much more research in this burgeoning area and, in particular, more consideration
as to the specific factors of gaming that may inspire or constrain empathy skills, behaviors, and
attitudes; such as context of play, game content and gameplay, audience, opportunities for
reflection, role of teacher or mentor, curriculum context, emergent cultures around and within the
game, and player interactions. Moreover, we recommend considering compassion, sympathy and
other related concepts and applying them to games and gaming as well.
Based on our initial research, we propose the following recommendations which are posted on the
next two pages:
December, 2017 | 27
The Limits and Strengths of Using Digital Games as “Empathy Machines”.
Recommendations for policy-makers and educators:
• Consider games as another possible experience for practicing empathy in classrooms and
• Understand the importance of the role of the teacher and curricular context in how the game
is framed, received and reflected upon.
• Organize professional development workshops for educators on discussion, reflection, and
perspective-taking strategies to precede and follow a game.
• Consider the need to spend time with a game—whether to enable the building of relationships
with characters, or even player-to-player relationships.
• If a game does not enable agency and meaningful choices, or has other flaws, ask students to
consider why, and create alternative designs.
• Create and/or participate in an online community of practice in which educators, game
designers, and academics can share best practices.
• Consider how the communities that form around and within a game may not act how you
expect—continue to explore how students negotiate and address the norms of the game and
the community at large.
• Be inclusive of different perspectives, play approaches, and types of game experiences, and
also ways of developing and expressing empathy, as well as acting on it.
Recommendations for game designers
• Find ways to support player-to-player and/or player-to-character relationships and build
trust and intimacy over time.
• If you are creating a story-heavy fictional world, ensure there are opportunities for “tension
and release” and enable exploration, meandering, and mundane interactions, in addition to
pivotal moments.
• Consider the agency of your player and ability for them to access and make meaningful
choices. If there is a lack of agency, make that meaningful as well.
• Provide opportunities for reflection and bonding, particularly after engaged journeys,
whether of mind, heart, or virtual world.
• Consider novel ways to inspire authentic empathy, care, perspective-taking and openness to
ideas and identities.
• Consider how point of view (first person vs. third person) may affect empathy for players and
characters, and design accordingly.
• Build in ways for teachers, players, and other stakeholders to “make the game” their own,
by modifying content and gameplay, accessing the game on different platforms, engaging
in communities around the game, and/or designing curricula and activities to take place
around and within the game.
• Find ways to reward players that are not just based on points, money, trophies, and other
achievements, but more intrinsic connections, such as care, friendship, emotional catharsis,
and closeness.
Recommendations and Future Research
Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development / UNESCO
28 | December, 2017
Recommendations for researchers:
• Evaluate the role of storytelling and narrative engagement (or “transportation”) in games,
and its relationship to players’ feeling of “agency,” perspective-taking, and relationship-
• Consider and evaluate how different contexts, audiences, and prior experiences and
expectations factor into empathy through games.
• Test and evaluate further on how reflective practice, deliberative discourse, communication
of emotions, argumentation, perspective exchanges, and other practices can be used in and
around games.
• Address how emotion and emotional interactions in games relate to empathy, such as
with other features, including transportation and storytelling, relationship-building, or
• Investigate community features, emergent communities, and cultural contexts, and how
they negotiate norms and values, alongside the games that they emerge from and within,
and their relationship to empathy.
• Consider further the distinctions among compassion and empathy—neurologically,
cognitively, and behaviorally—and how this intersects with gaming and play.
December, 2017 | 29
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December, 2017 | 35
The Limits and Strengths of Using Digital Games as “Empathy Machines”.
Mahatma Gandhi Institute
of Education for Peace
and Sustainable Development
United Nations
Educational, Scientific and
Cultural Organization
Previous Working Papers:
1. Working Paper 2015-01
Policy and Practice in Post-Secondary Education: The transitional experience for students with
learning disabilities in India by Melinda (Mindy) Eichhorn, Gordon College, Massachusetts,
2. Working Paper 2015-02
The Elusive and Exclusive Global Citizen by Jill Koyama, University of Arizona
3. Working Paper 2016-03
Empathy, Perspective and Complicity: How Digital Games can Support Peace Education and
Conflict Resolution by Paul Darvasi, York University
4. Working Paper 2017-04
Backtalk: The participatory film and its residency in the space of cultural violence and
creative education towards a conceptual understanding of peace by Ruchika Gurung,
University of East Anglia
If you wish to contribute to the MGIEP Working Paper Series please contact Ms. Yoko Mochizuki at
Mahatma Gandhi Institute
of Education for Peace
and Sustainable Development
United Nations
Educational, Scientific and
Cultural Organization
35 Ferozshah Road, ICSSR Building, 1st Floor, New Delhi 110001
Phone +91 11-23072356-60
... Digital games and digital games-related mediasuch as gamified applicationsare a subject with a wide range of applicability covering health, education, marketing, and so on [1]. In addition, digital games-related industries nowadays have a substantial economic impact, currently considered one of the most lucrative entertainment industries [2]. ...
The research aims to test the attributes proposed by the authors Katherine Isbister, Better game characters by design: a psychological approach (2006) and Ernest Adams in Fundamentals of Game Design (2006). The Playable Characters analyzed were retrieved from the most played digital games from the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) reports between 2008 e 2017 and fit the following inclusion criteria: be a third person character; the aesthetical look of the Playable Character had to remain unchanged throughout the game; be a single-player game and the Playable Character from the digital game has to be the protagonist. Considering the inclusion criteria, the Playable Characters analyzed are Niko Bellic from the digital game Grand Theft Auto IV, John Marston (Red Dead Redemption), Batman (Batman: Arkham City), Edward Kenway (Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag), Joel Miller (The Last of Us), Aiden Pearce (Watch Dogs) and Link ( The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild). The characters mentioned were selected based on their commercial success – retrieved from ESA sales reports and analyzed based on their physical and psychological attributes. The attributes were tested through 110 participants through an online survey – comparing the perception between respondents who played and did not play the games in analysis. The results show that the character perception of the respondents about physical and psychological attributes is similar regarding their gaming experience.
... We consider that to get a true understanding of VG potential, we should pay attention to spontaneous play that is done freely over time. Therefore, as Farber and Schrier (2017) suggest, to determine whether critical consciousness is promoted, empirical research on game reception in real contexts is required. In this sense, McKernan (2019) went to a forum to analyze the reviews identified about the VG 'Papers, Please'. ...
Full-text available
Video games are the digital entertainment resource most in demand by young people, which has led an increasing number of education experts to study their possible benefits. In particular, in this research, we set out to identify the potential of ‘Papers, Please’ to promote moral learning. Thus, we have tried to identify those objectives that go beyond the success in the video game and could favor moral learning. For this purpose, we have investigated what types of moral discourses arise from playing ‘Papers, Please’, a video game where you adopt the role of a customs inspector in a totalitarian state who must obtain the necessary money to fund their family. To do this, we analyzed the moral content of 1,560 player reviews. Results showed that only 4.94% of the reviews presented Moral Intuitions (moral content), which occurred more in the players who had played longer and had declared more Negative Emotions. As for the analysis of the Moral Intuitions, results showed that the players mainly made references to Care for both Family and Immigrants and point out the Authority of the State. However, Fairness/Cheating is less represented, despite the many events related to Immigrant discrimination. Through Exploratory Factor Analysis, we identified three dimensions, one of them pragmatic, oriented to success in the video game, and the others aimed at epistemic aspects beyond the objectives of the video game and that delve into the moral aspects of the game events. Hence, although spontaneous video game use is oriented toward pragmatic goals, ‘Papers, Please’ can guide players to think about the morality of the video game. Nevertheless, if we want to favor moral learning with ‘Papers, Please’, it is necessary to promote epistemic goals aimed at the explicitation of the morality that underlies the video game. To this end, we propose the application of scaffolding that favors these objectives.
... 7,8 Given the usefulness of digital games in promoting better social and emotional behaviors, many researchers and educators have come up with interesting ways of using existing games to build social-emotional skills in addition to content and disciplinary knowledge in students. 9 Social-emotional learning can be broadly described as the process of integrating thoughts, emotions, and behaviors to build emotional awareness of the self and others, to develop skills of perspective-taking, and to take constructive and responsible decisions to manage behaviors and improve the lives of others. 10 In this study, we extend the idea of using digital games to build social-emotional learning by proposing a game-based course. ...
Full-text available
Objective: The purpose of this study was to investigate the efficacy of a digital game-based course to build domain knowledge and social emotional competencies of empathy and compassion in adolescents. Materials and Methods: The study used a digital game Bury me, my Love with an accompanying course which was administered to 201 participants between ages 13-18 across United Arab Emirates (UAE) and India. Standardized self-reports were used to score participants on measures of knowledge and attitudes, empathy, and compassion before and after the intervention. Mixed analyses of variance were conducted with 1 between-subjects factor (gender) and 1 within-subjects factor (time) to determine the impact of the intervention, followed by post hoc t-tests. Results: Increased effects of intervention were obtained for both knowledge and social emotional learning in both UAE and India. Specifically, there was a significant increase in awareness of migration and refugees in both India (P < 0.001) and UAE (P < 0.001). Interesting effects of gender were seen in which females in both countries showed increases in compassion from others (P < 0.05). Conclusion: This study opens a new window in game-based learning. The design of a structured course with learning outcomes that are centered around a digital game establishes its potential to create engaging and accessible solutions to simultaneously build domain knowledge and social-emotional competencies in adolescents.
... In this sense, some studies have carried out from analysis of the events happening in the VG [8] to the analysis of the type of attitudes it favors [9,10]. However, as Farber and Schrier [11] point out, to study whether a VG promotes critical consciousness it is necessary to investigate its reception by users in such a way that we clarified what reflections emerge spontaneously. In this sense, McKernan [12] carried out an analysis of Papers, Please based on the comments of 1853 users in a forum on VG. ...
... Moreover, Bogost states: "games are not just stages that facilitate cultural, social, or political practices; they are also media where cultural values themselves can be represented-for critique, satire, education, or commentary." Both Gee (2007) and Farber & Schrier (2017) suggested that games enable their players to develop empathy and provide an active space for social-emotional learning. Belman and Flanagan (2010) suggested four design principles for designing games to foster empathy while emphasizing a positive contribution of empathy on people's attitudes and behaviours towards other individuals or groups, pro-environment and pro-social behaviours. ...
... Compassion training is a perceived need in healthcare studies and practice, and calls for a better narrative approach to digital training approaches (Kleinsmith, Rivera-Gutierrez, Finney, Cendan, & Lok, 2015). Moreover, the ability of games to elicit empathy and related emotions such as compassion has been the object of different studies (Farber & Schrier, 2018;Isbister, 2016). In this space, it will also be valuable to explore the understanding of compassion as an internal motivation (Perez-Bret, Altisent, & Rocafort, 2016) and how this can be leveraged by the concept of intrinsic motivation in game design (Mallon & Webb, 2006). ...
Conference Paper
Full-text available
Digital simulations and scenario-based learning programmes are widely accepted as an effective educational approach where experiential learning is key. However, there is an acknowledged need to improve the narrative design of these educational interventions to make them both engaging for the learner and aligned with learning goals. This study turns for guidance to the expertise of narrative designers for games, where storytelling for interactive narrative has a long history of testing, iterating and perfecting. A collection of proven techniques described by game narrative practitioners will inform creative writing efforts to craft prototypes to test the transferability of those techniques to interactive narratives in a healthcare education context.
... Although there is a growing interest in exploring the limits and strengths of using digital games as 'empathy machines' (Farber and Schrier 2017), most of the studies exploring the effectiveness of bullying prevention games did not examine or report the effects of gaming on perceived social skills, empathy or compassion (e.g. Bosworth et al. 2000;Kärnä et al. 2013;Vannini et al. 2011). ...
Full-text available
In line with previous findings stressing the importance of the player experience for game effectiveness, the main aim of the study was to explore whether the experience while playing a serious digital game aimed at bullying prevention mediated the relationship between initial and postgame knowledge about appropriate reactions in bullying situations, and initial and postgame compassion for the victim. Participants were 12- to 14-year-old students from 10 European schools (N = 120; 51% boys). Students were assessed in schools, by an online survey, before and after gaming sessions, on measures of knowledge about appropriate reactions in bullying situations and compassion for the victim. Students’ experience during playing was also assessed. The proposed model showed a good fit to the data, but the mediation hypotheses were not supported. The results indicated that some aspects of the game experience could affect subsequent knowledge and compassion. Specifically, the challenge had a significant effect on knowledge about appropriate behaviour, while immersion had a significant effect on compassion. The model was tested on the wider sample including students who played the control game (N = 116; 46% boys). The results of moderated mediation analysis offer further support to this conclusion, as these effects were not significant in the control group.
This paper presents a novel board game called Life on Wings, designed to create an experience and awareness about the life of birds in an urban landscape. The game lets users experience the life of six tropical urban birds across three seasons of a year. By performing different activities of birds, players learn about the challenges that an ever-changing urban environment creates for bird species. We reflect on our design process and describe the key design decisions that led to the development of our game. We also present insights of a playtesting session that was conducted with 11 participants to evaluate the design aspects of the game. Based on the study insights we present three implications on collaboration over competition, local game movement and longitudinal first-person perspective. Through this work, we aim to inspire more playful explorations on human-wildlife cohabitation.
Games often encourage players to feel empathy for characters or scenarios by design. However, the term ‘empathy’ is often misunderstood and used in a variety of contexts as a substitute for feelings of sympathy, pity and compassion. This article defines a distinction between these similar terms and uses their definitions to describe how players emotionally engage with a game. This helps define an empathy spectrum, ranging from pity to compassion, that can be used to subjectively classify different games. To show the spectrum in use, the article discusses a variety of video games that can be placed at the spectrum’s key points, before discussing how games might reach the spectrum’s furthest point: compassion. The research hopes that modelling these abstract psychological concepts on this spectrum can help game designers, players and scholars better understand the range of emotional responses present in games.
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This study deals with the question in which extent non-player characters (NPCs), in the practice of playing video games, appear as social persons ready for relationships or if they are only treated as mere objects. Due to the fact that for human players the computer game and its virtual inhabitants appear as black boxes, the presented gameplay and its more or less emergent narratives are always in need of interpretation. As a result, different types of play-practice emerge, which in different ways produce more or less empathic relationships towards non-human players.
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Imagine if new knowledge and insights came not just from research centers, think tanks, and universities but also from games, of all things. Video games have been viewed as causing social problems, but what if they actually helped solve them? This question drives Karen Schrier's Knowledge Games, which seeks to uncover the potentials and pitfalls of using games to make discoveries, solve real-world problems, and better understand our world. For example, so-called knowledge games-such as Foldit, a protein-folding puzzle game, SchoolLife, which crowdsources bullying interventions, and Reverse the Odds, in which mobile game players analyze breast cancer data-are already being used by researchers to gain scientific, psychological, and humanistic insights. Schrier argues that knowledge games are potentially powerful because of their ability to motivate a crowd of problem solvers within a dynamic system while also tapping into the innovative data processing and computational abilities of games. In the near future, Schrier asserts, knowledge games may be created to understand and predict voting behavior, climate concerns, historical perspectives, online harassment, susceptibility to depression, or optimal advertising strategies, among other things. In addition to investigating the intersection of games, problem solving, and crowdsourcing, Schrier examines what happens when knowledge emerges from games and game players rather than scientists, professionals, and researchers. This accessible book also critiques the limits and implications of games and considers how they may redefine what it means to produce knowledge, to play, to educate, and to be a citizen.
Full-text available
How can we better learn about and teach moral thinking and skills? How can we solve moral problems? One possible way is to create and use moral learning games, or games that enable players to work on moral scenarios, make moral choices, and gain relevant skills. One possible subcategory of these games is moral knowledge games, or games that aim to solve real-world moral problems and create new knowledge about morality. This article systematically analyzes relevant literature and related games and media to uncover a preliminary set of design principles for creating moral learning games and moral knowledge games. Frameworks such as the Elemental Tetrad, Mechanics, Dynamics, and Aesthetics (MDA), and Ethics Practice and Implementation Categorization Framework (EPIC) were used to analyze individual games and media. Ten different categories of principles emerged, along with 95 possible subprinciples. Implications, next steps, and limitations of this analysis were also discussed.
The concept of empathy lies amid much confusion This analysis addresses that confusion using Walker and Avant's model of concept analysis, and looks at what empathy is is it trait or state, is it dynamic or static, and how is it recognized and measured' Implications of these findings are discussed, limitations of the study are acknowledged and areas for further work suggested
In this exploratory study, four participants were observed playing Way, an online, synchronous, multiplayer game. In Way, participants cannot use verbal or written communication; they use avatars to nonverbally teach and learn from each other and solve collaborative tasks to win the game. Based on an analysis, five themes emerged and recommendations were provided for designing online collaborative games. Shared contexts and goals, a relevant set of nonverbal cues and gestures, and a system that values collaborative success were suggested to enhance learning. Participants tried to name and interpret their partner’s emotions, but did not try to express emotion using Way’s interface. The anonymous nature of Way, and the focus on communication and problem-solving, seemed to enhance the participant’s attachment to the partner, as well as their interest in and awareness of one’s partner’s emotions. All results should be considered directional and descriptive, given the limited sample size.
To what extent are emotion- and empathy-related skills and thought processes involved in how people make ethical decisions in Fable III, a video game? A total of 30 males, 18-34 years old, were recruited; 20 participants were randomly assigned to play Fable III; 10 were assigned to a control condition. Any ethical thinking skills and thought processes used were identified and categorized as empathy-related, reasoning-related, reflection-related, and information gathering-related. Results suggested that in an early in-game scenario versus a control condition, participants were less likely to consider another character’s or their own emotions when making a decision. Game participants practiced empathy-related skills and thought processes more frequently after having the time and opportunity to build relationships with in-game characters. Game participants, however, considered the emotions of others more frequently in a scenario post-game than those in the control group.