Learning Empathy Through Video Games

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There have been plenty of psychological studies on the relationship between video games and human behavior. A lot of the time you’ll hear theories about how video game violence is directly linked to violent behavior. You almost never hear about how video games are already being used as a way to teach impulse control, help with anger management and other forms of psychological treatment. The entire idea that video game violence can cause a person to become more aggressive led me to think on the other end of the spectrum. Can video games teach people to become more empathetic? Of course I’m no psychologist, still, I couldn’t help but consider the thought of how certain games that have the player compose moral choices can have an effect on their empathetic behavior in their daily lives.

 The Most Humane Thing About Us

Before I get deep into this I think we should talk a little bit about empathy itself. So what exactly is empathy and why is it such an important human trait? Well by definition it’s the ability to feel another person. To be able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and understand what they’re going through. Unlike so many of our other emotions empathy is considered to be more cognitive than binary. It’s something you actively use as opposed to it being an instinctive reaction. Some consider this to be its biggest flaw.

Because empathy is something you choose to practice this gives people the power to just turn it off. As a result, we are able to hurt one another and do hateful things without feeling bad about it. These types of people are usually labeled as sociopaths. It’s not that they can’t feel for another person it’s that they choose not to. The ability to empathize is what makes us truly human. But what does all of this have to do with video games teaching us to be more empathetic?

Learning Empathy through Video Games

Researchers have explored the idea of whether or not empathy can be taught to those who lack the ability. Surprisingly enough a lot of those studies agree that empathetic behavior can indeed be taught. Going back to the thought of using video games as a way to teach compassion I wanted to delve into a certain type of video game I think would be perfect for this. Specifically, the choose your own adventure type of games. You know the games series that adapts to the choices you make. Having a game that changes based on how you play forces the player to carefully consider the decisions they make as it could have a permanent effect on someone or something else in the game. If you’ve ever put yourself in the place of the main character and thought about what you would do in that particular situation, then I’m sure you understand where I’m coming from.


Until Dawn™_20150821161617
Until Dawn had me seriously questioning myself with every choice.


This Game Adapts To The Choices You Make

Telltale Games are notorious for making interactive story based games. The main draw in for their games is the choices you make affect what happens as you play. Certain actions lead to different outcomes. I believe the first season of Telltale’s Walking Dead series would be a perfect game to help test the idea of learning empathy through video games. Why? Well, this was my first encounter with these types of games and it sucked me in almost immediately. Never before had a game made me actually care about the decisions I was forced to make.


With each ultimatum I would sit there and weigh out the pros and cons of each option, sometimes regretting a choice I made and wishing to go back to change it. Not only that but I found each personality in the game to be completely diverse from one another, for better or worse, as well as relatable in their own way. This made making those decisions even more difficult. Plus the whole dynamic between Lee and Clementine further pulls the player in, having them become even more emotionally attached. The idea of having to protect this little girl and teach her to survive all while trying to be a good mentor is enough to make anyone consider their own moral compass. All throughout the game I did my best the be the example of everything I would teach her. I’ll never forget how I felt the first time I finished that game and its grim ending. This was the first time a game had made me feel so deeply about a fictional character.


Life Is Strange Selfie Wall
Despite the cheesy dialogue at times, Life Is Strange was a solid experience.

Another game people seem to attach themselves to is Dontnod’s Life Is Strange. In a nutshell, you play as a high school student named Max Caufield who’s returned to her hometown after leaving a few years prior to attending a special school in Seattle. Upon returning she quickly realizes how out of place she feels and starts to doubt herself as a photographer. As if the troubles of high school wasn’t enough she also discovers she has the ability to rewind time. There’s plenty of moments in this game that I feel can immerse players and have them really think about the actions they’re about to take. At times it could be as simple as choosing to lie in order to cover for a close friend or something deeper like doing your best to convince one of the students that feel hopeless that suicide isn’t the answer.


Kate Roof
My first time playing I wasn’t able to save Kate.


The first time I was on the roof with Kate trying to convince her not to jump I found myself being extremely cautious with my answers and doing my best to think about how I would actually react in this kind of situation. What I would say to someone if I was the potentially the last person they talk to before jumping off a roof. To have me that emotionally invested in these made up characters lives only further leads me to believe that showing empathetic behavior towards them isn’t so strange. The wide range of relatable themes presented in Life Is Strange would make it another perfect example of a game that shows learning empathy through video games is possible.

 Closing Thoughts

I didn’t write this with the intent to try and convince anybody of anything, I just I find it interesting that certain scenarios and plots in video games we play can tug on our heartstrings or leave a big enough impression on us to make you sit back and process emotions long after you’ve completed the game. I mean who knows I could be completely wrong about all of this but the fact that we can connect to this type of media on this level might be worth looking into for reasons other than trying to villainize video games or use it as a scapegoat whenever an unfortunate act of violence breaks out somewhere.

Featured image by @Kuvshinov_Ilya

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