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author: @aestranger

Reading time: 12 minutes

The world needs more compassion, and games can help you with that!

You may have noticed in the media nowadays that the world is becoming a little bit harsher with every passing day. Compassion, caring and empathy does not really seem to be attributes that society lays much stock in. The mass media especially appears to give the impression that everyone is brutal, and the only way to fight it is to be brutal yourself.

Even online we are becoming more callous. I’m sure you’ve read the many articles about online bullying or toxic players who hide behind the veil of anonymity, spouting animosity for their own, supposed enjoyment.

This move away from empathy towards apathy is not an uncontrollable movement, it is something that is self-inflicted. We’re in a world where, for some reason, we feel it’s much easier to stop caring and binge watch something on TV… then to engage with others, to empathize with them, to offer them help. These positive behaviors have strangely become too much like hard work for us, why?!

But the one aspect where we have no trouble with investing long hours of “hard work” into is with gaming. And games are fantastic mediums to bring about change, to make us more social, help battle disease and support mental health and mental conditions. And games can also help us increase or empathy for our fellow human beings.

The best part of playing games is that you are never too old to do it. You may need to learn a few things, like how to use a specific controller correctly or the inherent rules of a specific game, but young or old, it’s all the same. That’s why you can both as a parent, a sibling, a friend or as a child be taught how to improve and increase compassion for others.

Teaching our children about empathy

Children today and tomorrow will grow up with technology being an essential part of everyday life. Many of us who are under 40 have grown up with technology being an essential part of everyday life. The internet and the ability to communicate with anyone around the world has been around for at least 20+ years now. We no longer have the excuse that it is something we will need to engage with. You and I are already engaging thanks to technology. And to ensure our children don’t become closed off, we need to make sure that this technology is used to teach compassion.

The main form of entertainment for any child in today’s world is gaming. Even before their first step is taken or the first word is uttered, they know what swiping on a tablet does. Many may find this a disturbing fact, but rather than ignoring this fact, you should embrace it. Utilize the medium to engage and teach children from day one, what it means to feel compassion, what it means to care for one another and the world around them.

Traditionally this would have been done with storytelling at bedtime or in the classroom. But this was always a one-directional semi-vicarious experience. Which is especially difficult for children to relate to, as many may not have the emotional experiences to understand these parables.

Allowing them to take part in an immersive gaming experience that teaches them compassion is a far more effective tool. It may still be vicarious from a fictional point of view, but it is, I feel, far more longer lasting.

It is of course the job of everyone to help with this, not only teachers in a classroom, but also parents at home. You will need to take an active part in helping teach empathy. Engage with the games that your children are playing. Discuss it with them, reflect on the stories and experiences with them. Only through this engagement can the game be truly successful.

An example of such a game that can aid you as a parent or a teacher is IF…. It’s an adventure game that helps develop the right contexts and understandings of emotional development for children. If you ever needed help in developing your child’s EQ and didn’t have quite the right framing for it, then I do recommend having a look at this game.

Here is also a link to a selection of apps to help with improving your child’s compassion levels.

The most effective method I believe for teaching children, and to be honest any person of any age, is through a collaborative, fully immersive game experience. A live action simulation, which can also utilize various forms of technology, is an incredibly effective learning tool. An example of this is the Game for World Peace, which teaches children through the use of 50 different crises what it means to collaborate effectively, have compassion for team member and people they have never met.

An entire year’s curriculum can be woven into this, making it even more relevant for children in school systems. And the discourse around what gamesoffer, their emotional training in schools, their positive and negative effects and general use among children is far reaching.

This video is a discussion between educational practitioners and parents around the positive effects of gaming and empathy:

Teaching adults like us about empathy

You may be thinking, well teaching a child about compassion and empathy is much easier than teaching an adult. Children are mostly blank canvases with very little baggage from a life lived in a harsh world. You’d be half right, but still missing the mark…

The great thing about being alive today and allowing yourself to have an open mind is that you can learn anything at any time in your life, even how to improve your empathy towards others. But like most things worth doing in life, it requires hard work.

The secret, if you want to call it that, behind improving your levels of compassion are straightforward. It requires consistency, repetition and pushing the proximal edge of learning, in other words, regularly doing challenges that always incrementally increase in difficulty. It’s like training any other muscle, you always need to push yourself a little further each time.

The game Papers, Please is an excellent example of this, we’ll explore it more fully later on, but it gradually increases the difficulty of remembering bureaucratically implemented rulings while testing your moral compass in ever more complex situations.

Though this is a strange concept to grapple with, willingly engaging in complex-, maybe even in frustratingly difficult situations, just to improve something that generally arises out of calmness. This is yet again another reason why playing a game is so fantastic for you to learn things like empathy with. You could almost call it a form of meditation, letting go of all the worries and distractions of the outside world and focusing your mind on a single task.

You as an adult, need to learn to let go from time to time. Enjoy life, because of enjoyment, a positive emotional state, helps foster empathy and compassion. And this has never been truer than among adults in the business world, leading stressful lives in high functioning positions. In these positions, we become callous and harsh, and the result can sometimes lead to a burnout or causing a burnout because we can no longer recognize the symptoms in ourselves or others.

This lack of recognition is true in many aspects of life, it leads to ignorance, bigotry, xenophobia, and intolerance. Being placed in an immersive game can help combat these problems. It may not solve them, as one can never truly walk in another’s shoes, but one step in the right direction is better than none at all. Games allow for a communal activity, multiplayer situations, and situated knowledge application can aid adults and exposing them to different perspectives. This removal from the environment lowers stress levels, which in turn allows for a better fostering of empathy, in general.

The state that you enter when you are fully immersed is known as Flow(coined by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi). In both you and old, gaming allows you to more easily enter this state. It is a state of positive concentration, one which allows you to be more open to building supportive relationships and practicing behaviors that support those relationships and others.

Gaming to help increase empathy

Games with a prosocial component, one that requires you to be social and help others or characters, have been studied and there is a compelling argument that they do increase empathetic feelings in the players.

These “Empathy” Games often require you to make decisions, which are sometimes difficult, and then you need to deal with the very “real” consequences of those decisions. Very often the games do not allow you to go back and try again. In effect, you must live with the decisions you made.

Naturally, these are still games, there is no real lasting consequence, but as many studies have proven, especially in the world of business training, being able to practice and enact something during a simulation in a safe environment is often a very powerful learning experience. Allowing people to test and challenge the limits of their own perceived empathy often makes them aware or cognizant of just how far their empathy goes.

Naturally, the next great step in immersing yourself in experiences is virtual reality. VR is at the forefront of improving empathy in people, one example of this is Nonny de la Peña’s Project SyriaProject Syria, as the name suggests, places you the player in the middle of the city of Aleppo. Letting you experience the destruction the city has endured and hear the sounds of bombings, near and far, along with the crying and often times screaming of the civilians caught in this desperate situation.

It is games like these that place you in those situations that help with understanding the plight and views of others, and with that understanding comes compassion.

Games that simulate & illustrate to improve empathy: A selection

I’ve selected a few games, some new, some old, some yet to be released, that are worth exploring. Some improve empathy on a personal level, others on a collective level.

Eco: An ecosystem simulation game

Eco has yet to be released on Windows or Mac computers, it is apparently available on Linux. It’s an interesting game concept to keep an eye out for.

The premise is that you as a player are part of a community on a server. You are spawned onto a planet at the dawn of civilization and are required to advance that civilization to a point where it may avoid or survive an impending natural disaster, such as a meteor, flood, earthquake, volcanic event. But you must do so without destroying your own planets ecosystem. If you fail in either, by not avoiding the natural disaster or poisoning your planet, you and the community suffer a server-wide permadeath or permanent death. There is no save point, you will need to start all over again from scratch.

It’s a very interesting and innovative concept that teaches collaboration, compassion and collective care for the outside world. And the actions you and your collective take have very real consequences in the game world. If you type of animal is hunted too often it will inevitably not spawn anymore, in other words, it becomes extinct. This influences the overall ecosystem, much like is a factory is built next to a river and the river becomes toxic, you no longer have clean drinking water.

I believe this game is worthwhile for all ages. The young can be taught from an early age what effects we as humans have in the world, and adults can be educated in a very clear and visual way what happens in our environment. This could be very worthwhile for certain populations in certain developed western nations of the world.

Spent: A simulation concerning poverty

Spent is a somewhat older game, but I felt it was worth mentioning as it is a very simple and straightforward gaming experience.

The game was created to illustrate the difficulties and struggle that many U.S. citizens who live in poverty face every day. Many of us in the West take this for granted but there is a large portion of individuals who have very little income, sometimes without the hope of receiving more, that still need to somehow survive in this world.

The game gives you the player, a single parent, $1000 to survive with for a month. Along with this comes a host of bills and payments, such as insurance, rent, food, transportation, medical aid, etc… And it requires you to juggle what is necessary, make judgment calls and morality choices on whether a sick parent or friend should receive a portion of it to survive as well.

The time-frame may not be the most accurate in terms of realism, but it does give a taste of what some people have to endure, without much choice.

This War of Mine: A war-torn survivor simulation

This War of Mine is a game developed by a polish games company and centers around a group of survivors, in a war-torn city, struggling to make it through each day. Your morals and empathy will be tested in this harrowing game.

You as the player need scavenge, steal and beg, in order to ensure that your band of survivors lives through to the next, all while a war rages around you. The game is based on the accounts of survivors from the Siege of Sarajevo and depicts many of the horrors that they had to endure.

Within the game, the death of one of your survivors is almost an inevitability. No matter how much you try, they may get shot, die from a sickness or of exposure. And this realization of the lack of control is a profound experience, as it is exactly that, which hopefully helps you realize the senseless nature of war and its effects on those that never wished for it. It brings to light the sad reality of the pointless death of human life in many war-torn regions in the world.

The game is very effective in bringing to the forefront the aspect of the war that many of us in modern peaceful societies try to avoid or are sadly ignorant of. Perhaps through experiencing this simulation and making the difficult choices that you are faced with when needing to survive will help you expand your understanding and empathy towards those that have to live through it in the real world.

On a side note, the developers of This War of Mine are developing a new game called Frostpunk, where you will be required to make the difficult moral choices on a much larger scale. Your morals, compassion, and ethics will be tested on a societal scale, as you will be required to ensure the survival of an entire city in a harsh and unforgiving environment.

Papers, Please: A civil servant simulation

Papers, Please in a simple sentence in a simulation about the difficulties of being a civil servant who must remain impartial to reach a quota so that they can keep their job.

You are this civil servant, and you must man a border control station of a 1980’s Soviet-style totalitarian nation. You de facto hold the power that allows people to enter to earn a living, to remain with their families, receive medical care, but also you need to ensure that dissidents and rebels do not enter and attack the innocent.

As I mentioned earlier, it is a great game that slowly increases in difficulty, showing you the bureaucratic mire that you eventually end up in, and yet still must navigate to ensure the well-being of your own family and make the right choice for those desperate and sad individuals showing up at your border control box.

It is a great example of how to balance external and internal empathy, intellectual and emotional empathy. You will need the capacity to balance care for those that are strangers to you, versus your own (virtual) family. The game is excellent in highlighting that great moral struggle of where do you draw the line between empathy and “only following orders”.

Games can help but they are not the solution

The one thing you must remain aware of is that games are an aid in helping improve empathy. Playing a game does not make someone suddenly compassionate or caring for others. As much as a game does make someone suddenly violent and aggressive. Games simply aid you on the road to the desired state.

To truly reap the benefits of playing a game designed to improve empathy, real face-to-face interaction is still required. There is no use in learning a skill that benefits from human contact if you never have human contact.

The mechanics simply offer consistent training when real interactions are momentarily absent. Do not make the mistake of believing that a game can truly substitute real life experiences“Games help you understand something outside of your normal experience, but that’s different from understanding someone else’s experience”.

Games can assist and help you and others in understanding choices and consequences that are made. Games mainly help improve intellectual empathy, rationally understanding why compassion is required and how to care. It is the additional component of emotional empathy that is actualised in the external world. That is where true empathy is achieved.

At the end of the day, games are simulations of life that help make you aware of your own empathetic limitations. A game challenges you mostly on an intellectual level and partly on an emotional level. But you still need to work on it in the real world. You still need to have a true human connection to start on the path of understanding what others have had to go through to get to where they are.

I hope that this piece has given you some food for thought and helped improve your own methods or at least offered a different viewpoint to consider.

Please do check out the other posts on æ, and please do leave a comment or contact us if you have some ideas of your own that you wish to discuss or if you would like to see other topics discussed.

Please do Share if you found it helpful and know of someone who would it find it helpful as well.



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