How We Can Use Games to Understand Others Better

video games belfer

June 25, 2018

By Karen Schrier | Belfer Fellow with ADL's Center for Technology and Society

Can games be used to support positive social change, connectedness, and caring, and help reduce bias? These are the big questions I will be exploring over the next year as a Belfer Fellow with ADL’s Center for Technology and Society. There are many questions in this area that need to be answered, but here are a few initial insights:

  • Games may support empathy — but there are limits. Empathy helps people to consider what others are going through by tapping into their previous experiences. This is an area where games may help. In a white paper that I wrote last year with Matthew Farber, we found that, in addition to often being personally meaningful and emotionally evocative, games can inspire relevant skills, such as perspective-taking, reflection, and communication. There are limits to the benefits (as NPR has reported). The effectiveness of any game depends on the context in which it is played, a player’s experience, and the game’s design.
  • Games may help disparate groups connect. Research suggests that people tend to treat others with more empathy if they feel like they are more “like them” (one’s “in-group”) as opposed to those who they think are different (an “out-group”). Gaming can potentially help people build empathy for those in an “out-group.” For instance, in my recent research with David Shaenfield on the online game Way, we found that even anonymous strangers can feel kinship and camaraderie, and build trust with others simply through the act of playing with others with shared goals and outcomes.
  • Games can broaden perspectives. Gamers can experience people and stories that they may not interact with in their lives. Gaining a window into another’s life can help players build compassion and develop historic empathy — an understanding of not only their personal perspective, but the historical frame of their lives. Research by Hasler, et al. suggests that this “perspective-taking” can decrease bias toward “out-groups,” and also enhance compassion and helpfulness toward others. They found that virtual conversations and mimicked movements between Jewish-Israeli players and virtual Palestinian characters increased players’ empathy toward Palestinians. However, there may be limits to what we can see from another’s viewpoint.
  • Games may help players reflect on their own identity. One of the key mastery skills in anti-bias education is considering one’s own identity, other’s identities, and identifying personal and institutional biases. We need to be able first to understand how our biases affect our perceptions and actions before we are able to challenge them and to change our behavior. Games can help us to reflect on our own attitudes and preconceptions, and take responsibility for our actions and choices. For instance, in games such as the Walking Dead (Telltale) and Fallout, players need to evaluate events, information, and experiences to make ethical decisions, and then discover the consequences. In my research on Fable III, players needed to consider, for example, whether to raise taxes, build an orphanage, or drain a lake. Often, they made decisions based on their own identity and backgrounds. Players explored their own ethical identity and morality through how they made decisions in the game.
  • Games may support the cultivation of social and emotional skills. Being able to reflect on, express, and manage one’s own emotions, and understand others’ emotions, helps us to engage in difficult conversations, and practice empathy and cultural humility. This, too, can potentially be explored through games. For instance, in Antura and the Letters, a game designed for Syrian refugees, players can learn Arabic while also gaining SEL skills through taking care of a dog. Games such as That Dragon, Cancer and What Remains of Edith Finch may also inspire emotional expression and perspective-taking as players are faced with narratives related to grief, family tragedy, and trauma.

Look to this space for updates as the CTS team explores ways to better use games to support anti-bias education, empathy, and social change more broadly.

Dr. Karen Schrier is an Associate Professor and Founding Director of the Games & Emerging Media program. She is also the director of the Play Innovation Lab