May 30, 2016

Alana Hackes

How Games Can Increase Empathy

Topics: Creativity, STEM, STEAM


I love my brother, Patrick. Of all my siblings, he and I are the closest in age and have the closest connection. Our relationship wasn’t always as strong as it is now and a lot of that had to do with the fact that my brother has Asperger’s syndrome. Autism Speaks, an Autism advocacy group, defines Asperger’s syndrome as a type of Autism that is “considered to be on the ‘high functioning’ end of the spectrum” and those diagnosed with Asperger’s experience “challenges with nonverbal communication, tendency to discuss self rather than others” and the “inability to understand social/emotional issues or nonliteral phrases.” Although my brother has had difficulty making friends in the past, he’s made great strides in connecting with people since he began gaming competitively.

A couple weekends ago, Patrick drove to Baltimore with Luke, a guy that he met at a video game group in college. The two of them were essentially strangers—having only played in a local tournament once or twice beforehand—and yet they drove 40 miles together to attend Xanadu, a gaming tournament that draws players from across the region. Xanadu is well-known for its Super Smash Brothers competition, in which Patrick and Luke participated. Instead of spending the day alone in his room, where my brother tends to spend 90 percent of his time when he’s not at school or work, he chose to be in a community center with 150 strangers. For someone with Asperger’s, that’s a big deal.


The ability to empathize can be hard for many, not just for those that fall on the Autism spectrum. A study conducted by Jeff Mogil, a neuroscientist at McGill University, and Jane McGonigal, a video game designer, linked difficulty expressing empathy to the social stress associated with meeting someone new. “You’re trying to figure out if you can trust them. You’re trying to see if you have anything in common,” said Mogil. Most of the stress involved with meeting strangers, Mogil explained, derives from not having any familiarity. However, Mogil and McGonigal’s study discovered that when two strangers are put in a room and play video games together, there is a decrease in stress. McGonigal stated that their research “found that you can essentially reduce the level of stress that you have interacting with a stranger to nothing by playing ‘Rock Band’ for 15 minutes.” According to Mogil, the results of this study showed that “what was blocking the empathy effect in strangers was stress. And playing ‘Rock Band’ together blocked the stress. Block the stress, the empathy can emerge.” It is through playing games and having a shared experience that people are better able to empathize with others, even those they may have met only minutes earlier.

While most people know that empathy is an important trait to possess, it is not one that people acquire inherently. Children start learning about empathy early on and their perspectives on empathy are heavily influenced by what they learn in school and at home. Harvard University’s Making Caring Common Project conducted a study that evaluated the root of this issue in their report “The Children We Mean to Raise: The Real Messages Adults Are Sending About Values.” Harvard University found that while “most parents and teachers say that developing caring children is a top priority and rank it as more important than children’s achievements,” their research suggested otherwise. When asked what was most important to them, “almost 80% of youth picked high achievement or happiness as their top choice, while roughly 20% selected caring for others.” As a result, Harvard University wrote, “when youth do not prioritize caring and fairness over these aspects of personal success….they are at greater risk of many forms of harmful behavior, including being cruel, disrespectful, and dishonest.” This harmful behavior, which is fostered by a lack of empathy, increases bullying in schools.


A change is required in order to modify how students view empathy and its importance and games can provide a platform for just that. According to KQED News, Annie Paul wrote that games can help develop “skills that allow us to get along productively with others.” This is because when children are playing games with one another, they have to “try to understand the minds of the other participants. Is she bluffing? Is he clueless, or just playing dumb?” In some games, players must rely entirely on how well they understand their opponent in order to win. The need to understand one’s opponent, Paul noted, can lead to “the development of empathy, perspective-taking, and social reciprocity.”


Additionally, the gaming platform is more effective in getting people to interact with strangers than most situations. For example, strangers that meet while commuting on a bus or train are less likely to want to interact or empathize with other passengers. Researchers at the University of Chicago Booth of Business reported that “participants imagining they had to talk to another person [during their commute] thought they would enjoy the commute less than those who imagined sitting in silence.” People regularly tend to avoid strangers due to the fact that “many people assume that to communicate effectively with strangers, we should focus only on similarities,” writes William Gudykunst in the book, Bridging Differences: Effective Intergroup Communication. Games can provide a great opportunity to develop better social skills by creating a shared commonality between strangers. While people may not feel they have a similarity with a stranger on a bus, those playing a game together know that they share an affinity for gaming. This inspires interaction between strangers which, in turn, inspires empathy.


Patrick may not ever be the most empathetic guy in the world, and he may never be, but playing games has helped him become more empathetic. By playing games, he feels more comfortable talking and connecting with strangers. He will always struggle with empathy, but games inspire him to empathize with others without him feeling forced to be someone that he’s not.

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