Teaching20 Children20 Empathy20and20 Compassion20through20 Virtual20 Reality20 Games
Mar 7, 2023

How Video Games Can Help People Become More Empathetic and Live Better Lives

A new video game being developed in Nigeria aims to uncover how video games can improve society.

By Benjamin Reeves

In 2022, 3.2 billion people played video games. By revenue, the industry now dwarfs Hollywood, and within the next three years, video games are expected to reach 3.5 billion players and generate an estimated $211 billion. Video games, in other words, are fast becoming (or already are, depending on your frame of reference) the dominant form of entertainment — and yes, art — in the world. And, just as film, radio, and TV revolutionized how we receive information, interact with stories, and understand our place in the world and society, videogames are able to do things that no previous medium could. Most importantly, researcher Kat Schrier believes game designers may be able to use them to encourage prosocial feelings and behaviors, such as compassion and empathy, in players.

Video games are, first and foremost, interactive, a factor that is critical to understanding how they work and how they can be used to shape behavior. Video games can bring players into even more immersive worlds and situations with the addition of virtual reality. With the advent of AI, video games have the potential to adapt and evolve experiences to individual players. Massive reach and the ability to immerse players in virtual worlds where they can interact with characters and shape the outcomes of stories means video games provide incredible opportunity to encourage and develop prosocial behaviors. However, to do so, we must understand how people truly interact with games and which mechanisms can be used to effectively encourage these feelings.

“Games potentially can support empathy, compassion, care, perspective taking, and they can help people feel more connected and more included,” says Schrier, a Templeton World Charity Foundation grantee and Associate Professor and Director of the Play Innovation Lab and Games and Emerging Media program at Marist College. Video games “can help people feel like they’re part of a community.”

During the early months of the coronavirus pandemic, for instance, Schrier and her daughter — like millions of people — started playing Animal Crossing: New Horizons, which was released on March 20, 2020 on the Nintendo Switch. During a period of intense isolation and high stress, players connected with each other using Animal Crossing by customizing their virtual homes and environments and visiting each other in them. “When I played, I made the room look like a library, because I find that to be very relaxing and cozy and comfortable,” Schrier says. “But then when my daughter played, she made it look like a big fish tank because she likes water and swimming.”

Schrier and her daughter were able to express themselves through the game and connect in a virtual setting. “It really helped us to understand each other and have fun together,” she added. And this trend wasn’t isolated to them. Recent research on Animal Crossing and the COVID-19 pandemic published in Frontiers in Psychology notes that researchers have long known that videos games “can facilitate positive functioning and flourishing” because they “enable players to experience positive emotions, autonomy, connectedness, and accomplishment.”

Indeed, the authors share numerous anecdotes of Animal Crossing providing a virtual space for social interaction, including birthday parties, dates, political protests, and even weddings. Video games, including Animal Crossing, help players feel “autonomy, relatedness, and competence,” and that during the pandemic they experience “lower levels of loneliness and anxiety.” Beyond that, Animal Crossing players also experienced a blurring of lines between the virtual and real, and “often would incorporate aspects of their identity into the game,” just as Schrier and her daughter had.
However, the fact that games can be used in this way and may support positive emotional and social traits is just the beginning. Schrier, in her research, aims to uncover how game designers can deliberately encourage prosocial feelings such as empathy and compassion. This is a step beyond the incidental positive effects achieved by a game like Animal Crossing: New Horizons. As Schrier notes in her 2021 book We the Gamers: How Games Teach Ethics and Civics, one of the most important tools game designers have at their disposal is the ability to create situations where a player must take on the perspective of another person totally unlike themselves.
“You can never fully understand what it’s like to be someone else,” Schrier says, “but you can get a taste, and you can get a little bit of a lens on a new story, a new life.”
Schrier has been working with a team at the Lagos Business School to develop a game to help Nigerian youth to understand what it’s like to be someone from a different ethnicity. (Nigeria has over 250 different ethnicities.) The team, with backing from Templeton World Charity Foundation, is designing a VR game where players go through an interaction as someone from a different ethnic group. “In one version of the game, you play as a teenager, and you experience discrimination from her perspective and what that’s like,” Schrier says. “Then we have a different version of the same game, and you are observing. You’re this outside observer of the girl and what she’s going through.”
The developers record the experiences of players in both circumstances and can analyze how each way of playing through the scenario affected them and which one is more effective at engendering compassion and empathy. “Which one helps reduce prejudice and discrimination against, for example, the Hausa ethnic group? Is it playing in the first person view or the third person view,” Schrier asks.
The research and game development team is primarily centered in Nigeria. Schrier works very closely with the team to design and craft the narrative of the game. Schrier writes the initial script and creates the game’s design, and then her Nigerian colleagues revise it, using their understanding of Nigerian culture. They also continuously test to make sure the game is encouraging prosocial behaviors — especially empathy and compassion — rather than affirming racist stereotypes. The principal investigator, research assistants, and developer team are all based in Nigeria.

“Any game where you’re trying to induce empathy, you could inadvertently do the opposite,” notes Schrier. “That’s where playtesting and playtesting and playtesting comes in and why we’re assessing it.”
Because video games are as much a storytelling form and an art form as a technology, there’s no one single formula for using them to encourage prosocial behavior and feelings in players. However, the findings that Schrier and her colleagues generate could help form a toolkit of best practices that game developers can use in the future to encourage positive social behaviors. “It could be about empathy, compassion, allyship, or trying to reduce toxicity in your community,” Schrier says. “Our goal is to understand whether the first person versus the third person make more sense for these kinds of games, and it could be different for different games and different kinds of cultures. It’s a really new field.”

Benjamin Reeves is a New York-based writer, filmmaker and journalist. Learn more at BenjaminReeves.com or follow him on Twitter.