Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Can You Promote Empathy Digitally?

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It’s the second day in a row I spent playing some serious games, looking for good examples of digital games that promote empathy. Yesterday I mentioned SPENT and DepressionQuest, then I developed my own Sleep-deprived Mom game. 

I have written before that I think one can promote empathy via role play and (sustained and deep) intercultural interaction. 

It’s not exactly that you become fully empathetic of an “other” (that’s not gonna happen in 10 minutes or an hour unless you have to actually live that person’s life for real…and even then) but you get to really feel the frustration of the difficulty of their life choices with these games. And honestly you can feel some pain. With the poverty game, you do feel the pain when you miss your kid’s play to make a few extra bucks. You start to understand why you might do something unethical (like hit a parked car and run) simply because you can’t afford to be ethical. Depression Quest…. I am scared of trying it with students because if one of them is borderline depressed I would worry it would kick them off the edge.

So I wanted more examples. This one on responsible partying done by @carmelhealth with Google slides is a great example of a straightforward way to create one. I am not sure I wanna use it with my students because of the heavy emphasis on alcohol use and sex… Culturally not easy topics to bring up in class even if some of the kids are doing it… I have to assume many don’t. So I can’t make it a main one for them to see; but maybe one to sample and see how it’s created. So I looked for more.

I found two related to refugees.

This one about Syrian refugees made by the BBC is based on real stories of refugees “choose your own escape route”. It is simple but really informative and you learn to empathize a little bit because you see how difficult it is to choose between dangerous life choices without sacrificing your family – and it’s mainly text-based so won’t be too intimidating for students.
This other one Darfur is Dying is nearly as difficult to play as Liyla which I had mentioned a few weeks ago. It’s got lots of physical movement as you take characters out to try and get water without getting killed by Janjaweed. It’s a really frustrating game as almost all my characters got killed and the only one who ever reached water got killed on the way home. Not exactly building empathy (i didn’t feel pain each time one died) but frustrating definitely. I don’t think you’re meant to do well in this game the way other games work. It is meant to make you just feel bad. It has other dimensions I haven’t yet explored though..but its graphical interface makes it more difficult for students to mimick.

So maybe the hope is for students to promote awareness about a cause by promoting empathy, letting a player take on a role of an “other”, rather than just giving information on a cause…so the player begins to care and not just know cold facts… 

More soon

2 Comments

  1. This is a very important question. I like the way it is worded but for some reason I don’t like the idea of digital empathy. I ask myself is empathy different from digital empathy? If so, how so? If not, why not? My gut feeling on this is that empathy is both social (hence learned) and genetic (adaptively evolutionary survival trait). The “digital” part is a smaller part of that social and genetic adaptation. And I do believe as we push toward 10 billion people on the planet we had better get better with empathy and we’d better use every channel we can find to adapt to our crowded, hot planet. That’s why I am so glad to see you discussing it and addressing it with your students.

    • I think the digital qualification does need to be unpacked.

      On one hand it affords us access to people we would otherwise never know/meet and hence can broaden our access to different others. On the other hand, that relationship is different and can be less intimate (but not necessarily so). It also doesn’t affect our lives as immediately or urgently as the physical neighbor or colleague…. Which gives us many choices of how far to deepen and sustain it vs in real life where you can’t always control that. All of this is about relationships and not even digital games. I wanna reflect some more on the potential of these games…

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