We live in a time where we are now connected more than ever however statistics suggest this may not be the case empathetically. A meta-analysis of US citizen empathy test scores conducted over the past 30 years found that the average American is less empathetic than 75% of Americans 30 years ago. We often, without even realising, live in echo chambers of people who look like us, think like us and feel like us. As a result of these homogeneous social circles, it can be shocking when we interact with people less like ourselves and this can create an empathy deficit.
Empathy is a broad concept that is an ongoing field of study among neuroscientists. Defined simply, empathy enables us to comprehend the feelings of others, anticipate their actions and experience emotions generated by their emotions. Encompassing empathy increases the likelihood of demonstrating compassion and helping others. It is a skill crucial in many aspects of our lives: relationships, work and society as a whole. There are numerous benefits to practicing empathy in our day-to-day lives. We grow stronger relationships as well as emotional intelligence, we become better workers and leaders and overall it provides a happiness boost. With empathy being one of the most highly valued human attributes, those who practice empathy create stronger social circles; ultimately stimulating joy.
The spectrum of empathy is broad. For some, it comes naturally and for others, it may not be present at all. Whilst we often consider empathy as a skill refined with age, studies have suggested that we become less skillful at empathy through adulthood. This is due to empathy’s demand for cognitive skills such as being attentive, information processing and memory; all skills that often become deficient through the aging process. Whilst aspects of empathy can be accredited to genetic components, psychologists have expressed that empathy can be learned. The resources to do so can often be expensive or unattainable and the surgence of technology, most notably mobile phones, have the capacity to reach large audiences with relatively low effort.
For years, there have been concerns over increasing screen time as our lives are increasingly digitised however both researchers and game developers are now focusing on how we can better use our screentime to teach prosocial values amongst all ages. The serious games industry has delved into the development of games to influence behaviours around empathy with data portraying the potential to positively impact the social awareness of users. Games have explored a range of topics such as cyberbullying, depression and chronic pain among hospital patients. A 2019 study investigated the effects of serious gaming on empathy and prejudice displayed in psychology students towards persons with disabilities. A group of participants played The World of Empa (2012), a game where users are introduced to numerous characters; some of which have disabilities. Players are quizzed with questions and actions for each character and for every empathetic response, players are rewarded points. The study concluded positive short-term effects on the use of serious games for empathy compared to students with no access to gameplay and informative texts.
Serious games are particularly useful for their ability to provide users the opportunity to experience situations that are difficult to comprehend in reality due to practical implications. For instance, Real Lives is a game that allows users to experience stimulated lives situated in different countries in an attempt to develop global empathy. With software using real-world data, the game determines the probability of events likely to happen within a character’s life according to their gender and location such as employment, marriage as well as diseases and natural disasters. For many, cultural differences can make it harder to interpret contrasting perspectives which makes tools for understanding the cognitive, affective and communicative elements of empathy vital.
One of society’s biggest challenges is how we can display empathy in a world that mainly operates online? The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the importance of better interpreting emotion through our screens as lockdowns and restrictions limited our face-to-face communication. Facial expressions were replaced with emojis and we worked harder to decode text messages. Game Doctor was commissioned by University of West Scotland to create a game to provide users with an insight into the unique challenges faced by various individuals. We created Contact: a text-based RPG game to train users to be more empathetic towards others during the COVID-19 pandemic with a conversational chatbot. The UWS Serious Game department is currently conducting qualitative research into how much Contact improves empathy among players.
In a world clouded by social media and 24-hour news, we are exposed to a diverse world full of different characters and ways of life. Whilst a relatively new avenue, evidence shows serious games as a promising tool for teaching empathy. The ability to empathetically connect with others is critical to a thriving society and therefore, no matter what age, we can all benefit from strengthening our empathic abilities.
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