Games that move you

Empathy games help players explore emotions, feel compassion

By Jodi Mohrmann - Managing Editor of special projects
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In a single day, Meghan Ventura may decide whether families can pass through immigration, help a father cope with his son's cancer and assist a woman with her struggles in a developing country.  For her, it's all a game. 

Ventura plays video games that put her in the shoes of other people facing tough life challenges.

"These kind of empathy games can bring you these really intense, rich worlds, you know, and present issues you otherwise wouldn't have known about," she said.

The gaming industry is now massive, $60 billion worldwide.  And these empathy games are only a tiny portion of that right now, but that's expected to change.

"They're becoming larger," said Asi Burak with Games for Change. "You will start to see it becoming more diverse in the range of emotions, and in the type of people it's trying to reach."

Companies are taking creative and financial risks, moving away from fighting and sports games, promoting play that explores deeper issues.

"We live in a world where empathy is tough to achieve. This is a medium that could teach, that could inform, that could promote something very positive," explained Burak.

With titles like 'That Dragon, Cancer,'  'Papers, Please' and 'Half the Sky,' players face a range of emotions as they deal with various dilemmas. 

"'That Dragon, Cancer,' which is about a father dealing with his son having cancer, and you know just being there with him and trying to keep his son just from- stop crying and there's no way to do it," said Ventura. "It's just so hard to watch and to even play through."

The ability to make decisions for the characters is what makes the emotional experiences of these games appealing to people like Ventura.   Her choices impact the outcome.  And the games can impact the player, too, according to recent studies.

"We're finding in our studies kids who play more pro-social types of games end up increasing their empathy over time and then behaving more cooperatively and pro-socially in the real world," said Douglas Gentile, PhD, associate professor of psychology.

The findings show all ages are affected.

"I've studied from about 2nd-, 3rd-grade, up through college age and we find pretty much the same effects no matter what age we look at,"said Gentile.

Ventura still plays other traditional video games, but finds the empathy games equally entertaining-just in a different way.

"Looking at the difficulties that they face in their day to day and how, you know, they're just kind of caught in this vicious cycle, really just brings it home," she said.

This type of game is available on a range of platforms, from video game systems to online.  They range from free to about $60.  'That Dragon, Cancer,' is only available at expos right now, but is set to be released early next year.

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