The field of serious digital learning games that aim to develop players’ empathy along with their cognitive competencies has made tremendous strides in the past decade. Today, virtual simulations and video games for social change have much to offer the field of education. Even though the benefits of these offerings are still making themselves apparent, a growing number of teachers are trying to stay on the front-end. Many teachers are experimenting with new ways to connect with students through the very same technologies that occupy hours of young people’s leisure time. Teachers are increasingly interested in whether and how digital games and simulations might contribute to civic engagement and action. If video gaming and virtual simulations are so appealing to young people, how can we better harness these forms of entertainment to foster emotional intelligence and empathy so that students can exhibit a more caring and active response to relevant social issues? How can computerized simulation games help foster global empathy and interest in global civic learning/action? How might simulations help learners to empathize and identify with the lives of global Others? These are just a few questions that contribute to classroom learning in significant ways.
Before considering the value of video games and virtual simulations in relation to empathy, it is important to recognize why empathy should be taught in schools. In our era of globalization, there is a growing need to educate for global citizenship, especially as people across the globe become more and more connected. A true global citizen values empathy and the ability to understand other people across borders and cultural divides. As a significant factor of being human, empathy is often defined as an emotional state that involves “feeling in oneself the feelings of others. Empathy is emerging as an especially significant disposition for global citizenship because it enables us to perceive the world through others’ perspectives, experience the emotions of others, and communicate and act in ways that consider others’ views and needs” (Bachen et al., 2012, p. 438). As adults, we come to see ourselves not only as citizens of our local community, country, or ethno-cultural group, but also as global citizens willing and able to empathize with other peoples and their situations elsewhere in the world. While students can certainly learn about the plight of disadvantaged peoples around the world, adding empathy to the learning experience helps them retain and relate to this knowledge in a more profound way: “emotion plays a variety of important roles in thinking and learning. First, when we are processing information, we store it more deeply and integrate with our prior knowledge better when that new information has an emotional charge for us, when we feel something is at stake or matters” (Gee, 2008, p. 35). In addition, just as empathy can be used to increase understanding of various global issues, the more students are asked to analyze and relate to global issues through the eyes of an Other, the deeper their empathic response becomes. As a result, empathy is a key component of social justice education.
If a primary goal of social justice education is to cultivate a responsibility to take action, then we cannot truly teach social justice without empathy. Social justice education is based on a need to identify and change structural inequalities and disparities worldwide. An effective way to teach this is to provide students with opportunities to not only gain contextual knowledge but also have experiences that create empathic insights into the lives of people who are oppressed. Segal (2011) believes that “when there is a shared definition of the empathic insights into discrimination, injustice, or inequality, individuals are better able and more willing to take action that promotes social justice” (p. 268). Therefore, the capacity to experience empathy through a true contextual lens deepens our understanding of the society we live in and compels us to feel a social responsibility that can result in social justice. Segal (2011) states that “exposing children to others who are different from themselves gives them an opportunity to practice affect sharing or mirroring and self/other-awareness while at the same time enhancing their awareness and understanding of different social conditions” (p. 274). This awareness, in conjunction with empathy, can lead to a greater desire to take action for social change.
Video games and virtual simulations are a simple and effective vehicle to connect students to the lives of people from various social groups. These tools are effective in promoting empathy within a social justice context because they feature compelling narratives that draw players into a given situation. The power of narrative thus serves as a fundamental aspect of educational gaming:
Narrative-centered learning environments afford significant opportunities for students to participate in motivating story-based educational experiences. Virtual characters can engage users in a variety of task-oriented educational and entertainment roles. Fantasy contexts in educational games have been shown to provide motivational benefits to learning. Because of the power of story to draw audiences into compelling plots and rich settings through the promotion of suspension of disbelief and increased story involvement, narrative can contribute to learning in important ways. (McQuiggan et al, 2008, p. 1511)
Besides hooking students into a story, narrative-based games invite players to adopt the point of view of a person who may be very different from the player’s own self, which then results in a number of judgments about the Other being altered, as the player exercises empathy: “By encouraging us to exercise our moral imagination, we develop our capacity to more fully put ourselves in another person’s situations and thus those ‘different’ to ourselves in circumstance, identity or practice can no longer be dehumanized or Other-ised as ‘disgusting’ or ‘subhuman'” (McRobie, 2014, n.p.). Narrative-based games and simulations forge connections between humans from different parts of the planet, and the player can learn to better identify with and understand the plight of someone whom he or she may never otherwise meet in real life. Furthermore, this role-playing facet of gaming, with all of its imaginative capacity, can result in better identification with the Other as empathy continues to develop in the player: “Empathy may be further developed when a player not only takes the perspective of another, but also begins to identify with the character represented” (Bachen et al., 2012, p. 440). Increased identification with the media character has further benefit, as Bachen et al. (2012) explain that this leads to “greater attention to and retention of messages associated with those characters” (p. 440). As a result, educators can exploit games and virtual simulations because they not only connect students to various peoples across the globe, but ultimately can result in deeper learning because students become immersed in their learning and take more away with them by the end of the experience.
A key difference between traditional written narratives (stories, novels, etc.) and virtual simulations is the ability to simulate (and virtually live) a real-life experience that a student would otherwise only read about. Video games and virtual simulations open up the possibility to interact with a time and place that can be worlds away: “a virtual world provides an experience set within a technological environment that gives the user a strong sense of being there” (Warburton, 2009, p. 415). Because of their narrative feature, videos games and virtual simulations present players with a character that they adopt, while living out a set of experiences from the perspective of the character (Gee, 2008). They allow for exposure to authentic content and culture and allow for reproduction of contexts that cannot be reproduced easily in real life: “Most games for change simulate real physical casualties so that the player develops an awareness of a situation where war and genocide may be central to everyday life” (Huang and Tettagah, 2010, p. 138). This, in turn, allows students to experience complex and potentially dangerous situations without risk, virtually adopting the perils of the character’s life, while simultaneously “feel[ing] sympathy and/or empathy for the characters in the game” (Huang and Tettagah, 2010, p. 138). Raphael et al. (2010) propose that “[r]ole playing games permit players to explore institutional, geographical, and temporal settings that would otherwise be inaccessible, allowing players to learn from the consequences of choices made in the world of the game that would be impractical or dangerous to experience directly” (p. 200). Within this role-playing context, players exercise agency, as they are given the freedom to experiment according to their own goals. Players are permitted to do and act according to their own judgments. This experimentation can help the player better understand the potential consequences of certain actions or choices. In virtually living out the consequences, the player is more likely to empathize with the character in the situation, which hopefully will lead to increased understanding of inequities around the world and the need for action to address issues of social justice.
To put my discussion of game-playing, empathy and social justice into an educational context, I would like to present three examples of virtual simulations and video games that can be used in classrooms to encourage empathy and action. The first is called Real Lives(http://www.educationalsimulations.com/), a simulation game designed for middle and high school students in which the player is born into a life from any country in the world. For instance, students can experience life as a peasant farmer in Bangladesh, a factory worker in Brazil, a policeman in Nigeria, or a computer operator in Poland. As players adopt the perspective of the given identity, they apply knowledge to solve real problems while comparing different value systems as they play the game. Students must make a variety of decisions that involve work opportunities, financial standing, health, marriage and family life, and participation in civil society. The game prompts players to engage in ethical reflection, always in the context of challenges or opportunities prevalent to the given country (based on real-world statistics for the country’s poverty rate, infant mortality rate, and so on) (Raphael et al, 2010, p. 216). The efficacy of this game in creating empathic insights is evidenced by Bachen et al.’s (2012) study, which did show that Real Lives had a considerable effect on players’ development of global empathy: “Comparing students who played the game with those who participated in an alternate computer-assisted learning activity, we found that playing the simulation game was associated with significantly higher levels of global empathy” (Bachen et al., 2012, p. 450). Games like Real Lives are well suited to developing personal responsibility or character. Raphael states games for social change “lend themselves to exploring individual ethics rather than the ethics of institutions or society although they still introduce students to the dynamics of large-scale structures that shape lives giving them little power to alter those structures but demanding ethical evaluation of them” (p. 219). As in Real Lives, games of responsibility can also force players to grapple with the question of how to live a good life in a society that may be imperfect and unjust (Raphael et al, 2010, p. 221).
A second virtual simulation video game that evokes player empathy is Darfur is Dying(http://darfurisdying.com/). This online game is based on the genocide in Sudan and is described by the game’s developers as “a narrative-based simulation where the user, from the perspective of the displaced Darfurian, negotiates forces that threaten the survival of his or her refugee camp. It offers a faint glimpse of what it’s like for the more than 2.5 million who have been internally displaced by the crisis in Sudan” (http://www.darfurisdying.com/aboutgame.html). I have used this game in my classroom teaching with grade seven students and have observed that many enjoy the experience because of the game-based challenges that students must be overcome as their characters risk their lives to protect their village while still seeking to maintain survival. Huang and Tettegah (2010) state that “the goals of the developers and instructional designers of Darfur is Dying include raising awareness so that the player/user shares fear, empathy, and other emotions associated with victims of war. Darfur is Dying was developed with goals to educate, provide support and inspire” (p. 142). Characters depict actual situations that occur in real life, summoning the player’s emotive capacity as s/he virtually becomes a displaced Darfurian who must take serious risks while completing seemingly mundane daily tasks, such as gathering food and water. I use this game in my classroom with the hope that students develop empathy for the character, based on the experiences portrayed in the game, and that this leads to cultural awareness and a deeper human connection to the peoples of Sudan. In other words, empathy becomes the main learning outcome as opposed to acquiring specific content.
Finally, Against All Odds (http://www.playagainstallodds.ca/) is a third internet-based video game simulation for social change that can be used to teach empathy within a social justice framework. The game was developed by the United Nations Refugee Agency and is designed to teach 12- to 15-year-old players about the plight of refugees. Players take on the role of a refugee, and play through stages, from depiction of persecution and flight from their native country to eventual integration into a foreign country as an asylum seeker. I find this game particularly pertinent today, especially in view of our current political climate and the displacement of Syrian refugees. Many students are hearing about these issues in the news and in discussions at home, but do not fully understand what it means to be a refugee, the struggles refugees face, and how individual citizens in Canada might be able to aid in this situation. Raphael et al. (2010) argue that virtual simulation games that promote empathy, such as Against All Odds, can encourage students to seek out more knowledge beyond the game and make efforts to act rather than merely observe:
playing or developing games may increase students’ motivation to learn and drive them to consult sources outside the game, inspire critical reflection on history and politics and how they are represented, provide multiple viewpoints on contested events and ideas, allow players to draw on distributed knowledge and develop skills in leadership and collective action that can be used to tackle real-world political problems, or afford opportunities to explore ethical choices and develop empathetic understanding by projecting oneself through an avatar into places and times otherwise inaccessible. (p. 200)
My ultimate goal in using video game simulations such as Against All Odds is to promote civic action. It is not enough for students to know about a problem, empathize with those affected, and then go on living their normal lives without further reflection. I hope that the empathy that is established by the game playing incites students to take action, even in a small way, so that they understand that global citizenship is an active task and that we are each individually responsible for the Other.
Given that a fundamental part of social justice is developing a community of citizens who take action, it is important that students who play video game simulations such as Real Lives, Dying in Darfur, and Against All Odds are provided with an outlet to both show understanding of empathy and take action. The question that remains for me is what can students do with this experience? Based on their experiences playing one or more virtual simulation games, students can now create their own video game simulations presenting a day in the life of a refugee of their choosing. Using online software called Twine, students can create a narrative that allows players to choose various paths, much like a choose-your-own-adventure book. As students create their game, they demonstrate an understanding of the daily struggles faced by a particular refugee, thus exhibiting empathy for lives of people who may be very different from themselves. In order to make this task an activist one, my middle-school students will be asked to create their game for a younger student in our neighbouring elementary school. This allows students to do something with what they have learned, and as they share the game with a younger child, they take on the role of educator and active citizen.
Social justice video games can provide real opportunity for reflection and learning in today’s classrooms. For teachers who wish to engage students in learning about real world issues, or who are seeking alternative resources to enhance student learning, pairing young people’s interest in games with a serious social justice topic has the potential to result in powerful educational experiences. The narrative component of virtual simulation games is a real hook that can entice students to learn about the lives of people around the world, and the interactive features require students to both become the character while exercising agency to solve authentic civic problems. The problem-solving aspect of these virtual games puts students in the shoes of the Other, allowing them to better understand hardships and hopefully strongly empathize with a life that may otherwise seem distant and irrelevant. While video game simulations are not a magic solution to increasing student engagement or developing empathy, they certainly can be a great tool that allows students to realize that they play an important role in making change around the world