The real virtue of virtual empathy

Kevin Schut

A recent student project at the University of Southern California is using virtual war in an unfamiliar way.  Rather than glory in combat and explosions, like many blockbuster video games, this program aims to use an immersive recreation of the Syrian civil war to educate players about the experience of being in the middle of such a terrible conflict. We often think of video games as tools for imaginary killing, not imaginary caring. The reality is, however, that games can help us build empathy.

This shouldn’t be surprising. Most of us are familiar with the truism that before we judge someone, we should walk a mile in his or her shoes. Well, video games are ideal shoe-substitution devices. Rather than just reading about a literary character or watching a cinematic one, the player is able to direct the actions of imaginary characters and interact with the same challenges that those fictional people face.

There are many examples of games that allow players to gain an understanding of others. Third World Farmer is a free web-browser game from 2006 that has the player make hard decisions about how to spend money in order to survive as a subsistence farmer in east Africa. Imagine having to decide whether or not to ship off a member of the family to a distant urban slum in order to reduce the number of mouths to feed!

A promising title in development from some Christian developers asks players to struggle with terminal illness. The highly anticipated That Dragon, Cancer is about the experience of Ryan Green, whose son Joel passed away last year at the age of 5 from his sickness. The whole premise of the game - which should be released later this year - is that players experience the challenges of living with a child with cancer, as well as a celebration of the unbelievable joy of life.

We often think of video games as tools for imaginary killing, not imaginary caring.

We should certainly be cautious about taking all this too far. For one thing, it’s quite possible to play any game that encourages empathy in a disinterested, playful or even heartless manner. The fact is that players don’t have to take the game’s story seriously. It’s not diabolical or mean to send off the farmer’s family member just to see what the game will do, because a player knows very well there is no real person in the game. In addition, if we’re ready to grant the positive empathetic possibilities of games, we also need to recognize that some games encourage hate, anger and distance.

That having been said, I think Christians need to take this potential seriously. The Creator God, the one who made us in His image, the God of infinite love, has always been crystal clear about how we need to care for each other. The prophets are forever reminding the Israelites to think of the widow, the orphan, the poor. And there are even surprising moments of empathy in the Old Testament, such as when the God of Israel reminds the bigoted Jonah that the non-Israelite people of Nineveh are living breathing creations just as much as he is.

Jesus is even more explicit about the need for us to understand and care about others. In one sermon, He makes clear that we are to imagine the face of God in every person we meet: “I assure you that when you have done [good] for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.”

Helping a person in a game is not the same as actually helping someone. But when we try to see the world from someone else’s perspective - even via a video game - we have taken a good first step toward real help. Video games are no magic pill of virtue, but they do have the capacity to let us walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.

Topics: Games, Culture At Large, Science & Technology, Technology, Arts & Leisure