Tightening the empathy gap—by gaming?


children-593313_640Maria Ohisalo, Vice President of the Finnish Green Party,  Master of Political Science and a Poverty Scholar, writes about games and ethics.

In the fourth part of the Grand Theft Auto video game series the player is presented with a moral choice: will you let the main character, Niko Bellic, a veteran of the Balkan wars, kill the criminal who betrayed him years ago or will you let the crook go free? As is often the case with games, an ethical problem is minimized into a choice: will you press the button X or the button Y?

Choices between good, bad and other issues are common in computer games. The moral questions, such as the above example, often fall flat, however, because they contradict the other situations in the game. Sure, you can prevent Bellic from killing his target, but nothing stops you from immediately after that driving over an old lady with a car or shooting a neighborhood prostitute. The weight of the moral dilemma presented is watered down when the gamer is offered an opportunity to be set free from moral itself. Indeed, has anyone ever played Grand Theft Auto without shooting anyone?

As a political scientist, as well as a Nintendo-retro collector, I have always been intrigued by how games tell stories and how they awaken us to think about the choices we make or their ability to teach us new skills, such as languages, problem solving, logic and so on. Games and gamification solve problems relating to health, they make us move (Pokemon Go, Nintendo Wii and many others), they also teach us about societal phenomenons and teach us how to critically examine them.

My former colleagues and professors at the Helsinki University political science faculty have produced a game called Yhteiskuntasimulaattori, the Society Simulator. In it, gamers are exposed to lives and challenges of people who live in different circumstances. The game, which is aimed at schools, is based on a societal study and data on how different political operators impact our lives.

Maria Heiskanen, one of the developers of the game, how did the idea for it come about?

“We saw a need to present social studies in an interesting way for young people. You can create wow factors by experiments in chemistry, but politics is much harder to simplify. For this reason we turned to gaming. Firstly, it offers information about society. Secondly, it offers observations on the fact that politics is a part of our daily life and thirdly, perhaps most importantly, it shows what it feels like—for a moment—to be someone else. This is not only a digital game, but instead, role play which is played together with the teacher in classrooms.”

“We have called this game an empathy exercise, because via gaming elements we show that each of us is in a different situation and the decisions we make can have different outcomes. The plot is different from a regular game logic in that it does not have winners or losers, nor does it have one ‘right’ way to complete the game. We don’t want to encourage young people to think that society is about competition, we want to do the exact opposite, put forward the idea that politics is about conversation and the result of that conversation is that the money we collectively accumulate supports people in different situations.”

What has the feedback been like?

“We have played the game with a number of groups and in our experience when you are put into someone else’s shoes in this way it clearly awakens thoughts on what kind of life the character might be leading in reality. Some of the gamers have changed their opinions after they have observed, for example, the simulated impact of increasing day care costs or decreasing the price of alcohol. During the game the players move around in the classroom according to a scale based on whether the decision made for their character is, in their opinion and based on research, good or bad. The physical movement strengthens this experience.”

“Because we’re talking about a learning game, the conversation after the end of the game has a big role. The conversation is about the bigger picture: caring for one another, the inequalities and the welfare state. Instead of reading about these things in a textbook, we believe the gaming experience strengthens the student’s understanding and hopefully encourages them to vote and to think about issues from new perspectives.”

A new genre has emerged in the gaming sector, empathy games. The developers of these games are trying to awaken people how to think differently or to step into someone else’s shoes. Communications planner and freelance journalist Juuso Janhunen has studied game development at Aalto University as well as at the Technical University of Copenhagen. His diploma work for Aalto University examined how critical thinking and ethical thought processes are generated by appealing to the gamer’s feelings.

Do you think we can increase human empathy skills with games and if so, how much? What are the pros and cons in this approach, Juuso Janhunen?

“Sure we can, but often times the mechanical characteristics of games and their consequent challenges imposed on the player sort of outweigh the ethical deliberations. The competitiveness and the desire to finish the game in the ‘right’ way are often times more important than do the ethically right thing in a fictional world.”

“For example, a part of my study was to create a war game demo where the player has to simultaneously perform a physically demanding task of anxiously clicking different buttons to reach a blurry target which they must destroy, and, additionally, listen to real, quite horrific stories on how similar targets were destroyed in drone attacks, where you can never be too sure whether the target really is a terrorist or for example a civilian. The majority of players wanted to destroy the target, because the mechanical side of the game was addictive and built for it. A narrative alone was not sufficient to result in ethical considerations.”

“Miguel Sicart, a professor at Technical University of Copenhagen, has written a lot about the ethics of computer games and he has emphasized that, instead of solutions that water down real life moral questions into simplified choices, the game developers should instead create strong narratives and internal situations into the game which would create so called ethical friction. In short, what is meant by this are situations that the gamer feels uncomfortable in or situations that evoke strong feelings, which would then directly contradict the mechanical challenges imposed by the game itself. Good examples of such games are for instance the indie hit ‘Papers, Please’ and ‘Unmanned’, the game criticizing the US-Afghanistan drone war. For now, the most interesting games for ‘ethical friction’ seem to be independently produced.”

Could we in the future see games where a player is made to live on benefits—where you must, at all times, know when and how to apply for different government handouts and live well below your means? Do such games already exist and how do they work?

“I can’t think of any current games where the player would live on benefits, but we do already have games such as ‘Orwell’ and ‘Watch Dogs’, where the player is infringing the privacy of other people and ‘Papers, Please’, where the player is presented ethical dilemmas at the border, as well as ‘This War of Mine’, in which the gamer has to think of his or her own morals—or at least the moral of the characters—when they must try to survive in a war torn city as a civilian. So why not. A more complicated question, however, is whether games can change anyone’s personal ethics by placing them into these situations.”

What can go wrong when creating games like that?

“Previously the so called serious games and activism games seemed to preach to those who already agreed with them. I think the great thing about these new generation games with ethical dilemmas is that they kind of hide the ethics into the actual gaming experience and mechanical operations, instead of direct and clear moral preaching. If the game on its face tells you it is advancing a certain issue or is against it, it is much easier to bypass than a game where the ethical questions are interdependent with the performance.”

Even when many in the Finnish society are doing better than ever, the gap between certain groups regarding, for example, quality of life and standard of living are growing in some areas. Large groups of people are pushed aside from any positive developments and the well-being majority looks at certain types of less-fortunate people from a distance. Sometimes there is so much distance that it has become impossible to recognize the realities in which other people live. Therefore, we must do all we can to bring them closer and if games can make people exercise, why could they not increase empathy? If I could design games (which I dreamed of as a kid and still do, secretly) the first game would probably be something along the lines of “Welcome to the Other Side”.



Empatiakuilua pienemmäksi – pelaamalla?


Categories: Culture, Education, research, Social

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