Pushing the Boundaries of Digital Games

Last month, the World Health Organization (WHO) proposed adding “gaming disorder” to the list of recognized psychological disorders. This move reflects broader conversations around the world, where many people associate games with social “problems,” such as violence, aggression, obesity, and addiction. On the other hand, HEVGA and other game organizations and researchers have questioned these negative categorizations.


Moving forward, I believe we need to explore both the limits and strengths of games. We need to also ask: can games also solve problems, and not just cause them? For instance, can games help us connect, communicate, and reflect? Can we learn from games? Can we work together to find answers to complex issues through games?


Fortunately, the Games for Change organization and their annual festival advance this conversation and highlight the social, cultural, and educational benefits to games. In the past 15 years, the Games for Change community has featured and awarded innovative games such as That Dragon, Cancer, SPENT, Mission US, Life is Strange, and Walden. These games push us to explore more about ourselves and our histories, and to experience other’s perspectives and stories.


These games also inspired myself (Dr. Karen Schrier) and Dr. Matthew Farber to specifically question how digital games can support empathy and other socioemotional skills. We write about many of these games in our recent white paper, “The Limits and Strengths of Using Digital Games as ‘Empathy Machines,’” written for UNESCO’s Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development (MGIEP). Our white paper delves into the latest research related to games and empathy by looking at specific characteristics such as agency, relationship-building, communication, and perspective-taking.


For instance, we look at That Dragon, Cancer, a game which explores grief around a son’s diagnosis of terminal cancer. The game is extremely moving – when it was first demonstrated at the PAX conference in Boston, it even caused many players to be overwhelmed with emotion and cry. That Dragon, Cancer has been successful at supporting emotion and empathy, and sharing perspectives on trauma and grief, even though the game player does not have much agency or control over the outcomes of the game.


We also share studies about educational and prosocial games, like E-Line Media and Cook Inlet Tribal Council’s Never Alone, which explores Alaskan indigenous folklore. We share research on Mission US, an online game by WNET/Channel 13, Electric Funstuff, and CUNY historians, which was designed to teach historical empathy to middle school students, and was nominated for a Daytime Emmy last year. For instance, players of the Mission US: Cheyenne Odyssey experience history as Little Fox, a Northern Cheyenne boy living during the 1860s. Players of Mission US: Flight to Freedom play as Lucy King, and experience life as a slave in Kentucky in the mid-1800s.


Educational games, or games made specifically for learning purposes, are not the only games that can support empathy. Even popular and mainstream games such as the Fallout, Mass Effect, Elder Scrolls, and The Walking Dead (Telltale Games) series can possibly provide insights in other people’s stories. For instance, my research on Fable III explores how players are practicing socioemotional skills such as perspective-taking, reflection, and identifying emotions.



The games we look at are not always successful or effective. For instance, we looked at SPENT, an online text-based game from ad agency McKinney, which was designed to inspire empathy for the poor. In our white paper, we note, however, recent research by Gina Roussos and John Dovidio, which showed that SPENT was not always successful in enhancing empathy for people, particularly those who believed that being poor is completely in one’s control.


Although SPENT is a flawed game, it does give us more insight into when agency and meaningful choice-making may be necessary for supporting greater empathy. In other words, context matters. Games are not one-size-fits-all solutions; rather, they are complex experiences that interact with different people in different ways. Although we tout the strengths and innovations of many games, we also acknowledge their flaws and seek to learn from them as games grow and evolve as a medium. We hope that this white paper will inspire all of us to keep pushing the boundaries of games and searching for both its limits and possibilities.


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