Using Empathy Games in the Social Sciences

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When used in a structured situation that includes supporting materials and discussions, empathy games can help deepen students' understanding of key topics in the humanities and social sciences.

spotlit closeup of game controller
Credit: Niyazz / © 2019

The use of both virtual and physical games in the classroom is well-documented; there are books, essays, and entire conferences on the topic. The theory seems sound: games are made up of rules, a goal, a feedback system, and voluntary participation.1 A classroom, arguably, is made up of the same four things.

What interests me about games and the classroom is the idea of embodiment. David Surman defines embodiment as a collapse of the player and the player-character whereby "player-characters become a surrogate second self."2 That is, the player embodies the game's protagonist. Through the protagonist, the player solves the puzzle, defeats the dragon, and rescues the princess. Embodiment allows the player to develop a stronger connection with the subject matter than would be possible through other mediums. There is a heavier emotional weight when one performs actions oneself. During a horror movie, for example, viewers might yell at the screen and tell a character not to open a door. When playing a horror game, players are trapped in that hallway—with no option left but to open the door. This changes the player's perspective of the situation drastically.

As a women's, gender, and sexuality studies graduate and instructor, I think the idea of embodiment becomes even more interesting when it is applied to the humanities or social sciences classroom. These disciplines require students to see issues from another person's or group's viewpoint. Video games combined with pedagogy offer unique opportunities to help students understand perspectives for which they may have no lived experience. Large, systemic structures such as racism, classism, and poverty, for example, can be difficult for students from insular, white, middle-class upbringings to understand. Indeed, at The College of Saint Rose, we have a contingent of white students from working-class backgrounds who reject the idea that they have any type of "white privilege." Playing an empathy game specifically about racism or intersectionality may challenge their viewpoints and change their minds as they navigate a world in which that privilege is absent.

Differentiating Empathy Games from Simulations

Within the last decade, a stirring of activity within the games industry—particularly within independently developed games—has given rise to a new genre referred to as empathy games, which are designed to immerse the player in a particular experience so that the player empathizes with the game's subject matter or protagonist. Games like Depression Quest (a game about the experience of having depression), That Dragon, Cancer (a game about a couple's experience with their young son's cancer diagnosis and treatment), dys4ia[] (a game dealing with the experience of undergoing hormone replacement therapy), and Papo and Yo (a game about child abuse), make up this genre. The subject matter of an empathy game can cover everything from mental illness to systemic poverty.

There is no way to "win" these games, as they are interactive experiences ultimately designed to shed light on an otherwise isolating experience. Unlike simulations, which are often designed specifically for the classroom by companies, empathy games are developed by smaller teams of people who have lived the experience of their games. They are an artistic expression of a lived experience; simulations or role-playing games are more sterile. This, to me, makes empathy games both more compelling than simulations and also more capable of evoking an empathetic response.

Take nursing students, for example. A virtual reality (VR) simulation for cancer patients might help nursing students understand what it feels like to have "chemo brain"—that is, to become nauseous or dizzy easily. While this empathy simulation can be a highly effective and engaging teaching tool, it is not a true empathy game. That Dragon, Cancer, developed by the parents of a small child who was diagnosed with a brain tumor, is not designed for students, but is more of an awareness- and community-building tool for other cancer patients and their families. In one scene, the player, acting as the boy's father, sits in a hospital room while his son cries. There is nothing in the room that will stop his crying or allow you, as the player-parent, to soothe your son. The game allows the player to click around, but there is no resolution. This example, taken from the creator's real life, creates an emotional response that a symptom-driven simulation cannot.

Subverting Expectations through Design Choices

Empathy games are to traditional entertainment games what documentaries are to blockbuster summer films. They are made by people who understand how games are supposed to work and who are therefore able to subvert traditional gaming expectations. Empathy games are often abstract, and this leaves players with more room to make emotional connections. For example, the entertainment game series Assassin's Creed features many scenes in which player-characters (represented, generally, by men) gently move through crowds or blend in with them in order to avoid detection. Everyone in the crowd (except for the protagonist) visibly represents some type of innocent citizen: a priest, a shopkeeper, a woman carrying a jar on her head. The people are not terribly interested in the protagonist character. When the player is advised to press a button to "blend" with the crowd, the protagonist walks more slowly, lowers his head, and places his hands in a praying formation to resemble the monks around him.

The empathy game Lim also deals with movement through a crowd, but from the perspective of a trans woman. (I use the term trans, as Julia Serano defines it, to mean people who do not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth.3) In Lim, the player controls a small multicolored block and tries to move it through a maze of other blocks. Unlike in Assassin's Creed, the blocks in the maze attempt to collide with the player's block, sending it flying across the screen or out of the maze completely. Some blocks cannot be moved out of the way. Like Assassin's Creed, there is a "blend" button in Lim, but it is much less effective. When the player pushes the button, the screen shakes or zooms in; the longer the player holds the button, the more violent the shaking and zooming becomes. Lim developer Merrit K knows that players expect the blend button to make their experience easier, but for trans people, blending in is not that simple. Lim subverts player expectations and makes navigating the maze by blending in physically sickening, but navigating the maze without blending in is still a struggle.

Subverting expectations doesn't always result in a learning experience, however. Traditional gamers are not often interested in being part of an experience; they'd rather accomplish a specific goal their way.4 So, people accustomed to traditional games may not appreciate design choices that are intended to increase empathy for a specific situation—such as intentionally blocked-off routes, frustrating game mechanics, or obscured vision—and may simply assume that such features are mistakes or poor choices. If a type of "win condition" exists within an empathy game, problems may arise.

For example, Spent is a game designed by the Urban Ministries of Durham to help middle- or upper-middle class people to empathize with lower-income people. In Spent, players move through several situations and setbacks that require them to make difficult choices in relation to spending money—such as having to choose between paying rent or getting car repairs so they can get to work. However, some have suggested that games like Spent (a "poverty simulator") serve only to prove to more affluent players that poverty is a concept that can be "won" or outwitted if someone living in poverty overcomes laziness, makes sacrifices, and works hard.

It has also been suggested that people who play games like Spent feel empathetic only during the experience and not after they've exited the game.5 Indeed, some commentators have called the phenomenon of empathy games "tourism jaunts through pity in a safe environment," which may sound harsh, but for some players, that may absolutely be true. In any case, the question remains: If one can "win" at an empathy game, what lesson is being learned?

Moving Past "Pity Tourism"

Developer anna anthropy, whose game dys4ia is often credited as the first in the empathy games genre, rejects the classification of dys4ia as an empathy game, and in an essay (which is no longer online), she derided people who played her game as a shorthand for education, calling empathy games as a genre "a kind of shortcut to allyship." She argued that playing dys4ia should not be "a substitute for truly educating [oneself] on issues surrounding trans women's lives and how to support them."

If students who are accustomed to games for entertainment won't appreciate the design choices of empathy games, what is their use in the classroom? Julie Muncy, writing for Wired, argues that "empathy is active,"6 and I agree. The ideal place for empathy games is within a structured environment, such as a game-of-the-month discussion club or a classroom. In order for empathy games to move past "pity tourism," they need to be explored more fully and fleshed out by a clearly defined and supported curriculum.

An Empathy Games Assignment

To put this theory into practice, I created an assignment in the form of an informal case study. I formed my assignment around work that Samantha Allen, an instructor at Emory University, wrote about in 2014.7 In that study, she assigned students to read Iris Marion Young's essay "Throwing Like a Girl: A Phenomenology of Feminine Body Comportment, Motility, and Spatiality," which explores women's movement in public space compared to men's and argues that (among other things) women make an effort to take up less physical space than men.8 After completing the reading assignment, students were then instructed to play three games created by and about trans women.

By linking the empathy games to assigned reading, Allen treated the games as she would any other type of course content and gave students a tool set for thinking about them. That is, she structured the activity so that students could engage with the game on a deeper level than they would if the objective was simply to beat the game. Further, because students played these games in class (a structured environment), Allen was able to guide students to the more empathetic conclusion the game designers intended. After engaging with the content, students contemplated their experience and learned from it, rather than feeling pity for trans women and moving on once they'd "won" the game.

Objectives and Questions

I decided to adjust Allen's trans game assignment for my online Women & Culture course. First, I formed some goals and learning objectives for students:

  1. The online course should be highly interactive and participatory, hence the use of interactive games.
  2. The assignment should test my theory that playing an empathy game would make it easier for students to connect to a new perspective than they would by simply reading academic (or less formal) writing.
  3. The games should expose students to something new and relatively hard to imagine—in this case, being trans.

From these goals and objectives, I arrived at two main questions:

  1. Would playing the games give students a relevant, modern, and accurate depiction of the trans viewpoint?
  2. If so, could this multimodal, carefully framed assignment work better for the online class environment than either playing one (or all three) games independently or completing academic reading alone?

Course Materials and Games

I examined my course objectives and specific learning outcomes. The description for Women & Culture did not align with that of a feminist theory 101 course, so I developed the course with a strong in their own words mentality. That is, we would not be reading leading feminist scholars' work on trans theory; we would be reading work by trans people about being trans. The first change I made to Allen's assignment, therefore, was to remove the Iris Marion Young essay on bodily comportment. We would instead focus on the day-to-day lived experience of trans women.

The unit materials I chose spanned 2005–2019:

  • V. Varun Chaudhry's "Centering the 'Evil Twin'" (2019)9
  • Julia Serano's "Trans Feminism: There's No Conundrum About It" (2012)10 and "Trans Woman Manifesto" (2005)11
  • Natalie Wynn's video Pronouns (2018)12

I intended to show my students the types of discrimination directed toward trans people, particularly by non-trans feminist scholars, and the specific context that has been created regarding being a trans woman in America—in both historical (2005) and contemporary terms.

Next, I chose the games. Allen had used dys4ia, Lim, and Mainichi. I had played dys4ia and Lim in the past (both are browser-based). I didn't want my students to struggle with downloads, which Mainichi would require. Additionally, it was important to me to include dys4ia, since I'd be questioning students directly about anthropy's objection to using empathy games as teaching tools. I also decided to use one of our live Zoom class meetings to discuss this unit, believing it would be easier if we saw each other's faces and heard each other's tone of voice. Further, since I was creating an informal case study, I thought facial expressions, body language, and other visual cues would help my students self-report on their experience.

Discussion Questions

I created several discussion prompts related to the games and readings to guide the discussion. Below is a small sampling:

  • anna anthropy, developer of dys4ia, actually removed this game from her website. What do you think her intentions were in making this game and then later in removing it?
  • There is a scene in Mainichi where the player-character meets a man who gives his phone number to her. She discusses this with a friend, who expresses concern regarding whether or not this man knows about her trans status. What did you think the friend in Mainichi intended? How do you think that question comes off?
  • Did you play Mainichi "to win"? Did you play it multiple times and try different things?

I felt it was important to create significant context for these games and the reasons we played them, and to situate the content of the games, readings, and videos within the real world. I wanted my students to understand the gravity of the topics and not dismiss them as class exercises or theoretical ideas.

Students' Perceptions of the Assignment

Overall, my students reacted very positively to the assignment and the unit. They appreciated the multimodal materials and referenced both the video and the games as helping to increase their understanding. They liked the variety of content in this unit and said that the mechanics of the game caused frustration, which they could relate to their own lived experiences. Other students were grateful for "a small break from reading so many articles" and said the games made learning more fun and interactive.

Some students had no experience with someone who was transitioning to a different gender, so the game activity helped them understand and relate to an unfamiliar viewpoint. One student said that she liked the readings, but the games helped her better understand the process of transitioning and what it might be like to be trans. Another student said she felt the games might be useful for explaining the trans perspective to "older generations" and people unfamiliar with this point of view. Others wrote in their reflection papers that they hadn't thought about how complicated dating could be for trans people or about how everyday occurrences, such as choosing to wear makeup or sweatpants in public, carry more weight. Some students shared that they have trans friends who were assigned female at birth (our course materials mainly dealt with people assigned male at birth) and said that seeing the "other side" of the experience was "eye opening."

I asked the education and social work majors in the class what should be done if one of their students or clients wanted to change their name or begin transitioning. Most said that these decisions should be up to the individual; however, they also said their reaction might be different if the students or clients were minors who had not obtained parental approval. Students asked what the right course of action would be in this situation, and how they might support a child who is seeking to transition but is doing so against parents' wishes or who, potentially, is getting resistance from school administrators. Students also commented on a scene in dys4ia in which the protagonist is required to get a note from a therapist before she can begin hormone replacement therapy. Some social work students struggled to find words when discussing this; one noted that it was "not ridiculous, but weird."

Obstacles and Issues

Game Choices

Early in the semester, I discovered that two of the games I had chosen when I planned the course (Lim and dys4ia) were no longer accessible. I fell back on Mainichi and found a version of dys4ia that was no longer supported by the developer. I decided to use the unsupported version of dys4ia due to my time crisis (the assignment was scheduled to start the following week, and the course was only six weeks long). However, I don't think that prioritizing my students' education over the developer's intentions—she clearly didn't want people playing that game anymore—was the ideal solution. If I had more time, I would have found a different game. I discussed this discomfort with my students in the interest of transparency and incorporated it into my discussion questions.

Should you incorporate empathy games in your own class, I would advise you to choose a newer game (dys4ia was originally released in 2012) or reach out to the developer to discuss the idea. It's important to be considerate; empathy games are often created by marginalized people who may be accustomed to being treated with hostility by strangers online,13 and their games are often created out of raw emotional experiences. If it is at all possible to offer payment, do so.

Technical Challenges

Choosing empathy games that are not browser-based reduces access for some but increases it for others. You may need to plan ahead and choose several games with similar themes if they're independently developed or otherwise self-published. Services like Steam or allow you to download games and may help to solve the problems I encountered.

Even after finding versions that appeared to work, my students and I ran into a few technical issues:

  • Some students were using Chromebooks, which cannot easily run Adobe Flash-based games.
  • Mobile phones are often unable to run browser-based games.
  • Some students were able to download Mainichi, but they could not open or run the game.

Some of these technical issues were due to the course being online; had we been in a classroom, I could have provided more reliable access. I suggested that students who were unable to access the games watch gameplay on YouTube, but those who did this said it was not the ideal way to consume the content—especially after hearing other students' descriptions of the gameplay. An access-based "pair-and-share" activity where sets of students play different games and then discuss them may also solve this problem.

The Challenge of Measuring Empathy

Another obstacle arose when I attempted to decide how best to measure empathy. In 2004, researcher Simon Baron-Cohen developed the Empathy Quotient, a questionnaire designed to measure empathy in adults with autism.14 There are similar scales or tests that are designed to investigate interpersonal social relations, but these scales do not measure whether exposure to an idea changes a preconceived notion.

Psychologists define this second type of empathy as situational empathy. Research on situational empathy largely relies on subjects' post-experience self-reporting and on researchers seeing and hearing the subjects' body language during explanations. Self-reporting isn't the most reliable method for measuring anything, but I believe that asking students to reflect and question their responses is an effective teaching tool. I was easily able to compare what students said in class discussion (in front of their peers) with what students wrote in their private reflection journals (shared with only me) to observe honesty in reporting, to an extent.

Ultimately, I measured the success of the assignment based on the critical thinking skills I'd hoped to teach rather than on my perception of whether my students had gained empathy. I also compared their reflections and responses to units where they completed readings on different viewpoints. They seemed to understand more after reading and playing games than they did after reading only.

At the end of each week of class, I required students to write reflection journals where they connected the coursework to their lives. These reflections strengthened their understanding of course concepts, and I saw a difference between the way they discussed the games in class and the way they later related to them in their journals. Multiple students reported that the games were helpful in "building empathy" for the queer/trans experience. They also frequently used terms like "being in a trans person's shoes." However, sometimes (particularly in humanities courses) students can tend to give answers that they suspect are the "right" ones, rather than being honest.

Giving students time to reflect and consider their experiences helped them to understand and connect with the reading, rather than giving me a politically correct answer. I noticed that students at Saint Rose generally tend to be shy about speaking up in class, possibly because they fear being called out by their peers for an unintentionally ignorant or harmful comment. Combining peer-to-peer discussions with peer-to-teacher journal entries gave all students a safer space where they could ask questions of me without fearing peer judgment. It also contributed to (in my opinion) more openness and honesty about their opinions and thoughts.

Next Steps

I am eager to attempt the empathy games assignment again, with four key revisions.

  1. I need to find more recent empathy games about the trans experience that are available online and supported by their developers.
  2. At the 2017 Games in Education Symposium [], one speaker discussed playing the game Her Story (not an empathy game) as a "hot-seat"-style full-class experience. I would like to explore how playing empathy games collaboratively, rather than individually, might change the experience for students. It might also be interesting to have students play individually and then in groups or as a full class—and compare the experiences.
  3. In this first attempt, I wanted to know if I could get the games to work and understand if the students would enjoy playing them. Next time, I might develop a pre- and post-lesson quiz or writing assignment for each unit to better assess learning and the growth of empathy (or lack thereof).
  4. My class was entirely composed of cisgender women.15 I am curious how this assignment might work differently if the class was composed of female, male, trans, and non-binary students. I suspect that my specific class was not used to the implicit rules of video game play, so it is possible that the games would be more frustrating for students who regularly play entertainment video games. Also, some of my students wrote that they knew what it was like to be a cis woman and could therefore relate to some of the content. I'm curious to see how male students relate, or how students who identify as trans perceive the assignment.

Using Empathy Games in Your Classroom

A variety of empathy games can be found online:

  • is an online store that features independent games (try searching under the simulation category).
  • The Games for Change Festival website includes a list of winning and nominated games.
  • On websites such as Critical Distance, you can search for "empathy games" or "simulations."
  • The Different Games Collective specializes in games created by marginalized voices.
  • Many game store websites have links to related games, though such sites may link to games based more on gameplay style than on content.

Other examples of empathy games include This War of Mine, which focuses on the Bosnian War; Choice: Texas, which is about abortion access in Texas; and Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, which is a metaphor for psychosis. These games all differ in terms of length, gameplay style, and how closely they skew toward entertainment, so you may want to experiment with them before choosing one. Some empathy games—such as Lim—are more abstract, so it is important to play them and consider how you might draw connections to other unit materials and what types of guiding questions you might ask your students.

It's also worth considering how you might be able to present a standard entertainment game in a way that increases empathy. Samantha Allen did this in 2013 using the first-person shooter game Halo as a metaphor for intersectionality.16 Getting creative in this and other ways can make assignments more memorable and leave lasting impressions on your students.

For more insights about advancing teaching and learning through IT innovation, please visit the EDUCAUSE Review Transforming Higher Ed blog as well as the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative page.


  1. Jane McGonigal, Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World (New York: Penguin Press, 2011).
  2. David Surman, "Pleasure, Spectacle, and Reward in Capcom's Street Fighter Series," in Barry Atkins and Tanya Krzywinska, eds., Videogame, Player, Text (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2008).
  3. Julia Serano, Whipping Girl: A Transexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity (Emeryville, CA: Seal Press, 2007).
  4. Holly Green, "Do Video Games Turn Us into Bad People?" Paste, February 9, 2018.
  5. Gina Roussos, "When Good Intentions Go Awry: The Counterintuitive Effects of a Prosocial Online Game," Psychology Today, December 7, 2015.
  6. Julie Muncy, "Stop Expecting Games to Build Empathy," Wired, June 27, 2018.
  7. Samantha Allen, "Video Games as Feminist Pedagogy," Loading… 8, no. 13 (November 17, 2014).
  8. Iris Marion Young, "Throwing like a Girl: A Phenomenology of Feminine Body Comportment Motility and Spatiality," Human Studies 3, no. 2, (1980): 137–156.
  9. V. Varun Chaudhry, "Centering the 'Evil Twin,'" Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 125, No. 1 (January 2019): 45–50.
  10. Julia Serano, "Trans Feminism: There’s No Conundrum About It," Ms., April 18, 2012.
  11. Serano, "Trans Woman Manifesto," Whipping Girl.
  12. Natalie Wynn, Pronouns, video.
  13. Leigh Alexander, "This 'Empathy Game' Reveals a Real Challenge for Indie Games," Boing Boing, September 9, 2015.
  14. Simon Baron-Cohen and Sally Wheelwright, "The Empathy Quotient: An Investigation of Adults with Asperger Syndrome and High Functioning Autism, and Normal Sex Differences," Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 34, no. 2 (April 2004): 163–175.
  15. Cisgender, or cis, refers to someone who identifies with the gender they are assigned at birth. A cisgender individual is not trans.
  16. Samantha Allen, "The Other Difficulty Mode: What Halo Can Tell Us About Identity & Oppression," First Person Scholar, February 27, 2013.

Abi Johnson is an Instructional Designer at the College of Saint Rose.

© 2019 Abi Johnson. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.