4 Games to Spark Empathy-building in the Classroom

Can technology help kids develop empathy? Due to the rise of virtual reality experiences, there’s been some buzz lately about the impact technology might have on how we understand and share the feelings of others.

Since video games have an inherent ability to transport us to places and meet people we normally wouldn’t, teachers can use them to create authentic experiences in their classes -- where students reflect on their own lives, share personal stories with peers, and hopefully begin to share in the perspectives of others. Games can't be the sole tool to help build empathy, but emotional and powerful moments in games can drive meaningful discussions in the classroom.

Though it may be a leap for educators to incorporate mainstream video games into instruction, these types of games can sometimes offer more convincing experiences than those created specifically for the classroom -- especially when it comes to building social and emotional skills.

Check out these picks to help jump-start conversations around empathy in the classroom.

Gone Home
This narrative-driven exploration game’s story will elicit very different reactions from players -- it’s about life, love, identity, and family. Used in ELA classes to teach students about character development and theme, it can also be used as an empathy builder. As kids learn about the characters, they will inevitably find struggles that mirror their daily lives, and this is a great place to start having a discussion. Kids can take screenshots of situations they relate most to and create storytelling groups for sharing in class.

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Brothers: A Tale of 2 Sons
The control scheme -- using one device to control two characters independently -- is a perfect metaphor for this game’s theme of working together. By the end, kids will also have experienced a tale of family bonds and perseverance after grief and tragedy. Students can work in pairs to solve a problem after playing the game, and document how having a partner changes the way they think, talk, and act -- especially when things don’t go right.

That Dragon, Cancer
The creators of That Dragon, Cancer used their game as an outlet for making meaning of tragedy, and that is conveyed to the player as they relive memories of dealing with grief. Kids will experience strong emotions as they play, and will recognize how we all need healthy outlets for tough times. Students can work in groups to brainstorm ways they can respond to difficult emotions they might experience in their lives -- maybe by creating a video or designing an app or game.

Journey
There’s more to Journey than the beautiful vistas. Along your trek, you’ll inevitably run into another player (controlled by another human or the computer). With only the ability to communicate through simple tones and sounds, it’s up to you how much you work together to reach your destination. These interactions -- and how each student might respond to them differently -- are the perfect setting to talk about empathy and how limitations in communication may have an effect on how much we understand and relate to each other.

This article’s content is an extension of the We All Teach SEL blog series from Common Sense Education. Check it out for a complete look at social and emotional learning in the classroom.