Designing Games to Foster Empathy

A diverse range of educational and activist programs have been created to foster empathy inparticipants. For example, it is often a priority in conflict resolution programs to encourage empathy between stakeholders on different sides of conflicts. Similarly, many interventions designed to reduce prejudice function by eliciting feelings of empathy towards victimized groups. Games are particularly well-suited to supporting educational or activist programs in which the fostering of empathy is a key method or goal. This is because they allow players to inhabit the roles and perspectives of other people or groups in a uniquely immersive way. This paper has been written as a resource for those who are interested in using games to develop or elicit empathy in players. We begin with an overview of what scholars have discovered about empathy, focusing on research in psychology, but also including insights from fields like conflict resolution in which empathy has been an important area of study. This is followed by a set of heuristic principles derived from the literature which are intended to have direct and practical applications to the design of games for good. Finally, we discuss three games – PeaceMaker, Hush, and Layoff – that engage players’ capacity to empathize in innovative and exemplary ways.

KEYWORDS: Video Games, Empathy, Conflict Resolution, Activism

Jonathan Belman
New York University
Mary Flanagan
Dartmouth College


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