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Video Games that Foster Global Empathy: Real Lives and Quandary

Can certain video games teach kids social-emotional learning skills?

By Rukmini Banerjee

Rukmini Banerjee is currently in her second year of the M.A. in Conflict Resolution program at Georgetown University. As a student in India and the United States, Rukmini has worked for a number of organizations including Save the Children, US Institute of Peace, and The Turkish Red Crescent Society (Ankara). She is presently working as an intern with Ashoka's Empathy Initiative. Her main areas of interest include women and children's rights, education, and refugee rehabilitation.

November 8, 2013

Now more than ever, the value of empathy is being recognized in our efforts to understand others across cultural and geographical divides. On this blog, we’ve covered the role of empathy in schools, parenting, society, and business. But this benevolent trend has now manifested itself even in the world of video games.

Real Lives is a simulation game developed by Bob Runyan and Ashoka Fellow Parag Mankeekar that allows players to inhabit the lives of individuals around the world. This game enables us to perceive the world through the eyes of another person within a context that is considerably different from our own and to undergo experiences that this individual is likely to have within his or her social setting, based on statistically accurate realities and events.

Through the different characters and simulations that comprise Real Lives, players can experience what life could be like for a person living in another country in a wide variety of areas including education, employment, marriage, family, diseases, and natural disasters. As the game progresses, the character ages, and the game uses static graphics to convey information about the life of a character. Not only does the software use real-world data to determine the probability of events in the lives of the various characters, but all information regarding the country’s history, culture, and socio-economic conditions is also gathered from reliable Internet sources, to which links are provided within the game.

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Real Lives strives to foster and hone “the cognitive, affective, and communicative components of global empathy.” Through the simulations and the information provided, players are encouraged to make decisions or act instinctively and are also able to see what the consequences of such actions or decisions might be.

These types of instinctive (and ethical) problem-solving and decision-making skills are also encouraged by the educational computer game produced by The Learning Games Network, Quandary, which took home the 2013 Game of the Year prize from Games for Change. Last year, StartEmpathy wrote about Quandary here.

In the world of Quandary, Braxos is a distant planet colonized by quarrelsome humans whose dilemmas are in fact more “earthly” than the game would have you believe at first blush. As the Captain, the player’s task is to find solutions to these problems and in the process pick up empathic as well as ethical decision-making skills. These “quandaries” are fairly similar to real world problems, such as how to distribute resources evenly and how to maintain unity and cohesion even in the midst of variety and diversity.

What makes Quandary a unique learning experience for young players is that the problems the players are faced with have no straightforward “right” or “wrong” solutions. There is a common tendency among people to perceive the world in black or white, right or wrong. Quandary seeks to avoid this over simplified view of the world: rather than imposing a set of morals on the players, the game empowers children to decide for themselves what they believe. Quandary demonstrates the importance of recognizing the complicated gray areas because in real life, there is rarely a single, correct solution to a problem. In order to empathize or solve problems effectively, it is important to be able to see the bigger picture and come up with creative and ethical solutions to problems.

We are frequently faced with challenges where there can never be a clear winner or loser. There are problems that lie beyond interpersonal conflicts, rivalries, or competitions, and online games such as Real Lives and Quandary encourage players to develop practical and creative problem-solving skills, which they can later apply in real life. And solving a problem effectively requires an understanding of the problem and a sense of empathy for the others who are facing this problem; that is precisely what these online simulation games seek to achieve.

We’d encourage conscientious parents who have a black-and-white view of video games to reconsider this stance by exploring the fun role that Real Lives and Quandary could have in social-emotional learning.