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Walking a Mile in Another’s (Virtual) Shoes

A look at the unique video game two Harvard PhD students created to help people develop more empathetic relationships.

By Erika MacLeod

Erika is a graduate of George Washington University with an M.A. in Global Communication. At GWU, Erika served as the communications and web manager for the Center for Civic Engagement and Public Service. During her high school years and undergraduate degree, Erika was invested in increasing accessibility of low-cost music lessons to local school children. While with the Ashoka USA and Empathy Initiative teams from 2012-2013, Erika used her communications skills and interests to contribute to fundraising initiatives, writing and online media.

April 19, 2013

Shannon was settling into her first few weeks at college and was being proactive at meeting new people.  She and a few of her new friends went out for dinner one night and invited a girl who lived nearby to join.  Despite Shannon’s friendly invite, the girl abruptly declined.  Put aback, Shannon wondered: “What’s wrong with this girl?!”  After that exchange, Shannon put very little effort into getting to know her. Over time, they did eventually cross paths again, and Shannon later learned that money was a big concern for her.  Not knowing that information had unfortunately affected their early relationship.

Shannon’s experience is one to which many of us can relate.  At times, we jump the gun and make uninformed assumptions about others.  This behavior can negatively affect relationships, productivity, and our well-being.

In the United States, we have seen a number of unfortunate situations unfold due to hazy communication lines and lack of mutual understanding.  The federal government has had great difficulty trying to understand the rhetoric of North Korea’s more recent leader.  The NHL lost a large part of their season from difficulty in reaching an agreement.  And gun control presents yet another challenge of seeing eye-to-eye.

Every day we encounter situations that demand compromise.  But many of us find this to be incredibly difficult.

How can we do better? 

Most literature on this topic has focused on motivating or reminding people about social perspective taking (SPT), the process of understanding another person by considering their thoughts, feelings and motivations.  SPT is a critical skill to develop as it has been found to help people decrease egocentrism, social aggression, access to and use of stereotypes, and it can help increase perception of similarities.  Many of the problems we see in our relationships are from errors in perspective taking.  If we can improve our ability in SPT, we will be on a better trajectory to more positive relationships.

While being able to understand others better is a noble aim, little academic focus has been placed on how to accurately take on someone’s perspective.  Harvard Graduate School of Education’s doctoral candidates Geoff Marietta and Elisabeth Hoahn have set out to determine just that.

Through a game-based virtual environment and negotiation exercise, Marietta and Hoahn have shown that walking around in someone else’s (virtual) shoes encourages compromise and allows for more positive relationships to develop.

Within the virtual world of a golf course and natural habitat, participants enter as the golf course owner from a first-person view.  They are immersed in this role by talking to colleagues who inform them about their perspective and end goals.  Some of those same participants are in a treatment group and later take on the role of park ranger as well--a role directly in opposition to the golf course owner.  Treatment group participants become equally immersed in the park ranger role by talking with colleagues and friends to learn about their perspective and end goals.  Throughout the game, the park ranger and golf course owner must work through issues relating to management of the area, pond access, appearance of the area, among other realms of contention.   They are both awarded points based upon how well they negotiate.

Marietta and Hoahn’s hypothesis was that walking around the virtual world in the shoes of the park ranger would facilitate two negotiation outcomes: improved relationships and the ability to compromise.  Their predictions were quite accurate.

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In the first experiment where participants took on the role of park ranger, participants demonstrated an increased willingness to compromise.  In the second experiment, a control group simply read information about the ranger and his goals without virtually walking in his shoes.  The relationship did not improve between the park ranger and the golf course owner.  The third experiment provided a richer transcript of the park ranger’s perspective by including details of emotions felt.  This third experiment had results that were nearly identical to the first.  Overall, the more immersed that participants became in the shoes of the park ranger, the better their relationship and ability to compromise.

Marietta and Hoahn wanted to learn how people, both young and old, can become more empathetic with others.  Through perspective taking in a virtual world, they have shown improvements in people’s ability to engage in more positive relationships.  There is vast potential for game-based virtual environments to improve a wide-range of relationships found in education: student-student, teacher-student, family-school, or central office-school.  Further research will help them learn more about these correlations and integrate this kind of virtual game into the classroom.

Learn more about the research Marietta and Hoahn are conducting by taking a look at their recent webinar “Seeing the (Virtual) World Through Others' Eyes: A Game-Based Approach to Developing More Positive Relationships”.

Thumbnail Image Source: Creative Commons
Main Image Source: William Redman, Flickr, Creative Commons