For Episode 4 of this season’s Declarations podcast, host Maryam Tanwir and panelist Alice Horell sit down to discuss empathy games with Dr Karen Schrier, Associate Professor and Founding Director of the Games and Emerging Media program at Marist college, and Florent Maurin, creator of The Pixel Hunt, a video games studio with a focus on reality-inspired games.

Former American President Barack Obama thinks we are suffering from an empathy deficit. According to him, we need to see the problems of our world through the eyes of others. Could the socio-political crises of our time be solved with the use of ’empathy machines’, means of radically putting oneself in another’s shoes to create a more understanding and accepting world? Many researchers and game designers are trying to achieve this through the use of first person player video games. Our conversation discusses these so-called ‘empathy machines’ and tries to understand their potential for changing the world.

We kick off the episode with a discussion of a game designed by Florent, Bury me, my love. This critically acclaimed game puts the player in an interactive narrative following Nour, a Syrian woman traveling to Europe being helped through WhatsApp by her husband Majd, who’s still in Syria. Florent, a video game designer who wanted to use video games to convey his shock at the situation of Syrian refugees in 2015, emphasizes how unnerving the very idea of designing a video game was to him at first. It is only when he came across an article composed of the messages sent via Whatsapp by a refugee named Dana to her husband in Damascus that he got the idea for a non-linear game based on her experience. After contacting Dana and obtaining her approval – which was crucial to him – he started designing Bury me, my love. The aim was not to physically recreate the journey, but rather to design a game based on the Whatsapp exchanges between the couple.

Interestingly, Florent highlights how his game remains a fiction. While Dana reviewed the game and he interviewed several other refugees to make the game as realistic as possible, the game’s character is not Dana, but Nour – a fictional character. Karen, who has conducted research on empathy games, points to the multiple research steps undertaken by Florent before designing the game. To her, these are indispensable in the design process. Storytelling is a powerful tool to sustain empathy, and these games, if well researched, are ways to tell stories. However, it is hard to measure the impact of these games on empathy, a term that is difficult to pin down in general. Karen defines empathy as “considering other people’s feelings” and compassion as the “next level”, not only recognizing the other’s feelings but also helping them.

“Empathy as a concept has been deliberated. However, is it something we can measure? And if that’s the case, does it even matter?

Karen Schrier

Alice raises the distance created by virtual reality between players and situations. Games have been criticized for collapsing a complex situation into a game. What are the ethical implications of this? Karen agrees, and says this is something researchers and designers should always keep in mind. Careful testing and input from people with a deep personal understanding of the situation are crucial to designing scripts that generate empathy. Design decisions are also key: do you create a first-person game or do you create a game with a more external perspective? Each of these questions must be approached with the objective of reducing harm and maximizing positive impact.

There’s always a challenge with [ethical considerations in designing such games]. You could do more harm than good and it’s really a fine line.

Karen Schrier

Florent explains that when he designed the game, impact was not at the forefront of his mind. He approached making the game more like a journalist, deploying a new method to tell a story he felt was important and that people should learn more about. That does not mean he is neutral – far from it – and his perspective is represented in the game. What Florent takes most pride in is the fact that some people may look at migration differently after playing his game. Empathy, to him, is “acquired over the course of a lifetime”, and if one piece of art, including a video game, cannot make someone empathetic, little by little they may build empathy over the long-term. 

Of course, my point of view appears in the game. Because – as any author – when you do something, what you produce is influenced by who you are.

Florent Maurin

Florent goes on to say that, games are designed as conversations, rather than discourses. The game designer tries to anticipate all the questions a player may ask and provide satisfying answers. Rather than a discourse written by the game designer, then, they are conversations between players and designers. This approach has drawbacks, and can lead players to become more passive, but it can also stimulate activity through interaction.

Karen brings our attention to scholarship on ‘news games,’ those “that give us some kind of perspective on current events, or issues or topics”. She always asks her students what the advantages of a game are, by comparison with traditional means of conveying news such as text articles. She reports that many of her students do not read or watch news, and games are useful ways for them to engage with current affairs in a way they might not otherwise. Karen explains that players do not just play, but “converse through play,” which can draw the younger generation in the public sphere. For her, games need to also be seen as “public spheres” in their own right, where players interact, discuss current events, and event protest.

We don’t consider our youth as part of the public sphere. Youth should be part of the public sphere, they should be part of conversation, they have as much as anybody else reason to decide how our world should be.

Karen Schrier

Indeed, Karen emphasizes how we collectively fail to see games as important forums, especially for the youth. This reflects in part a tendency to exclude youth from society, from associating youth with lack of seriousness. We should instead see games as “productive” and “impactful”, in part through telling stories about current issues. 

Florent highlights how important the game’s realism is to its impact. His game was criticized for being “unrealistic” by the far-right, as his character was a woman; according to detractors, this did not represent the reality of migration. In his case he was unfazed, as Nour is directly based on Dana’s life story. He also points to the game Path Out, an auto-biographical narrative game written by Abdullah Karam, a Syrian refugee. Karen also directs our attention to the dangers of providing different perspectives on an event or situation. For instance, a game that enables players either to play as Mexican migrants trying to cross the border into the US or as border guards trying to prevent them strikes her as highly problematic: such a game seems to claim that the situation involves two equal sides, which is far from the case – there is one marginalized and suffering, and then the privileged border control forces.

Our Panelist:

Alice is a third year Human, Social and Political sciences student at the University of Cambridge and is originally from London. Her studies are focused on the politics of conflict and peace, particularly looking at how new technologies are impacting the refugee crisis, in which she became interested when volunteering for a migrant rights charity.

Our guests:

Karen Schrier is an Associate Professor and Founding Director of the Games and Emerging Media program at Marist college, and also of Play innovation lab. 

Florent Maurin is creator of The Pixel Hunt, a video games studio with a focus on reality inspired games. He is the creator of Bury me, my love, a critically acclaimed game which puts the player in an interactive WhatsApp-like fiction following Nour, a Syrian woman traveling to Europe being helped by her husband Majd, who’s still in Syria.

Further reading

Press coverage

NPR’s Goats and Soda: ‘A Kid In A Refugee Camp Thought Video Games Fell From Heaven. Now He Makes Them.’

Bury me, my love: coverage in the Washington Post; Radical Art Review

Academic reading

Alberghini, D. (2020) Improving empathy: is virtual reality an effective approach to educating about refugees?

Farber, M. & Schrier, K. (2017) The strengths and limitations of using digital games as “empathy machines.” working paper for the UNESCO MGIEP (Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development)

Farber, M. & Schrier, K. (2021) ‘Beyond Winning: A Situational Analysis of Two Digital Autobiographical Games’ in The International Journal of Computer Game Research 21: 4.

Mukund et al. (2022) ‘Effects of a Digital Game-Based Course in Building Adolescents’ Knowledge and Social-Emotional Competencies’ in Games for Health Journal 11: 1.

Johnson, A. (2019) ‘Using Empathy Games in the Social Sciences’