Hone Your Empathy Chops (by Playing a Game)

Submitted on Tue, December 6, 2011

Submitted by: John Converse Townsend on 12/06/11

Editor's note: This post was written by Ashoka Empathy's Adam Horowitz, and originally featured on the Empathy Blog.

You don’t have to be in a classroom to improve your ability to be empathetic. Scientists, game-makers, and designers are creating new ways of measuring, cultivating, and boosting empathy.

And you can even get started on your own. Want to try? Here are three empathy-building resources to check out:

  1. You’re unemployed, you’ve lost your house, and you’re down to your last $1,000. Can you make it through the month?

    That’s the framing question for Spent, an online game created by the design firm McKinney for a North Carolina social services provider. The game, which challenges you to truly imagine what it’s like to live below the poverty line, has been played by more than 1.5 million people.

    It only takes about 10 minutes to play out your 30-day cycle, but the number of curveballs and tough decisions are staggering. Will you go to the dentist for that excruciating tooth pain? Will you pay the extra $15 for your child’s fieldtrip? Will you prioritize the gas bill, the car repair, or the food?

    Reading a newspaper full of statistics rarely leads to real empathy, but this game creates a different kind of window into the lives of 44 million Americans who live below the poverty line. As you imagine yourself among them and act accordingly, notice how your empathy builds. Read more about the game here. Or play for yourself!


  2. On a basic level, empathy has a lot to do with how well you read other people’s expressions and gestures. Want to see how well you stack up on this part of the emotional intelligence scale? The University of California, Berkeley has created this quiz to help you find out, while also honing your people-reading skills.


  3. In a similar vein, Fun and Function, the children’s game-making company, has released two empathy-boosting games based on reading emotions and expressions. “Social (e)Motion” asks young players to act out specific emotions in a revamped version of charades. 

    “Guess How I Feel?” is another game in which players share their reactions to certain fictional situations, thus identifying with imagined characters as well as each other. If you’ve got kids, or are just curious to learn more, read the company’s press release and check out the games here.

Photo: jfournierphoto

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