Shots ring out as soldiers chase you. You run, dodging obstacles and collecting food as you flee your home. In order to win, you need to survive.
Welcome to Salaam, an intense video game that puts you in the shoes of a refugee fleeing conflict. The game was developed by 26-year-old Lual Mayen, an unexpected rising star in the industry. Mayen spent his first 22 years in a Ugandan refugee camp after his family fled war in South Sudan in 1993. When he was a teen, Mayen’s mother saved for three years to buy him a computer, the only one in the camp. He taught himself how to code, often walking three hours to the nearest internet cafe. When conflict erupted in Sudan again in 2016, Mayen created Salaam to raise awareness of the global refugee crisis.
Digital games get a bad rap, accused of promoting violent or antisocial behaviour. However, as a new storytelling medium, games could be even better at doing what books and films have done for decades—building empathy by letting us see through the eyes of others.
"Video games could be even better at doing what books and films have done for decades—building empathy."
In 2018, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison conducted a study with 150 middle school children, who played a video game to interact with space creatures. The only way to communicate with the aliens, who didn’t speak English, was to interpret their facial expressions. After two weeks, the young gamers showed stronger neural connections in the parts of the brain linked to empathy.
Of course, reading books and watching movies can also build empathy by provoking emotional reactions, but these are passive activities. Interactive media gives players control over an avatar, making them responsible for its actions, says Matthew Farber, associate professor at the University of Northern Colorado, and co-author of a UNESCO-sponsored report on using games as ‘empathy machines.’
That responsibility generates strong emotions that passive mediums usually don’t, like pride and guilt, which are more closely linked to developing empathy, according to Farber.
A whole new world of games is transporting players into different bodies and new perspectives. Like the award-winning Life is Strange, which deals with alienation and bullying among teens. Or the virtual reality experience Tree, in which players grow from seedlings to mighty rainforest giants—before falling to deforestation. There’s a virtual arcade filled with these games and over 270 others on the site Games for Change, a non-profit promoting positive impact through digital play. Encourage the gamer in your family to check them out.
Just winning these games won’t get you a high score in empathy. There has to be follow-up. Farber suggests that parents and teachers occasionally play along with children or students, then discuss the game. How did they feel when that character died? Why did they make certain choices? Have the kids do a project like writing a game review or keeping a journal as they progress through the story.
“Treat games like books. Kids won’t understand the significance of To Kill a Mockingbird just by finishing the book,” says Farber.
Video games aren’t the enemy. It’s all about how you use them. Even more than traditional media, they let you experience the world through the eyes of another. And that’s where empathy lives.
Craig Kielburger is co-founder of the WE Movement, which includes WE Charity, ME to WE Social Enterprise and WE Day.