Opinion: Why Gaming Can Greatly Help Us Empathise

Photo by Owen Beard on Unsplash

Connecting our emotions to others

It struck me (worryingly) late in life that video games can excite our senses in a vastly different way to that of films or books.  I’m not saying that it’s in a better way but simply that some of the emotions that we experience through gaming can make our brains work in alternate directions.  When experiencing a game with fully fleshed out characters who have interesting and layered personalities, our mind will try to relate as best it can to those characters.  These psychological pathways can often lead us to emotions that we view as empathy – an emotion that can be played on in different ways through various forms of entertainment.

The realisation dawned on me when playing Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice on the Nintendo Switch as I began to feel that I – a 30-something male teacher – and the protagonist – a fictional 20-something female Pict warrior – had made a social connection during the course of the story.  Of course, this is the point of several narrative based video games but it’s a connection that I had not felt as strongly until this title. This notion in itself made me curious as to how and why the game was made in the first place.

Upon watching the featurette of the game and listening to the developers explaining their direction, it made me feel a tad silly that I’d not logically thought through the same issues before.  They explained how they viewed the experience of a video game as the perfect vessel for allowing the player to gain a deeper understanding of certain emotions and conditions by firstly developing a connection to the person to which these emotions and conditions are attached.  This led me to consider the fundamental differences in gaming as compared to films and books. The key sentiment would be that gaming is an interactive experience whereas with film and books you are a passive listener / watcher / reader and hence, are powerless to have any effect on the outcome.  

Screenshot from Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice (by Ninja Theory) on Nintendo Switch

The Changing Experiences of Gaming

The power that we have in affecting outcomes in gaming gives us greater ownership of the characters within that game / story, so you feel personally responsible for their fates (something reminded to me when my partner watches me hopelessly let Joel from The Last of Us Part I meet his untimely demise on an embarrassing number of occasions).  Many gamers, particularly from my generation, have become good at detaching themselves from the characters they meet across these games. But it’s also worth considering that many gamers from my generation grew up playing games involving manoeuvring clumps of blurry blocks around a screen with a severely limited set of objectives: move a block to rebound a smaller block; shoot some dots at clusters of other blocks; spin and move a triangle to shoot some dots at some larger blocks etc. etc. (bonus points if you know what 80’s games I’m referring to!).  The point I’m making is that empathy was never something that we considered when we played these games, we just wanted to have fun.

Nintendo is famous for focussing on putting fun at the forefront of its game development, and this is a great thing.  Most people play games as a form of escapism and don’t want their video game experience to reflect what they experience in their lives.  Which is why – I’m sorry, Nintendo – I doubt you’ll see many basketball players breaking up their real life match to get their Switches out and start playing basketball in video game form.  However, many games have now become much more realistic and aim to tell stories that have a huge number of relatable elements. This is when we come back to the purpose of this article as we explore how these types of games (realistic based games with a strong narrative) can help us to feel emotions experienced by someone else, real or fictional.

Screenshot from The Last of Us Part I (by Naughty Dog) on Playstation 4

The more we can relate to a game then the easier it is to develop empathy, but then, surely the point is also that we could be able to develop empathy with people whom we have little with which we can relate?  Going back to an earlier point and the aforementioned game, it’s a testament to the quality of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice that I was able to elicit (what I perceived to be whilst playing) a deep connection with the protagonist.  The game’s protagonist suffers from psychosis and the impact that this game had still resonates with me now as I contemplate my social interactions with anyone dealing with mental health difficulties. I felt this because the developers had so astutely designed it this way, and as a result they have created a piece of art that I feel could benefit many of us.

Portrayal of Mental Health in Gaming

In October 2018, Joseph Fordham and Christopher Ball released a research paper named ‘Framing Mental Health in Video Games: A Case Study of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice’.  The paper explores how games have typically promoted stigmatised versions of those with mental health concerns – something that the developers of the game particularly wanted to avoid.  The purpose of the paper was to analyse how researchers, practitioners and game designers approach the topic of mental health within the context of gaming – Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice was the contemporary game used as the focal point.  Without repeating what has already been said better (for links to the full paper, see the bottom of the article), the summary is that in collaboration with mental health practitioners, scientists and people with mental health difficulties, video games can be created to realistically and respectfully portray mental illness.  Some of you reading may view this as a given but the research then discusses how such a process can help to promote empathetic understanding of mental health issues. The authors conclude by imploring the need for further research into video games that depict mental health difficulties and the processes behind them.

Personally, I think that the authors’ work addresses the topic excellently, and it is only by chance that I’ve read their comments on promoting empathetic understanding.  So if a game is able to accurately convey emotions of a specific mental illness to the player then surely it can do the same for a wide spectrum of emotions. The other game I’ve also mentioned here is The Last of Us Part I.  Whilst I’m sure that the development processes of these two games were categorically different, TLOU also evoked feelings of empathy towards its two main characters. From my understanding of limited research on this title, it seems like the developmental relationship between the director and the actors was a dynamic and constructive one born of passion for the project.  The end result of deeply layered characters of whom we can wholly invest in emotionally seems a world apart from the often two dimensional characters paraded around for two hours in blockbuster films. The fact that in video games we get to control these characters, make important decisions for them and shape their story further adds to the immersive effect which increases our empathetic scope.

Screenshot from Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice (by Ninja Theory) on Nintendo Switch

Of course, there are inevitable negatives of this concept and much of which has been publicised in very recent history.  Polygon’s Patrick Lindsey (2014) wrote a very interesting article just a few years ago that highlighted the common problems with video games often dehumanising characters with any mental health issues to an extent that it leads the player to fear mental illness itself.  There will always be vast differences in how individual developers or writers handle the process of a game, film or book. However, the damaging portrayals and signals referred to in Lindsey’s article seem to be in contrast to the care taken to create a game like H:SS, and this is greatly eluded to in Fordham and Ball’s research.  I’m hoping that games such as this can help to a generally more healthy practice for something that so many of us are passionate about.  

Significant Changes in Culture

James McMahon, writing for the Big Issue (2018), comments positively on the change by discussing the critical success of H:SS at the British Academy Game Awards in April 2018.  After commenting on the game winning five awards at the show, it is the ‘Beyond Entertainment Award’ that he singles out as significant. This is because the award, introduced in the same show, is one that “capitalises on the unique and maturing medium of games, to deliver a transformational experience beyond pure entertainment. Whether this is to raise awareness through empathy and emotional impact, to engage with real world problems, or to make the world a better place”, as he quotes.  It is easy to share the enthusiasm for the recognition of such a step forward in gaming celebration, particularly when it’s attributed to success.

So, I’d like to conclude by celebrating the remarkable potential in gaming to heighten individuals’ capacity for empathy towards others with the spark of some incredibly talented and hard-working developers.  Video games have frequently received negative press, both rightly and wrongly in the past, so for someone who grew up playing them just because they were fun, it’s great to discover such a spectacular potential for developing a virtue as vital as empathy.  If the video game industry can continue pushing forward with experiences like the aforementioned titles then it can continue to earn its respect as an art form and maybe even help our social skills in ways we hadn’t previously considered.

If you would like to read the abstract for ‘Framing Mental Health Within Video Games: A Case Study of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice’  then visit https://www.researchgate.net/publication/331475405_Framing_Mental_Health_within_Digital_Games_A_Case_Study_of_Hellblade_Senua’s_Sacrifice_Preprint


Fordham, J. & Ball, C. (2018).  Framing mental health within video games: a case study of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice.  JMIR Mental Health.

Lindsey, P. (21st July 2014). Gaming’s favorite villain is mental illness, and this needs to stop. Polygon. Accessed 24th September 2019, from https://www.polygon.com/2014/7/21/5923095/mental-health-gaming-silent-hill

McMahon, J. (April 25th 2018).  Hellblade’s portrayal of mental health is a watershed moment for video games.  Big Issue. Accessed 24th September 2019, from https://www.bigissue.com/opinion/hellblades-portrayal-of-mental-health-is-a-watershed-moment-for-video-games/

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