Playing With Empathy

By Ryan Burwell

Games work best when players understand each other – so it’s no surprise that they can provide powerful lessons in empathy.

Empathy is central to learning because it allows us to understand different perspectives and imagine new possibilities. A teaching approach which builds upon students’ inherent empathy encourages them to more actively participate in the learning process. It does so by showing them the tangible benefits of going beyond surface understanding and imagining themselves in someone else’s shoes. Games can be unique tools for providing this experience.   

Most games reward the ability to predict and respond to the actions of other players. Therefore, those who have the most empathic understanding of the people they’re playing with have the greatest strategic advantage. Pointing this out to students can precipitate an important shift in their thinking. Students too often become fixated on results over process. If they are to become more autonomous learners, they must connect the satisfaction of winning a game, or getting an A on a project, to the skills and mindset that led to that success.

A great way of doing this is by pairing the easy to understand outcomes of a game with a discussion in which students deconstruct the “how” and “why” of their difficulties and successes. In this way, a game can be transformed into a metaphor for other areas of their learning, providing fresh perspective on the process behind the outcome.

Some of the richest insight can be facilitated by games that run counter to player expectations. For example, get your students to work collaboratively in a game role that is normally individualistic. Then, ask them to keep track of when and why there were disagreements over game strategy. Help your students understand that the nature of these disagreements provides a valuable lesson about the unique way they each think. As they explore the logic underpinning their game decisions, they will come to understand each other’s thinking style – and this understanding will transfer to other areas of their learning.    

In another exercise, ask your students to rewrite the rules of a game they are familiar with. Each student should be given an opportunity to suggest, and justify, a new rule. This can open the door to rich class discussion about the different purpose each students sees for the game in particular, and for rules in general. This exercise also helps students become more sensitive to the challenge of creating a system of rules that reflects everyone’s values equally. Vitally, approaching a game in this manner allows for a divergent outcome, showing your students the value of creativity, self-assessment, and critical inquiry.

Because these are still the early days of empathy-based game design, there is need for teachers to weigh in with new ideas and feedback about existing approaches. So, post a comment – and let’s work together to better understand what’s possible when we play with empathy.


Ryan Burwell is the Education Lead for Twenty One Toys – a Toronto start-up which designs games to help K-12 teachers lead discussions about empathy, failure, and collaboration. You can join the toy revolution by supporting the Twenty One Toys campaign on Kickstarter to make a new, more affordable Empathy Toy – and even get one for yourself.

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