Can playing games make you a better person?

The lives of others

More and more people are creating and playing video games, not for fun but to understand complex social issues. Is this just a passing fad that has roots in urbanisation, income inequality, the tyranny of distance, and an urge by the righteous to do the right thing? Or do socially relevant games actually have a future?

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“Empathy is a tool for building people into groups, for allowing us to function as more than self-obsessed individuals.” – Neil Gaiman, author.

In the history of humankind, there is a simple, central principle to everything that we have created. Just one principle. To make us better. Better doesn’t necessarily imply good. It just means that we’re constantly striving to take things a notch up. And another notch. And another. But in this drive to get better, it is essential to not lose sight of the betterment of the collective. Luckily, there are important tools built inherently into our psyche, our system, to help with that. Empathy is one.

Empathy is the ability to understand another by attempting to see the world from their perspective. Its more poetic, metaphorical cousin is the phrase “put yourself in another’s shoes”. Now, because it is inbuilt, empathy cannot be tutored; it can only be ignited with a soft nudge. This nudge comes in various forms—experience, books, speeches, art, cinema, music, and even news.

But what about games?

Artist Leena Kejriwal’s MISSING campaign, which aims to raise awareness about child sex trafficking, found an unusual ally in 2016—gaming. The MISSING game, developed by Kolkata-based Flying Robot Studios, has today crossed the one million mark across app stores. This number is significant for a game that intentionally makes the player live out the struggles of a trafficked girl. You play the role of a young girl attempting to escape the brothel she’s been put in. You engage in the sex trade to save up money, look for clues that could get you external help, run through dark corridors desperately trying to not bring any attention to yourself. All in the hopes of finding freedom. When you fail, you’re censured, abused, and even violated. Along the way, the gamer learns about the harsh realities of the sex trade in India.

MISSING game: Disturbing but realistic

The game, as of April, has been released in 12 vernacular languages, ranging from Gujarati, Marathi and Assamese to Odiya, Kannada and Malayalam. “Bangla [version] we released last year, and it was top of the charts in Bangladesh. It overtook Clash of the Titans and all. After which we introduced Hindi. And this year, we have launched 12 more,” says Kejriwal. The idea is to reach as many people as possible.

It’s an idea that Kejriwal and Parag Mankeekar, the founder-director of software company Neeti Solutions, share. Mankeekar is currently working on RealLives—a global simulation game that lets you engage with the lives of individuals in different parts of the world.

The game, in essence, is based on statistical calculations. It takes the player through different cultures, political and economic systems, personal attributes, health issues, family issues, schooling, jobs, religions, geographies, wars, etc. You are “born” as someone else in another country, another life, all based on the lives of real people. But as the player, you make choices for your simulated avatar. You interpret the data you’re presented with and choose how you’d like to act. “Players must observe, predict, compare and contrast information, identify variables, and choose between relevant and irrelevant data. They are constantly engaged in such higher-order thinking tasks as analysis, synthesis and evaluation,” reads RealLives’ game description.

In the past, Mankeekar has also worked on Indian village simulation games. His game Chakraview, for instance, takes an in-depth look at farmer suicides. Chakraview works on a premise similar to that of RealLives’. Except here, you’re a farmer in Vidarbha, Maharashtra, a region infamous for farmer suicides. In the game, you’re provided a total of Rs 1,000 ($14.60) per acre of land and a chart explaining your family’s routine expenses. With the meagre amount available to you and the basic data provided, you must navigate problems faced by Indian farmers. This could vary from making decisions about crop patterns, minimum living expenses and the cost of cultivation to coping with unexpected circumstances like difficult weather conditions, pest control, family members falling ill, etc. Things an urban audience has precious little idea of.

Of calculated risks

Mankeekar believes empathy-inducing games need to be a part of education as they’re a superior learning tool.

Today’s education system, he says, single-mindedly focuses on competition. It forgets privilege, which he calls ‘chance’. “Chance is a big part of life. Why were we born into our families, why are we working where we are, as opposed to why is the next person barely meeting daily wages? This is chance. Education, in our country, is all about competition; it forgets chance,” he says. “Study, MBA, job, marriage—this model of linearity is not life. Mathematics is taught as numbers, not as social mathematics. How much garbage is produced every day in a four-member household? We’re not taught this.”

Mankeekar’s games, he believes, allow you to learn these real calculations and differences by experiencing the life of another.

In India, there are many such games being developed in small pockets. Some with rudimentary designs that are familiar but get the point across just as well. For example, Shaadi.com’s game about India’s dowry system—Angry Brides. You play as the ‘angry bride’. The game lets you get revenge for dowry demands. You pick items the bride can throw at men asking for dowry. Each hit brings their dowry demands down a notch. It works a bit like the retro duck shooting game Duck Hunt.

Who looks the most smug?

That said, gaming, in general, is growing really fast in India. According to a 2017 study by auditing firm KPMG, the Indian online gaming industry is currently worth $290 million with 120 million online gamers in the country. By 2021, the study projects, the market will grow to $1 billion. With 310 million gamers. A number almost equal to the entire population of the US.

Can empathy games tap into this growing market? And more significantly, should they? We ask because, while the premise of these games is undoubtedly noble, there’s not really a way to know how they’re being played. To know who’s playing them. And whether their takeaways from the game are what the games’ creators intended.

Playing with lives

In essence, there’s an ethical dilemma. On the one hand, there’s the social responsibility of finding the best way to shape empathy, and on the other, there’s the looming question of whether it is some sort of sadistic voyeurism.

Is the gamer playing out of concern for the character or do they enjoy seeing them suffer? Does the game provide an important glimpse into someone’s life or does it appropriate their existence, making them powerless pawns in their own narrative?

While these questions are relevant to most games that allow the player to make moral choices, in the case of empathy games, the gamer is engaging with real-life examples. Literally playing with lives. This makes any sort of sadistic tendencies that much more insidious.

Kejriwal says her game took a long time because of precisely this dilemma. “It was very difficult. It is a touchy topic and it can be very voyeuristic. We managed to [balance] the game and the issue. It was a tough task at the beginning.” Her team made choices based on whatever seemed most urgent, most heart-tugging. “We had many choices to make. Right from the [character’s] origin, the village, to how the gamer was to get brownies, how we were going to see her moving ahead. We removed the village, introduced urgency, made it a quest for freedom. And we put you in her shoes.”

Having played the game, I can testify to how discomfiting it was to be put in a trafficked girl’s shoes. But in an earlier interview with Kejriwal, she admitted that the discomfort of being put in the character’s shoes was integral to the effectiveness of the game. “I want to make you uncomfortable.”

Immersive or voyeuristic?

Kejriwal insists that the game has never been consumed the wrong way. “We’ve had people hate it because it’s frustrating, but they’ve always gone back, downloaded and played it again. Some of the gameplay is a little sketchy, not smooth, and that’s because it was made on a limited budget, but it only helped us build that frustration.”

The developer of the MISSING game, Satyajit Chakraborty of Flying Robot Studios, was “shocked” when he first understood how harrowing the game could be. “I was aware that this game would make people uncomfortable. Despite having made the game, to play it is a harrowing experience for me as well. That is the theme though. This game shouldn’t make you happy or energetic, it should make you [think].”

Chakraborty talks about how powerful a game like this could be, emphasising how the utility of games could really expand. “This is also a kind of entertainment. Tragedy. It’s powerful. The most acclaimed films are tragedies. Games don’t go that way. MISSING is a similar experience; it’s not comfortable at all. It wasn’t meant to be a comedy.”

Traumatic or trivial?

Chakraborty’s notion of what a game can be is interesting because it goes against what the word “game” typically connotes. Ordinarily, it is associated with playfulness, frivolousness, something light, something distracting, something that sometimes allows for deep introspection, but, ultimately, exists in the world of fantasy. Reality is traditionally seen as something that exists outside the game. People usually play games for the escapism they offer. Now, what happens when the game is set in a reality that’s, perhaps, distressingly more real than their own reality? With empathy gaming, then, does the blurring of reality and gaming translate into real, actionable change? Moreover, is ensuring that change part of the game mechanics?

Mankeekar, who has also worked on disaster management game Snakes and Ladders, says yes. The game, he says, trains your brain to store vital information, which, when push comes to shove in real life, can be immediately actioned. “Your brain needs options. If something like [a disaster or a shooting] happens in your life, and there’s already an option in your brain embedded in your memory [as learnt through the game], then you react fast.”

Snakes and Ladders is the good old game with a twist in the gameplay. Each time you land at a snake’s mouth or at the base of a ladder, you’re given a chance to avoid disaster by answering a question about disaster management and what you can do to help. Whether that’s universally applicable across empathy games, however, is something that remains to be seen. If Mankeekar is right, any trauma experienced during the game is also at risk of being stored in one’s brain.

Kala Balasubramanian, a psychotherapist and the founder of Inner Dawn counselling services in Bengaluru, says it could very well stay with you for life. “The impact on an individual depends upon the quality of the game—even a 15-minute play of a very violent game can have a strong impact—and the age of the individual, especially a child. And when the child gets used to such violent games, they may develop aggressive tendencies and insensitivity. The problem is that the impact could stay with them even as they grow into adulthood. Environmental factors can make the child susceptible.”

Balasubramanian, however, notes that these empathy games—as a faction of “prosocial games” or relatively less violent games—may not always be so immersive. “Yes, to an extent it does affect the individual psychologically,” she says. But a lot of these games don’t have levels like regular games do, like That Dragon, Cancer—a 2016 video game created by the grieving parents of a child who died of cancer that allows users to experience the situation through the parents’ eyes. The endeavour to sustain the player’s interest in the game could dilute the message, she adds. 

Beyond the scope of appropriation, these games also make the gamer vulnerable to psychological triggers. Balasubramanian chalks it down to two distinct concerns. One, you end up experiencing [something traumatic as the character]. When you have any past trauma, even if it is remotely related to that, it can bring those traumas to the fore and give you flashbacks. Two, she asks, are we sensitising the trauma or trivialising it as a game? Trivialising can make you insensitive to the problem. Which, given the genre of empathy, would not just be a futile attempt, but quite possibly, completely detrimental to the very endeavour of social change. “Responsible and ethical design and presentation are critical,” she says.

Reality vs reality gaming

While calling such a project a game brings with it its own challenges, Balasubramanian insists that the word ‘game’ is what also makes it attractive to people. “It allows people to have a dialogue on things they maybe wouldn’t otherwise want to have a dialogue on. It makes the issue accessible,” she says.

Balasubramanian points to a menstruation game module developed by IIT Delhi students, where instead of learning by people lecturing you, you play a set of games. “It becomes easy to talk about it, a popular vehicle to reach the masses. It removes stigma,” she says. But there’s a catch. “There’s also the risk of trivialising. So the objective and the packaging become very important.” By objective and packaging, she means the responsible presentation of such games at the design level.

“Games can be a tool, a new realm. We can use this tool to see if they can overall enhance their helpful behaviour, and accordingly, it should be constructed in a safe manner. The tool will be effective only if we’re ready to use it in an effective manner,” Balasubramanian says.

Ashwath Nair, a former lead narrative designer at social game company Zynga Games, shares one method of designing a game responsiblychoosing language carefully. “Inherently, the stories [we worked on] were quite mature and propagated a certain level of violence, but how we made sure we never got too explicit was to suggest and not tell. It’s in the flavour text—text that gives context and background in gameplay. Instead, of starkly saying ‘he got killed’ or ‘she died in the bomb blast’, we used language that alluded to mafia lingo.”

“The onus lies upon the developer to make sure that even though you’re showcasing harm, be it physical, emotional or mental, it isn’t the only choice,” he adds.

What, realistically, are the options available to a developer looking at creating empathy games, though? These deal with sensitive information, make the player vulnerable and face the challenge of making something hugely problematic seem like literal child’s play.

In Nair’s view, the best sort of game is one where the game recognises the player’s agency, gives them choice, tools, power, the ability to destroy, but reminds them what’s at stake. He gives the example of American video game developer Toby Fox’s role-playing game Undertale, where you can play the whole game without harming anyone. This game is significant not for design or gameplay, but because it doesn’t patronise the gamer.

The game introduces a fantasy land under the surface of the Earth separated from us humans by a magic barrier. The story starts with a human child literally falling through the cracks into this ‘Underground’. You play as this child as he encounters monsters; monsters he can choose to pacify, befriend or kill.

Would you befriend a monster?

“The game is programmed to indirectly ask you ‘are you sure you want to do this?’ without being patronising,” he says. If you choose the path of extreme violence, the game doesn’t censure you. Instead, it asks you if you want to continue being violent or reset the game. If you choose violence, the game ends in a black screen. “Your wrong choices have ramifications, you have the agency to make them. It’s not just ‘oh, you did a bad thing’,” says Nair. This could be yet another way to enhance empathy gaming in a way that keeps it immersive while still letting you know the exact ramifications of your choices. Without a patronising figure breathing down your neck.

However, our society may not be ready for a complete handover of the reins. Mankeekar’s games, aimed at educational institutions, and Kejriwal’s game, free for download, also require close monitoring. Especially when children are the ones playing. Something as basic as sex education is still a taboo subject in most Indian households. If a child cannot discuss what they understood in the game with peers, family, school, then maybe we need a lot more to be ready for empathy gaming. Maybe it could start with dialogue.

Editorial illustrations for The Ken by Urvita Jhaveri.

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