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It Starts with a Flicker: How Games Can Bring Humanity Closer Together

I was once removed from a synagogue by security because members of the congregation thought I was a terrorist. It was 2006, and I was on a three-week-long backpacking trip in Australia and eager to participate in the Kol Nidrei service of Yom Kippur, the opening of the holiest holiday of the year. But instead of being able to pray, I was interrogated by guards who removed me

Frankly, it was disorienting to suddenly be seen as the threat—one who is feared because I was an outsider. While I understood, generally, what it feels like to be judged based on how I look; as a petite, light-skinned, American woman, I had never been viewed as being “the threat.” My experience in Australia, though upsetting, was profound because it showed me that although I could empathize with all sorts of individuals, I could not completely understand what it is like to be someone else. Though we may yearn to listen, understand, and appreciate, we cannot fully “get” someone from another country, religion, culture, background or political stance.

On the other hand, meaningful life experiences, cultural interactions, and social deliberations with others can help us to connect with and better understand what may initially seem strange. These experiences may offer a flicker into another’s perspective. Over the past 15 years, I have been exploring another way to meaningfully appreciate others’ journeys: through games.  

It may sound odd to think of games as a way to help us consider new perspectives or cultivate empathy for others, especially when many proclaim otherwise. But, in fact, a well-designed game (whether digital or analog) allows players to “try on” or embody new identities, engage with other players, and make the strange a little more familiar.

While not all games do this, they can help us gain meaningful new experiences, alongside all the other experiences we have in our lives. They can help us better understand our common humanity, whether they undertake big, philosophical questions or “kitchen table” issues. Games can show us that there are many ways to win and that expanding perspectives, supporting others, and cultivating empathy can all be paths to victory.

Some examples: “Migrant Trail” shows alternate perspectives on migration; “Walden” gives us reflective moments in nature; “Life is Strange” enables us to relive meaningful choices from adolescence; “The Sims” allows us to embrace a shared quotidian existence; “Fable” explores ethical and political choices; and “Dragon Age” and “Mass Effect” show us unique characters that help us rediscover different hues of the human experience. In a games class I teach at Marist College, my students are creating non-digital games that encourage players to more fully appreciate emotions such as love, grief, jealousy, pity, and serenity.

I have personally experienced this type of meaningful connection through gaming. “That Dragon, Cancer” is a game that explores the real-life experiences of a family grappling with their young son’s cancer. Playing this game with my students has helped me better express and connect with them through my own grief with losing a young son.

Over the past six months, I have been working as a Belfer Fellow with ADL’s Center for Technology and Society. We have been running a series of game jams—weekend-long game creation events—where participants develop games that help us to connect with and understand each other. We are also researching whether the act of creating a game about these topics may enhance our empathy for others, regardless of whether the game itself is effective.

One important ethical consideration is recognizing that a game can only partially relay another’s perspective or story. We can never fully understand what someone else has gone through or relive the steps that brought them to where they stand now. Games, however, can give us a flicker of another’s life or perspective. And sometimes, this flicker can change us and expand us in profound ways.

It is this possibility that motivates me to keep designing and researching games. I want to use them to help make the strange become more familiar. So that we won’t be as afraid of the unknown, and will open our minds, our arms, our homes, our hearts, and even our countries a little wider. So that when someone walks into our synagogue, our church, or our mosque and just wants to pray alongside us, we won’t turn them away in fear.

Dr. Karen Schrier is an associate professor and director of the Games & Emerging Media Program at Marist College and an ADL Center for Technology and Society Belfer Fellow. Her recent book, “Knowledge Games,” was published by Johns Hopkins University Press.

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