Finding Empathy Through Games

How can educators incorporate materials that explore empathy and encourage social and emotional development? An educator has some suggestions.

How can educators incorporate materials that explore empathy and encourage social and emotional development? One approach can be found in the wave of contemporary videogames that has sought to engage players beyond simplistic appeals to feelings. These games offer educators a unique teaching tool in addressing this need. The most familiar of these titles have focused on a range of topics from alcoholism (Papo & Yo by Minority Media, 2013) to queer identity (Gone Home, Fullbright, 2013) to childhood cancer (That Dragon, Cancer, Numinous Games, 2016). Below are three recently released, downloadable games perfect for exploring empathy and developing social and emotional literacy.

Everything (macOS, PlayStation 4, Windows / $14.99) is a 2017 title by Irish-born artist David OReilly who is also known for the experimental release Mountain. It is an accessible, open world game in which players can take control of thousands of different objects, such as a mushroom, sailboat, universe, and even a subatomic particle. At the same time, it is also an avant-garde art piece, which will even play itself when left idle for long enough, resulting in a captivating, randomly-generated screensaver.

Younger students will love intuitively navigating the game’s playful mechanics and awe-inspiring sense of scale (even if they choose to skip the intermittent sound files, sampled from lectures by philosopher and author Alan Watts). This is a wonderful title for self-directed play, such as an afterschool game club. Without clearly-defined goals, players can follow their own unique paths and discuss what the game seems to suggest about the implicit connections between living and nonliving things. On a mechanical level, the button presses implicitly reinforce these ideas: with a single button, a flower can join up with other flowers, or, with another button, all of the flowers dance together on the screen.

While most games draw a clear distinction between the player’s avatar and the non-player characters (or “NPCs”), Everything breaks down the boundaries between self and other, between the interactive and non-interactive parts of its virtual world. Through this constant, whimsical shifting of identity, the game encourages players to rethink otherness and encourages a subtle, naturalistic form of empathy. When looking at a digital grasshopper or rock, players may find themselves thinking, “That could have been me a moment ago.”

Everything was winner of the Most Amazing Game Award at the 2017 A MAZE. Awards, Most Fantastic Game Award at the 2016 Fantastic Arcade Awards, and Most Innovative Game at the 2017 Games for Change Awards, and it’s recommended for all ages. A trailer is available.


Celeste (macOS, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Windows, Xbox One / $19.99) is one of the most heartfelt and, at the same time, nail-bitingly difficult games of 2018. It was designed and written by Matt Thorson, creator of the local multiplayer sensation TowerFall, with programming by Noel Berry, graphics by MiniBoss, and music by Lena Raine.

The plot revolves around Madeline, a young woman who decides to climb a mystical and mysterious mountain named Celeste. From there, the plot gets much more complicated: she meets several quirky friends along the way, confronts her evil twin, and suffers from self-doubt and anxiety attacks. At one point, in between reassuring phone calls home to her mother and selfies with her optimistic and supportive new friend Theo, Madeline questions if she can continue and why she took on this challenge at all.

On a narrative or thematic level, students can empathize with characters like Madeline and her struggles with anxiety and depression, her doppelgänger Badeline who questions everything she does, or perhaps Mr. Oshiro, who haunts the old hotel he used to manage until the protagonist helps him confront his unhealthy hoarding tendencies. However, equally important are the mechanics of an extremely challenging puzzle platformer demanding exact button presses and perseverance. After completing a single level, the game adds up every death or failure, which can sometimes number in the hundreds.

Interestingly, rather than discouraging students, this punishing difficulty encourages a sense of shared success and empathy among students. The most adventurous players can attempt to collect strawberries, which are specially-placed achievements requiring precise jumps and timing. On the other hand, for those who struggle with the challenge, the makers of the game have made a concerted effort toward what could be termed empathetic or “inclusive design” by including assistance options that can be turned on or off to grant invincibility or the ability to jump an extra one or two times in midair.

The organic way in which groups of students decide whether they will trade turns every time someone fails (which can take as little as 10 seconds) or whether they will give a classmate stuck on a particularly hard part additional turns, is part of the magic of sharing such a difficult, but thoughtfully designed title.

Celeste is a perfect game for middle and high school students looking for a well-written story with an emotional core as well as those who are seeking a hard-as-nails challenge, which demands perseverance and a mastery over real and metaphorical mountains.


What Remains of Edith Finch (macOS, PlayStation 4, Windows, Xbox One) is the follow-up to Giant Sparrow's Unfinished Swan (2012) and the debut release from publisher Annapurna Interactive. Drawing heavily from H.P. Lovecraft and Weird fiction, it tells the story of Edith Finch, her family, and the deadly curse which seems to have consumed each member of her family tree. The game is composed of 13 brief, first-person vignettes, each of which details a different character's untimely demise from a first-person perspective.

In one story, Calvin Finch sits in a swing overlooking a seaside cliff. Players can hear his mother calling him and his brother Sam for dinner. However (as the matching voiced and on-screen text tells players), Calvin has decided he is never going to eat another mushroom and that he is also never going to be afraid again. From a first person point of view, players watch as he swings his legs back and forth, each time going slightly higher and capturing that surreal, childhood dare to try and see if it is really impossible to go over the top of the swing. And then he does. And through his eyes, players fly over the water as the screen fades to white.

Each story introduces a new family member, a different set of game mechanics, and often a shift in tone or genre, yet thematically, each is a celebration of a fictional character’s life and death. As Edith reads diary entries and sketches portraits in her family tree (which also serves as the game’s menu) she is trying to find her place in the narrative of her family and to make sense of her identity.

Likewise, students must employ their literacy of genre characteristics and gameplay styles to progress through a narrative, which is constantly shifting perspectives. When played as a group, this naturally leads to social interaction and a sense of collectively solving a mystery. The game’s fantastical treatment of death also allows players to explore emotions around what can otherwise be a heavy or difficult subject to explore.

Although mortality overshadows much of the game, it is ultimately the sweeping, cumulative conclusion, which may leave players feeling changed: as if they have a greater capacity of empathy for others and a better appreciation of how brief and fleeting life is.

What Remains of Edith Finch was winner of Best Game at the 2018 BAFTA Game Awards, Best Narrative at the GDC 2018 Choice Awards, and Best Gameplay at the 2018 Games for Change Awards. It is recommended for high school students and is especially good for English classes exploring genre, narrative techniques, and memoirs dealing with death or mortality.

Thomas Knowlton is School Outreach Librarian for MyLibraryNYC at the New York Public Library, and the creator of NYPLarcade . Follow him @thomasknowlton.

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