Can Video Games Create Empathy and Awareness for Real World Issues?

NPR recently reported on a experimental Virtual reality game that attempts to create a connection between participants and a conflict happening thousands of miles away. “Project Syria”  is a project coming out of University Southern California (USC) that is utilizing virtual reality hardware to make an intimate experience that generates awareness and empathy for the civil war in Syria.  You may be saying to yourself “Hey, wait. I don’t want to play a game that puts me into a depressing scenario! I just wanna play  Animal Crossing and electronically prune trees!” but let’s open our mind up alittle, WILL YA.

You can watch a non-virtual reality demo of the game here. For those not willing to watch, the demo puts you in the middle of a town with people walking around conversing. Over the sounds of street hustle and bustle you can hear a young girl singing. Then, without warning, a bomb goes off and all sounds are immediately replaced with ringing. The town then becomes full of dust and the scene is one of tragedy and disaster.

Project Syria is one of the first virtual reality demos to be used to gain awareness for real world issues, but it certainly isn’t the first game to be designed to create awareness for an issue. In fact organizations like Games for Change  and TAKE ACTION GAMES have creating games to bring awareness to social issues for over a decade.  The game to create the biggest waves was arguably MTV’s “Darfur is Dying” released online in 2006, in which players took up the role of a family displaced by conflict in Darfur.

As they discuss in the NPR piece, Video games have the unique place in media as having the ability for more immersion than other forms. Movie goers can watch a film, create a connection to the movies character and plot, and then immediately disconnect. Video games expand those connections by giving the player choices and decisions that directly effect the character and plot, thus creating a stronger and longer lasting connection. Naturally then, video games have the ability to create great levels of empathy and awareness than other forms of media because the ties are that much stronger.

As Nonny de la Peña says in her interview with NPR “”I sometimes call Virtual reality an empathy generator….It’s astonishing to me. People all of a sudden connect to the characters in a way that they don’t when they’ve read about it in the newspaper or watched it on TV.”

Now obviously we’re probably not going to see most mainstream games take on social issues (Super Mario Syrian Crisis isn’t a title we’ll see anytime soon), but as game technology develop more and more we’ll definitely see video games used as social teaching devices, which is something we’re already seeing in schools. The question then becomes how and when we should use video games as tools for social change effectively, and that answer isn’t exactly clear yet.

Let me know what you think: Are video games good tools for social change? What experiences have you had? Are the tools of the future for creating empathy? Do you want to crowdfund “Super Mario Syrian Crisis”?

“Gaming While Black”

We’re back in 2015 (THE YEAR OF THE FUTURE) with more sociology and gaming.  To start us off, here’s a great piece: posted on Joystiq a few days ago, Jessica Conditt’s piece “Gaming While Black” is a very informative and well put together article on the current state of race in gaming. I’d recommend checking out the whole article, as it brings up a lot of sociologically interesting facets of the lack of racial diversity in gaming, which is still a relatively not talked about thing.

Here are some great bits from the article.

One the issue of the lack of diversity in voices of color in video game media:

“The games industry is hurting badly as a creative medium in terms of diverse voices,”Treachery in Beatdown City developer Shawn Alexander Allen told me. “We don’t see many prominent black or Latino (or really any other minority populace) representation in protagonists, critics, marketing or creators. I mention prominent because while many other cultural forms like music, movies and writing have a dearth of black voices, they at least have people who are out there making their culture better at all levels and are very visible.”

It’s true. The majority of the professional industry is still predominantly white. A recent demographic survey of gaming developers attending the IGDA  found that nearly 80% of attendees reported being white.

On the issue of the isolation of gamers of color:

“Most gamers of color have isolated themselves into private parties, private chats, or just don’t engage verbally at all,” Dr. Gray said. “And that’s sad because they can’t take full advantage of the gaming experience that they paid for. So what’s happening is a virtual ghettoization of minority gamers. […] Because a person’s identity is automatically revealed when a person speaks, they are targeted. I call it linguistic profiling. As soon as someone hears how you sound, they engage in this practice. They hear how you sound and react based on that. So a lot of black gamers are called derogatory terms because of how they sound. They don’t have to do anything but sound black.”

On why we’re seeing racism in online gaming communities:

“Gaming culture is a direct reflection of our society,” she said. “The only reason racism and sexism run rampant in gaming is because racism and sexism run rampant in society. But in physical spaces, mostly, it’s not overt. It’s subtle. It’s covert. So, yes, these issues manifest in a similar manner in gaming, but I contend that they present themselves worse. It’s not subtle. It’s in-your-face racism. A black person may not be called a nigger to their face, but they can almost guarantee it will happen in virtuality.”

Again, it’s a great article that is really well researched and well put together. Please go check itttt outttt.