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New wave of ‘empathy games’ helps players reconnect in real life

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That Dragon, Cancer (Credit: Ryan Green)

Can video games teach kids to care about others?

A new game genre emphasizing empathy over typical gaming fare such as action, fantasy or sports is emerging, and while it's still a microscopic slice of the industry, it's getting a lot of attention.

The games tend to deal with extremely complicated subject matter. That Dragon, Cancer puts players in the shoes of a father caring for a sick child, tasking them to not find a cure for the disease or make things better, but to simply be there as a nurturing parent.

"We’re finding, in our studies, kids who play more pro-social types of games end up increasing their empathy over time and then behaving more cooperatively and pro-socially in the real world," Douglas Gentile, PhD, Associate Professor of Psychology told New York's CBS 2:

Insurmountable problems are a part of life, and empathy games are designed to help kids and adults learn to deal with them. The recently released Papers, Please, for example, focuses on the emotional toll an immigration officer faces as he decides who to let in and who to exclude from his fictional country.

By facing those situations in a simulation, experts say, players learn to show empathy to other people.

"We live in a world where empathy is tough to achieve," said Asi Burak from Games For Change. "This is a medium that could teach, that could inform, that could promote something very positive."

Empathy games are, at present, largely confined to the independent game scene. While they're widely praised – Papers, Please boasts a hefty 85 on Metacritic -- they don't yet have the power to drive sales on the level of a typical commercial release.

They do, however, provide more proof that video games can do a world of good. Other recent studies have shown that gaming, in general, increases happiness among seniors and helps treat dyslexia. Other studies have linked gaming with improved eyesight and increased focus.

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