Video Games for Good

Extra Credits is a video series on game design and the game industry.  It has interesting insights I don’t see elsewhere, but it is also… low density.  You could compress most episodes into a single written paragraph and lose nothing.  I tend to watch them when being told the same thing over and over with completely unnecessary accompanying graphics is calming, rather than annoying, which isn’t very often, so I only just caught this video on whether games can induce empathy.

If you are not in the mood to be reassuringly talked down to, they helpfully provide a summary:

Many studies have investigated whether or not there is a link between video games and violence, but few have looked at the bigger picture. What is the correlation between video games and empathy? Since games put us, as players, in the role of characters who are not ourselves, asking us to understand their situation and the problems that they face, they have the potential to teach us about how to empathize with others. While many gamers have anecdotal evidence about games that made them feel a character’s pain, there’s a disappointing lack of formal studies into that side of the question.

Examples: This War of Mine, Cart Life

I didn’t think anything of it until a week later at my Effective Altruism meetup, when we were discussing egalitarianism/maximization.  In a nutshell, EA believes that all lives are equally valuable, so if you can save two lives for $n each or one life for $2n, the most moral thing to do is to save the two lives.  Phrased that way I don’t understand how it’s at all controversial, but in practice it comes up against many people’s instinctive priorities.  For some, passing over a homeless person to give to GiveDirectly doesn’t just give them fewer warm-fuzzies, it feels actively immoral.  Someone at the meeting suggested it was a matter of empathy- people naturally feel more empathy the more often they see someone, or the more they have in common with them.

This is  of course obvious, which is why so many charities try to up the empathy you feel for their beneficiaries, by implying you’re helping a particular person when you’re not, or just sending a letter with a few heartwarming stories of all the injured dogs they’ve saved that year.*  They do it because it get donations, but it’s very hard not to slide into poverty porn. I find those examples really manipulative, but I loved the ability to choose out specific recipients when donating to Modest Needs so clearly I’m just as susceptible.

This is where I thought of that Extra Credits video.  What if instead of telling people how awful extreme poverty is, we gave them a video game demonstrating both the difficulties poor people faced and the resources they used?  Some things I would like to include:

  • Trade offs, trade offs, trade offs.  Do you invest in your child’s schooling or new farming equipment?
  • Bee Sting theory– demonstrating how it is easy to do the right long term thing when you have a few problems, but when too much is wrong sometimes palliatives are all you can manage.
  • The importance of social capital.  The poor (both in the US and the 3rd world) get a lot of criticism for spending so much on alcohol and ceremonies, but the fact is that that builds social relationships that can be crucial later on.  This doesn’t mean spending a lot on booze and parties is optimal, but that the change must come at a societal level.
  • How many well intentioned NGOs fail.  E.g. my continuing hate for the play pump.
  • Ideally you’d like to convey the scope of preventable deaths.  I don’t know how to do that respectfully.  You could do something like Shelter or The Oregon Trail, where you go in knowing some characters will die and the goal is to save as many as possible, but that seems a little horrifically callous.

I have several ideas for how to do this.  You could do the trade offs with a choice mechanism like that of Depression Quest or Long Live the Queen.  Soha Kareem has has apparently done some great work with video games to express her experience of microaggressions and sexual abuse.

EA strikes me as having a real comparative advantage when it comes to producing video games, relative to other charitable movements.  And by “real comparative advantage”, I mean “lots of programmers”.**  None are games programmers specifically, but it might be a skill worth picking up.

*Pro-tip for my local humane society: this may not work as well on cat owners as you were hoping.

**We were up to two non-programmers at the last meeting.  High five.

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