How digital interaction can foster empathy

In today’s world of ever-decreasing attention spans, it is becoming more important to figure out creative ways to engage users of media, particularly on the Internet.  Gone are the days in which flashy graphics and sound effects enchanted viewers into taking in Internet media despite its lack of substance.  People are so used to computers now, these kinds of things are expected and the users look for deeper content.  One of the best ways to create deeper content is to create a sense of empathy within the user.

For me, empathy only partially happens online.  If you go to a website with an interactive experience such as The Durham Poverty Game, you will get, for example, a sense of what it can feel like to live on a meager salary.  But this is only a simulation.  The real empathy will come if the site convinces you to get involved with its Urban Ministries partner.  It is only when you meet poor people and work with them that you might truly start feeling for them.  I think the Durham Poverty Game does a decent job creating at least a little bit of empathy, enough that one is inclined to clink on the link about how to help.  Although, the point of help it highlights the most is a $5 donation.  While this is good and fine, it is very easy to donate money and then forget about the organization altogether unless someone reminds you about it again.  This is not empathy.  The better path, if you have the time and are inclined to do it, is to get involved with the organization and do hands-on help.

All this being said, I think the best way that a website can generate empathy is to get the user involved in a real-world activity that will generate true, personal empathy, rather than empathy from the comfort of their computer desk.  So, how can we do this?  In her book, “Reality is Broken”, Jane McGonigal talks about alternate-reality games.  These can be digitally based, but can also just be any game that creates a set of rules to live by and gives awards based on the performance of these rules.  One example of an alternate-reality game is “Chore Wars,” a game that awards points for doing household chores and results in family members doing chores to compete for high scores.  This is a game that promotes real-world improvement, not just a donation to a cause or to promote awareness of the need to do chores.  It is a specific call to action with rewards and motivation to achieve them.  McGonigal believes that alternate-reality games have the potential to change the world.  I’m not sure about that; but I do believe they have the ability to change how we view the usefulness of the Internet and the convergence of the physical and digital worlds.


Durham Poverty Game:

McGonigal, J. (2011). Reality is broken. (1 ed.). USA: Penguin Press HC.


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