Operation Respect appreciates the critical importance of empathy. It is a skill that is taught throughout the Don’t Laugh at Me curriculum, from “How Would You Feel If?” to taking a “Walk in Another’s Shoes.” We firmly believe that empathy is an essential skill needed for the healthy social and emotional development of children and adults as well. We also believe it can and should be taught.
So, when in the fall of 2016, Facing History and Ourselves, of which we are huge fans, piloted Face the Future, an online game focused on the future of empathy, we found the idea fascinating. This kind of teaching tool, particularly now, as empathy seems to be sorely lacking in public discourse and in our polarized society, seemed like a powerful response to the call for more technology in social and emotional learning.
Jane McGonical, Director of Game Research and Development for The Institute for the Future, created this game with the goal of developing a more empathetic future. McGonical told USA Today, “The only way you can do well is through collaboration and being respectful of other people in the game. If you’re harassing people or just bullying people or criticizing people without respect, nobody will play with you and it will be an unsuccessful game for you.” If only this applied to everyday life!
In the game, a new social networking site called “FeelThat” is in use, in which people put on sensors, and physically feel the emotions other people are feeling. It begins with a video presenting several scenarios from the future, ranging from extremely happy to devastatingly sad. Players then choose questions from two virtual decks of cards. Those who are more optimistic about the scenario may be inclined to choose from the deck called Positive Imagination, and those who are more skeptical may choose from the deck called Shadow Imagination.
Players are asked questions about the scenarios, and what could go right or wrong, and a moderator maps out their comments. Participants score points in the game when others build on their ideas. The ultimate goal is to create an idea that is examined from up to one hundred different points of view. This is a practice in empathy, putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and examining an issue from their perspective.
It is difficult to imagine being able to actually feel someone else’s feelings, but scientists believe the development of this technology is at hand, within a decade, and this is the basis of the game, which is set in 2026.
Some of the participants in the pilot of the game expressed concern about the use of this technology, and its negative ramifications. In one scenario a young man is wearing sensors when his girlfriend dies in a car crash and he is able to feel how she felt when she died, and he can relive these feelings over and over again. This could be extremely painful and make it emotionally difficult to recover from such a trauma – even in a virtual setting. Others were excited and optimistic about the possibilities. If people could feel what it is like to be starving, they would be more likely to combat hunger, locally and globally.
Like them, we found ourselves fluctuating between some real concern about sensors which transmit feelings (one more reason not to connect on a human level?) and the potential value of teaching empathy in a way which connects decisions with real life consequences and experiences. It left us curious about how the game will evolve and about how educators will respond over time. Have you used it? Would you? We would love to hear more about your experiences!
This may seem like science fiction, but it could be a commonplace reality in the very near future. We all need to be mindful of how we will confront the challenges of tomorrow, with an open mind, and perhaps most importantly, with empathy.