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Empathy Games

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While some video games have a bad rap for desensitizing people to violence, other games are getting noticed for doing just the opposite -- helping players explore their emotions and feel compassion for others.

But who is playing these new "empathy games" and what are they really learning?

In a single day, Meghan Ventura may decide whether families can pass through immigration, help a father cope with his son's cancer, and assist a woman with her struggles in a developing country.

For Meghan, it's all a game.

She plays video games that put her in the shoes of other people facing tough life challenges. "These kind of empathy games can bring you these really intense, rich worlds, you know, and present issues you otherwise wouldn't have known about."

The gaming industry is now massive, $60 billion worldwide, and while these empathy games are a tiny portion of that right now, they're gaining popularity. "They're becoming larger. You will start to see it becoming more diverse in the range of emotions and in the type of people it's trying to reach," said Asi Burak with Games for Change.

Companies are taking creative and financial risks, moving away from fighting and sports games, and promoting play that explores deeper issues. "We live in a world where empathy is tough to achieve. This is a medium that could teach, that could inform, that could promote something very positive," said Burak.

With titles, like "That Dragon, Cancer," "Papers, Please" and "Half the Sky", players face a range of emotions as they deal with various dilemmas.

"'That Dragon, Cancer", which is about a father dealing with his son having cancer, and you know just being there with him and trying to keep his son just from -- stop crying -- and there's no way to do it," explained Ventura. "It's just so hard to watch and to even play through."

The ability to make decisions for the characters is what makes the emotional experiences of these games appealing to people like Meghan.

Her choices impact the outcome. The games can impact the player, too, according to recent studies. "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," said Douglas Gentile, PhD, Assoc. Prof. of Psychology.

The findings show all ages are affected. "I've studied from about 2nd, 3rd grade, up through college age, and we find pretty much the same effects no matter what age we look at," Gentile continued.

Meghan still plays other traditional video games, but finds the empathy games equally entertaining -- just in a different way. "Looking at the difficulties that they face in their day to day and how, you know, they're just kind of caught in this vicious cycle, really just brings it home."

This type of game is available on a range of platforms -- from video game systems to online. They range from free to about $60.

"That Dragon, Cancer," is only available at expos right now, but is set to be released early next year.

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