Can gamification help bridge the human-nature empathy divide?

Henrik Hansen/ Unsplash
17 June 2021

A #GamifyingConservation thought piece on empathy by Sasha Sebright, MPhil in Conservation Leadership candidate at the University of Cambridge, working in collaboration with the Luc Hoffmann Institute and UNEP-WCMC.

Do you want to help create a society that integrates nature for its inherent worth, and not just its exploitative value? Begin by encouraging empathy.

Empathy – why should we care?

There is a stark contrast between loving animals and empathising with them. Does the idea of cuddling a pet slow loris bring you joy? Would riding and bathing an elephant turn a good holiday into a great one? I can comfortably bet you know ‘animal lovers’ who would jump at the chance to do one or both of these activities. If, however, you empathise with animals, these questions might elicit feelings of sadness and concern at the daily exploitation of nature for humanity’s entertainment. 

Of the many skills we could develop to inspire social change, empathy has been shown to be exceptionally powerful in promoting morally driven decision-making, with higher empathy levels correlating with a decreased likelihood of aggressive and antisocial behaviours. Furthermore, encouraging and enabling others to view a world through the lens of bio-empathy increases pro-environmental behaviours, resulting in decisions that put the emotional and physical wellbeing of non-humans above one’s own personal desires.

Recognising and developing human-animal empathetic capacity is therefore critical if we wish to succeed in reaching conservation goals. So how can we tap into the emotion of empathy for the benefit of conservation, and could gamification help?

The power of play

Game experiences have been called empathy machines, which Farber and Schrier define as having “organic and artificial, connective and disruptive, social and antisocial, and distracting and reflective” aspects. Have you ever felt a joyous connection with the heroine of a book, or felt pain at the suffering of a film character? If you can incite these empathetic emotions when viewing another’s story, imagine now being within that story; actively playing, inhabiting, making choices and interacting within a scenario purposefully designed to grow your empathetic capacity.

Gamified systems have the power to physically alter the structure of our brains. Dr Heidi Boisvert, author of the TED Talk, How I’m using biological data to tell better stories - and spark social change, realised this when she discovered that her efforts to spark social change had been inadvertently eroding functions in the brain necessary for empathy, thereby dehumanising the users. Boisvert’s unfortunate finding highlights how influential games can be in altering human behaviour, but also the care that needs to go into designing such technology to navigate away from unintended negative outcomes.

Emotive design

With the above in mind, how can a game experience be designed to intentionally enhance empathy whilst actively avoiding the exacerbation of apathy? Firstly, through narrative. Never underestimate the power of a good story! Growing up I remember exploring Fangorn Forest alongside the Ents, and mapping out ways to avoid the orcs, which were, without doubt, surrounding my home. If you had not guessed already, my night-time reading was The Lord of the Rings and the narrative was so strong that I became (temporarily!) lost in a fictional world. 

When transported into another’s story, we are more likely to connect with a character and experience parallel or reactive feelings. Typically, though, stories and data have been represented as an either-or – a poignant tale vs a logical discussion. Imagine if storytelling and data could be combined, connecting an audience to real-world information and creating what leadership consultant Karen Eber describes as a ‘power ballad’ (an emotive story that causes all four lobes of the human brain to light up) in her TED Talk, How your brain responds to stories - and why they’re crucial for leaders.

The Gamifying Nature Conservation project aims to generate conservation revenue through the use of real wildlife data. Could this data be blended with empathy-building aspects, such as a compelling narrative, cognitive cues, user agency and moments of reflection to (re)inspire connections between humans and nature?

There are, of course, limitations in using gameplay to build empathy. We cannot currently replicate the sensory richness that face-to-face interactions provide, but advances in virtual reality and computer technology come ever closer to closing this gap. As developments continue, the way we choose to portray animals and the potential of non-human bonds will prove pivotal in influencing how humans continue to view and treat biodiversity issues.

In Chris Milk’s humorous yet insightful TED Talk, How virtual reality can create the ultimate empathy machine, he depicts how virtual reality connects humans to other humans in a profound way that he had never observed with other media forms. If we can harness this power of connection to bridge the gap with non-humans, those with little experience of posthuman empathy may intuitively begin to feel the grief, love, longing, or serenity of an animal. Barriers to acceptance of sentient, intelligent, complex ‘others’ would be dismantled. 

Emotions are often discarded during the decision-making process, but facts and data don’t change behaviour, emotions do. If we want to help create a society that integrates nature for its inherent worth and not just its exploitative value, empathy needs to be part of the equation.

Sasha Sebright, MPhil in Conservation Leadership candidate at the University of Cambridge working in collaboration with the Luc Hoffmann Institute and UNEP-WCMC.

The content of this thought piece represents the author’s own views and does not necessarily represent the views of the Gamifying Nature Conservation initiative or of any of its collaborating institutions.

Related Reading: Gamifying Nature Conservation

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