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Are we game enough to practise empathy?

In mid-2021, I was invited to join a team of volunteers building  ToBeYou.sg, an interactive-fiction game from Better.sg, a tech-for-good charity.

Are we game enough to practise empathy?

The author often wonders why after so many generations of intercultural living, insensitivities are still so commonplace.

In mid-2021, I was invited to join a team of volunteers building  ToBeYou.sg, an interactive-fiction game from Better.sg, a tech-for-good charity.

The game helps players build empathy by role-playing as someone unlike themselves and peeking into the hidden lives of fictional characters such as Nadia Rahim, Aman Singh, Ravi Kannaswamy and Zhihao Lim.

I agreed to join because my own research on social integration at the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) indicates that we are missing something in the quest for more cultural sensitivity and awareness of each other’s identity struggles.

We struggle to empathise with each other’s lived experiences.

Using interactive role-playing games rather than more passive learning techniques could better help us become aware of and connect with each other’s life-worlds.

CULTURAL SENSITIVITY AND EMPATHY ARE HARD TO LEARN

As a sociologist and ethnographer, my latest project has been to shadow, observe, and have intensive conversations with part-Singaporean binational and bicultural families to understand their lived experience here.

One of the many things I have learnt is that it is exceptionally hard to feel like you fit in when most of us are actively using “neat labels” to categorise each other.

We are often taught from a young age to associate traits, habits and practices with people from certain ethnic groups, religious groups or different genders.

In real life, however, very few people fit the mould of these stereotyped identity narratives.

Students learn a great deal about race, culture, and religion through our school system — yet, insensitive and discriminatory experiences remain commonplace — and IPS surveys indicate that negotiating sensitive issues such as race and religion is still an uphill work-in-progress in Singapore.

As a Singaporean of subcontinental heritage, I have lost count of the number of times I’m asked:  “What are you?”, only to be told, “Cannot be lah, not so black what?”

These encounters have always felt grating, because they remind me of the racist bullying I encountered at school, and the problematic “colour line” where classmates with darker skin tones than me often endured worse.

I often wonder why, after so many generations of intercultural living, these insensitivities are still so commonplace.

One gnarly problem is that cultural sensitivity and empathy cannot be easily learnt, especially not by rote learning textbook descriptions, or one-off excursions.

Indeed, an outing to a mosque or a lesson in a classroom about "those people" may inadvertently encourage "othering".

These techniques do little to help us understand and empathise with each other’s everyday identity-related challenges. 

Why is it hard to learn empathy in classrooms?

For one thing, many find it uncomfortable to openly share their identity struggles.

The vulnerability involved coupled with the memories of difficult experiences pertaining to one’s identity often make “shutting up and putting up” seem like an easier option.

Empathising with another person's struggles is also hard; our reference points tend to be our own lived experiences and the experiences of those we are close to or similar to.

We may also be afraid of the consequences of inadvertently saying the wrong thing.

As a result, we tend to zero in on our own lived experiences and those of people with whom we identify.

With these tendencies also amplified by social media bubbles, empathising with the variegated lived experiences of other people isn’t something that comes easily or naturally.

INTRA-COMMUNITY PREJUDICES

We often assume that stereotyping and “othering” is something that happens between people who belong to different identity groups.

This is not always the case.

In developing the game, we realised that there sometimes lies an empathy gap within one's own community — for those who have different life circumstances or make different choices.

In the second chapter of Nadia’s story, our 17-year-old Malay Muslim girl has a gut-wrenching argument with her older cousin about their poorer relatives and their life choices — and she suddenly realises that she is equally guilty of forming prejudices about people within her own community, much to her dismay.

This scene sought to show that empathy is needed, not just across racial and religious lines, but within them too.

The game explores these intra-community identity struggles that are just as real and visceral as inter-communal misunderstandings.

WHICH DIRECTION SHOULD EMPATHY FLOW?

It is also tacitly and rightly accepted that social progress requires empathy to flow from the majority groups to the minority groups, and from people with more privilege to those with less.

Indeed, in playing various ToBeYou characters who face different types of discrimination, we acutely feel the distress and discomfort that many people live with, just owing to their lived experiences not being widely acknowledged or validated.

However, it must also be said that practising empathy with the aim of building a kinder society should include empathy flowing in all directions, even to people who in some ways are luckier and better off than you, and in other ways, have more difficult lives.

The game features a Chinese male character, Zhihao, who makes insensitive and sometimes offensive remarks in Nadia’s and Aman’s stories — but in his own story, players learn about the challenges he faces as well as the nuance of his character and can’t help empathising and feeling compassion for him.

In this way, there is a radical openness that is built into the game design, where every character has their own struggles, and players, in assuming the role of the titular character, cannot help but be open to their stories.

After ToBeYou was launched on July 21, 2021, Singapore’s Racial Harmony Day, we asked undergraduate students studying Serious Games for Health (offered by the Biomedical Engineering Department at the National University of Singapore) and their lecturer, Dr Bina Rai, to play-test the game and give us feedback.

According to Dr Rai, they found that the “carefully crafted game design manages to successfully achieve the almost impossible task of placing the play-learner in the shoes of the character, to understand their feelings and perspectives”.

She adds: “Empathy is not an easy skill to train but the team may have just created a unique and engaging tool for this purpose.”

Gamification is not a magic bullet; it must be used carefully especially when creators have serious aims such as social progress.

To address this, our game is designed to avoid “winning/losing” outcomes or incentives that reward competitive rather than cooperative behaviour.

Like a captivating novel that opens our minds, this immersive game allows players to experience what it is like to “live”, briefly, as someone else, without awkwardness or pressure.

Research on empathy cultivation tells us that two things are crucial for building empathy — active engagement with unfamiliar lived experiences and the space to reflect upon said experiences.

Being a self-paced mobile game, ToBeYou allows room for introspection and cultivates greater understanding of the identity struggles of people who might be different to us.

We hope that by playing the game, players are inspired to increase their real-life exposure to the unfamiliar lived experiences and cultural moorings of others.

Ultimately though, deliberate, sustained practice is essential to cultivating new behaviours.

Hopefully, ToBeYou can play a part in encouraging the cultivation of an empathy habit.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Dr Kalpana Vignehsa is a sociologist and research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies, National University of Singapore, and a research advisor for the ToBeYou project.

Related topics

empathy community cultural racial

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