Video games can help the world in lots of ways, like providing entertainment, making some people lots and lots of money and even teaching you real life skills.
They can even make you into a better person. How? By elevating your empathy.
Empathy is what lets us imagine ourselves as someone else: as a pirate, a warrior, a mother, or a father. It lets us put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, if only for a moment. In other words, it lets us put ourselves in someone else’s plus-seven Boots of Swiftness.
In need of a level-up? These seven games will give your empathy skill a power boost.
’PERSONA 4 GOLDEN’
Persona 4 Golden, a revised and expanded version of the PS2 game Persona 4, can be silly. But don’t let that fool you, as the core of the game (in addition to fighting weird Japanese monsters) is about solving a serial murder case. To do so you have to talk to and form bonds with the characters around you, all of whom have their own anxieties and desires that often manifest as strange “Shadow” monsters.
These people go through everything from severe apathy to gender identity issues and body horror, and it really forces you to confront these things and identify with the characters. Take this little detail: the protagonist is constantly greeted by his or her cousin, Nanako, and when Nanako is kidnapped, you‘ll find yourself racing to rescue her.
XB360, XB, PS3, PS4, PC
The 2013 reboot of Tomb Raider caused players to become invested not just in its story, but in the very personal struggles of Lara Croft herself. She runs through shantytowns trying desperately to avoid being detected, fleeing when the enemy becomes too much for her. It shows the mythical hero of Lara Croft as a human being for the first time—jarring given her many great deeds over the years. Even the greatest of heroes had challenges to overcome.
And those final moments, when she dusts herself off, lifts those pistols, and fires them off for the first time, are a victory made all the more poignant because for once we witnessed her grow from insecure victim into true survivor. It shines a new light on the hero’s journey in games.
’FINAL FANTASY VI’
SNES, PS1, GBA, PHONE
The now-classic Final Fantasy 6 was a stark departure from the previous games in the series. While still spinning a yarn of grand fantasy, it was the first game to begin to hint at a dark side to the real world, in contrast with the cosmic, abstracted Evils found in previous installments.
It was also the first game in the series to put all its characters through the ringer, though none face hardships on quite the scale that poor Celes does. Former Imperial general, she spends the first act of the story trying to discover who she truly is, only to lose it all at the very beginning of the second act. She flings herself from the top of a cliff while the sweeping overture of her operatic solo from earlier in the game rises to crescendo in the background. Spoiler for a 21-year-old game: she lives. But the game really makes you feel for its characters.
’THIS WAR OF MINE’
In This War of Mine you play as a group of civilians in a besieged city, struggling to survive long enough for a ceasefire to arrive. Though some survivors do have skills that may help or hinder you, many of the civilians you encounter are just that: they have no specialized training, meaning you also have to manage the individuals in the group you oversee. Do you sacrifice some of your group? Do you hunker down during the day, trying to avoid the ever-seeing presence of hostile snipers, and scavenge for resources during the night? No choice is the “correct” choice in This War of Mine, a game that humanizes the costs of war.
The official material for this game states it was inspired by the Bosnian War and its Siege of Sarajevo (which lasted from 1992 - 1996), but it’s not too far of a stretch to liken it to more current events in the Middle East. This is an exercise in putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, with the gameplay reinforcing the frustrations and struggle of survival. There’s no right answer to the questions it poses, but it may help you gain some understanding.
‘PAPO & YO’
If Junot Díaz or Guillermo del Toro developed a game about addiction, it would probably be a lot like Papo & Yo. This indie game makes masterful use of wonder and fear as you control a young Brazilian boy, Quico, who hides from his alcoholic father in a magical world.
Quico befriends a strange entity simply called Monster who helps Quico but becomes enraged if he eats one of the poisonous frogs he’s addicted to. Monster can be calmed, but the danger is still there, still lurking, and monitoring the environment and emotions of those around you soon becomes an integral part of the game. It’s a somewhat clumsy metaphor, but this hypervigilance is similar to what abuse survivors learn in order to manage their situations, and Papo & Yo immerses you in the story and in these responses to great effect.
Dys4ia is a playable diary—iin creator Anna Anthropy’s terms, “a journal game about the six months of my life when I made the decision to begin hormone replacement therapy”. For anyone exploring gender, or for loved ones of such folks, playing this game is a vital experience. Like Depression Quest (below), it helps trans folk feel less alone.
Supporting Dys4ia and other games like it is supporting marginalized creators, people, and games made from lived experiences. Games like this help you gain some understanding so you can learn an approximation of what feeling marginalized is like.
Depression Quest is a video game, but it’s not meant to be a lighthearted experience. Instead, the game tries to spread awareness of what it’s like living with depression. Everyday situations such as calling up a girlfriend or even working on a personal project can exhaust someone suffering from depression, and the narrative makes sure you understand this. You’re wrestling with a part of your own brain, with an illness that deceives your own self and mind.
You can pay what you want for Depression Quest, and the proceeds go partially to the National Suicide Prevention Hotline. If you’ve ever wanted to know what it feels like to be severely depressed—or even if you haven’t—this game will give you a pretty good idea.
Katriel Paige writes and presents on Japanese culture, media, and on game development. Currently she is Editor in Chief of Haywire Magazine, as well as co-chair of studyofanime.com.