One of the great triumphs and great limitations of the human brain is categorization. In psychology, we often refer to these as schemas. For example, a Ford, a Mercedes, and a Toyota would all fall into the schema or category of “car” or “vehicle.” The human brain lumps similar things together as a short-cut, a way to conserve mental energy. Unfortunately, this categorization also applies to human beings. Black, white, Hispanic, Asian. Male, female, and other genders not usually recognized in the Western world. Us and them. While this is a great trick for slicing through large amounts of information rapidly, it also leads to stereotypes and prejudice.
Being able to take the perspective of someone different from you – to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, is a great way to not only raise awareness, but build empathy. Seeing the other side or “humanizing” a different group helps to avoid polarizing group think.
Of course, many people are invested in their own ideas, and even when presented with new, contradictory information, there can be limitless amounts of cognitive dissonance, rationalization, and confirmation bias. For example, if you believe that cats are better than dogs, you will likely 1) pay more attention to information that conforms to that belief, 2) dismiss or discredit information contrary to that belief, and/or 3) create alternative explanations as to why someone else might hold that belief, even though it is clearly wrong. While this does not happen to 100% of people 100% of the time, it is a well-studied and classic bit of social and cognitive psychology.
One of the things I love about games is they are a fantastic vehicle for presenting alternative perspectives in a non-threatening manner. Awareness of an alternative perspective is a great start toward fostering empathy and understanding. Some video games have even been shown to promote empathy and cooperation and with all that has been happening recently with Ferguson, Eric Garner, and countless other tragedies which go without national news coverage, empathy is something that could use a bit of a boost right about now.
Enter Spent, a social-change game which highlights the struggle and near-impossible mission of surviving in America after losing your job, your home, and your life savings. Spent challenges the player to survive 30 days under the conditions millions of Americans face in real life every day.
I played Spent and lasted 6 days. What broke me was my virtual dog became ill and I had to choose between putting her down, letting her suffer, or taking her to the vet. As a proud pet parent to an adorable Beagle named Ellie who has medical problems, this particular situation really hit home for me. I felt a sense of helplessness and lead in my stomach which alleviated when I reminded myself, “It’s just a game.” But for many, those kinds of choices are part of daily life.
So I challenge you, my wonderful readers, to give Spent a try. I would love to hear what your experience was like, how long you lasted, and what choices were the toughest for you.
A picture of my sweet Beagle rescue Ellie.