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UNB students building video games to foster empathy

Author: Communications

Posted on May 30, 2016

Category: UNB Fredericton

Jade Yhap (left), Rebecca Goodine (center) and Elliot Coy (right)Rebecca Goodine was playing a video game when something clicked.

It was BioShock, a first-person shooter game, and she was presented with a choice: hurt an innocent for personal gain, or help a stranger for a personal loss.

“You have a huge choice,” recent Media Arts and Cultures graduate said. “That’s the game that really brought out that fact for me. In games, you make choices, and there’s consequences – just like real life.”

Ms. Goodine is part of a trio of UNB students who recently placed second and took home a $2500 prize in the international student game development competition, Games4Health. Hosted by the University of Utah’s Sorenson Centre for Discovery and Innovation, the competition encourages students to design a game that engages people to live healthier lives.

Ms. Goodine and teammates Elliot Coy, a computer science student, and Jade Yhap, a psychology student, came second in the empathy category, which was co-sponsored by game developers iThrive. They were tasked with creating a game that fostered empathy in teens.

Ms. Goodine, Mr. Coy and Mr. Yhap chose to focus on social anxiety, a topic that had touched all of their lives at some point either directly or indirectly.

Guide begins with a fairly simple story premise. The player’s character is a bird, “Fia,” who wakes up alone and vulnerable in a forest. Fia soon meets a guide who says it can lead them safely through the forest.

“Our spin to it is that through the game it becomes evident that the guide isn’t telling the truth,” Ms. Goodine said. “As you start to question that voice, how you interact with the guide and the environment around you will change.”

The use of a guide is a well-known video game trope, familiar from such classic games as the Legend of Zelda. But in this instance, it becomes apparent that the guide’s advice to not trust the other animals in the forest has been a lie.

“Those kind of negative thoughts, they mirror the negative thoughts of social anxiety. And you realize that, no – those other animals (in the game), they’re actually trying to help me out here.”

Using video games as a tool to build skills like empathy is a growing field. Nathan Thompson is a PhD candidate in sociology at UNB who has worked with a group of six youth and independent video game developer Chad Comeau to create a game exploring LGBTQ+ identities. The game is called fade and it features a variety of situations that someone on the LGBTQ+ spectrum may encounter on a daily basis.
Mr. Thompson’s team presented fade at the Different Games conference in New York last month. Nadine Violette, UNB Renaissance College student, is one of the students that worked with Mr. Thompson on the development of fade and attending the conference just days before the game was released to the public.

“Being a part of a project like this, I’ve learned a lot. The game promotes diversity, inclusivity and authentic representation of LGBTQIA+ identities,” said Ms. Violette. “Video games are a powerful medium of expression and the Different Games conference has a great premise.”

According to Ms. Goodine, the medium of the video game allows the designer to reach people in different ways than if they were watching a movie, for example.

“You can really get into someone else’s shoes,” she said. “What does it mean to have an avatar? Is that you? Is that someone you are looking after? Do I care about that person? And if I do care about that person, what does it mean for me and my experiences in the real world?”

Ms. Goodine plans to continue to probe these questions when she heads to the Zurich University of the Arts in Switzerland this September, on a scholarship to study empathy in indie games. While there, she’ll also study Zurich’s game research lab to see how its model could further advance the general game studies research currently happening at UNB.

Mr. Thompson’s team is proud to see how their efforts came together to form the final product. Fade can be played online the player takes turns playing two different characters, each of whom experience their day in slightly different ways. The game includes some unexpected revelations, some touching but emotionally challenging moments, and playful and interactive dialogue and characters.