Blog Post

Creating Empathy Through Role Play

The original post is here.

Weve made some good progress on the Participatory Chinatown (PC) project.   Building off of the first iteration of Hub2, PC will continue with the focus on creating platforms for augmented deliberation, but it will do so by more thoroughly exploring the power of role play in peoples ability to understand urban issues.  In the past project, we experimented with role play by giving participants a piece of paper with a character description on it and asking them to inhabit their avatar as if they were that person.  They were immersed in the space via Second Life, but they werent sufficiently immersed in the character.  This time, were taking role play to the next level by building the experience around character identification.  Ive partnered with Eric Klopfer at MIT to develop the game concept and were using a new platform called Sandstone, developed by the good folks at Muzzylane, to build out the game.

The premise is simple: we want people who come to a community meeting to have the experience of Chinatown as someone other than themselves so that they might  be better able to make good decisions about the neighborhood.  By getting people out from behind their own concerns (if only for a few minutes), we hope to create the kind of empathy and civic mindedness that is ideal for providing valuable input into a planning process and also for developing trust amongst stakeholders.   The idea stems from some research done by Nick Yee and Jeremy Bailenson at Stanford.  In their article, Walk a Mile in Digital Shoes: The Impact of Embodied Perspective-Taking on the Reduction of Negative Stereotyping in Immersive Virtual Environments, they demonstrate how the strength of stereotypes that college students hold about the elderly is reduced when they inhabit an avatar of an elderly person.  By being in someone elses digital shoes,  a player is able to identify with that person in a substantial way.  Yee and Bailensen develop their study from the concept of perspective-taking.  

When we judge ourselves, we tend to rely on situational factors (i.e., I did poorly on the test because I didnt sleep well the night before.).  On the other hand, when we judge others, we tend to rely on dispositional factors (i.e., He did poorly on the test because hes not that bright.).  Thus when people are forced to observe their own actions (via a video tape), they tend to make more dispositional rather than situational attributions.  The reverse is also true.  When participants are asked to take the perspective of the person they are observing, participants tend to make situational rather than dispositional attributions (148).

This is precisely what were trying to accomplish in PC.  We want players to make situational observations about their characters so that they might be better able to put their needs into a situational rather than dispositional context.  For instance, we want people to say gentrification might affect that person adversely because of their social circumstances, not simply to say those people dont know what theyre doing and what theyre missing.

There are lots of questions remaining about the nature of the game were designing, but the goals are becoming quite clear. We want empathy to enter into the practice of community deliberation.  And we think we can get there by allowing players to literally walk a mile in someone elses digital shoes.



I teach medical students and have wondered with a colleague, Deirdre Bonnycastle, if second life could be a way of helping students to take the perspective of people from different social, cultural and economic backgrounds to themselves.

I will be really interested to follow your project.


Anne Marie


Hi Anne Marie,

We've done a lot of work with Second Life in the past.  Check out for a description of our first project.  This was also in the context of urban planning, but we ran up against some of the benefits and limitations of Second Life in this project that we document in the White Paper and the journal article available on the site.

Have you experimented with SL yet with medical students? 




Hi Eric

Thanks for the links. I haven't got involved with SL yet. Many of the medical applications have focussed on learning in a quite technical way.

I am going to read up on your project when I get a chance.



Anne Marie


Hi, Eric, this is a great progress report on your project and it is also an insightful and even profound comment on perspective-taking and how games, role playing, and inhabiting virtual environments can force us to evaluate others as we normally only evaluate ourselves.  I love the comment from Lee and Baliensen on the different ways we tend to situationalize ourselves and objectify others.   I'll think about that for a long time!