Communications 501: Empathy Made Easy

Conflict resolution is a difficult skill that takes both time and patience. Empathy and understanding through narrative and shared experiences are tested tactics for conflict prevention and resolution, but these methods are especially difficult when diverse identities carved through different experiences are in conflict.

These situations are made more complicated within the setting of online gaming, an environment where people must cooperate in order to complete complex tasks under time constraints. Given this setting, how can people emphasize with one another in order to resolve and avoid conflict in an environment that demands constant action?

In partnering with the University’s League of Legends team, I am creating guidelines to promote healthy communications that will be generalizable to the rest of the gaming space. Strategies to resolve and prevent conflict in environments where cognition is being used on gameplay, can provide for guidelines generalizable to scenarios that share similar parameters.

Power in Play

Games, regardless of medium, are powerful tools for developing human cognitive, emotional, and social development. Play allows us to grow into creative adults who are better at exploring social behavior, understanding perspective, and controlling emotions. 

 

(Dorothy G Singer and Jerome L Singer, “The House of Make-Believe: Children’s Play and the Developing Imagination”)

Why Gaming as a Model ?

The impact of video games on cognition has been studied amply. Games are powerful forms of media, as one meta-analysis of 129 studies has shown that student’s knowledge of subjects increased with use of games in the classroom. Additionally, serious games have been found to be effective for learning when they are augmented for cooperative play.

 (Connoly,  Elizabeth Boyle, MacArthur, Hainey, and James Boyle “A Systemic Literature Review of Empirical Evidence on Computer Games and Serious Games”) (Wouters, Ninwegen, Oostendorp, Spek “A Meta-Analysis of the Cognitive and Motivational Effects of Serious Games”)

Legitimizing Social Order

As with religion, the continual repetition of patterns in media and interaction serve to define the world and legitimize social order. Gaming, like social media, is not immune to the creation of the status quo. Interactions through gaming provide the mold for future interpersonal communication, allowing users to explore and develop their own identities through interaction instead of example. But, as television may offer distorted realities of life, gaming communities can create false neighborhoods of representation and therefore interaction.

 (Erik Erikson. “Childhood and Society”)

 

Two Roadblocks in Gaming Communications

Thresh Part X

The first roadblock above, the disinhibition effect, describes a phenomena where people behave differently on the internet than they would irl* (in real life). Through a lack of repercussion and a delay of feedback from their actions, the disinhibition effect, can create toxic environments prime for cyberbullying, but it can also allow for someone to experiment with their own identity without fear of repercussions.

(John Suler “The Online Disinhibition Effect”)

Our brains has evolved two systems for thinking. Many tasks use both systems, but mental energy is in a tight supply and switching to the slow thinking system can be taxing. Explore these two systems in the examples below. 

(Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow)

Thinking Fast

Thinking automatically and quickly, with little or no effort. No sense of voluntary control. 

Thinking Slow

Allocating attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it. 

Overcoming Slow Thinking Barriers in the Era of Fast Thinking

As a species that has evolved to be lazy, we always want to be in a fast brain state. And now, it’s never been easier.  With the prevalence of emojis, cut and paste pop music, and the surge of Instagram, we are investing more of our time in fast thinking than ever before. Critical and deep thinking have become antiquated in the day of rapid rewards, extreme reactions, and endless scrolls through echo chambers of your own custom happiness. We might as well adopt the logo, “Stay happy, stop thinking, live easy.” 
Liking these things (burgers, Instagram, videogames) doesn’t make us bad people. It just shows that we are people who have evolved over the course of 200,000 plus years for survival in its most immediate and local form. But, it also forces us to acknowledge that we just don’t have enough fucks to give, excuse my fast thinking speech.

Prejudice is to fast thinking as empathy is to slow thinking. It’s much easier to see an elderly man and assume that he is cranky than it is to understand his experiences with the recent death of his wife and adventures with an overweight boy scout hiding on the porch of his balloon house.  Similiar assumptions made towards the character of Pixar’s Up, are seen frequently in online interactions where information about others is severely restricted causing ideal types (stereotypes) to fill in the blank.

Go to the first tab of this list and count the commas. 

Now go back to that tab again and count the letter t’s. 

Which task was more difficult? According to Daniel Kahneman, the use of our slow thinking system is taxed through switching “task sets” making each switch cause more ego depletion. In other words, it becomes more and more difficult to fight our inherent desire to be lazy as we switch from tasks that require the same cognitive busyness. 

Slow thinking is difficult, and in environments that require lots of it, regardless of the strain, it becomes more taxing on our cognitive stamina. 

Making Empathy Fast Thinking

If you can’t beat em’…

Let’s face it, we’ve already lost the war for deep and slow thinking in the era of social media. We lost it when a few slow thinking individuals figured out how to profit off of the laziest access to dopamine highs as possible, those that come from affirmations via low stakes web pages. 


 

Join em’…

Transitioning empathy into the fast thinking culture of modern America, requires some experimentation.  Experimentation that I have conducted alongside the University of Washington’s League of Legends team, the Purple Caster Minions. More below. 

The Lab

Making empathy a fast thinking activity takes conditioning and bluntness. To do this, the Purple Caster Minions’ collegiate Esports team was connected to biofeedback tools that broadcasted their Heart Rate as it changes every 5 bpm from their average. Whenever these changes occurred, all teammates were notified with auditory cues, telling who has had their heart rate increase/decrease. Participants were informed that heart rate can change in two ways, of many. First, through tachycardia (increase) caused by anger, fear, anxiety, and emotional stress. Second, through bradycardia (decrease), caused by feelings of love, compassion, and happiness. Average heart rates were measured through a warm up game against bots (AI) instead of other players. The average Heart Rate of this game in a reduced stress environment, would then be used to detect changes.

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Average Heart Rate Player 1
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Average Heart Rate Player 2
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Average Heart Rate Player 3

Aside from peaks, recordings of heart rates were not logged for further data. The heart rate itself did not matter in this research. The heightened awareness, or priming of allied emotions did matter.  League of Legends, the game being played, is a dynamically paced game. Heart rates reflected this. During long bouts of what is calling farming, the act of gathering resources to empower one’s characters,  heart rates stayed within ten of the average acquired in the practice game. During skirmishes, which happen fewer than one would expect in the average video game heart rates would peak as seen below. When a player made a mistake, heart rates would once again hit these player specific peaks. Often times, the announcement of the spiked heart rate would cause a momentary increase in heart rate. 

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Peak HR Player 1
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Peak HR Player 2
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Peak Heart Rate Player 3
Participant with Heart Rate monitor draped behind chair. Each participant was watched and broadcasted by a different volunteer.

 

 

 

A week prior to testing, eight participants were asked to fill out a survey, the same survey that they would again fill out immediately after testing.  

The post-lab survey had participants answer the same questions, but also had an optional short answer question: 

If there was a feature in League of Legends that displayed your allies Heart Rate, how would this influence your communication?

Some answers can be seen below.

It would be interesting because it would act as a double edged sword for you will be transparent on what your teammates game state is but how to solve the issue is a completely more complicated issue in itself
Player Participant
Be more cautious about how I'm treating them and the situation.
Player Participant
Heart rate is an indicator of stress, so if I saw my teammate's heart rate up out of team fights/stress provoking events, I could know that they are upset. With this knowledge, I can adjust my play style and communication to make my teammate calm down because stress typically makes players play worse.
Player Participant

Conclusions

 

This was not a controlled experiment. It had a total of eight participants and was conducted in one evening over the course of five hours. There is no validity to the ‘data’ gathered here. That being said, this lab session did create eight useful anecdotal accounts. 

The average empathy score of the pre-lab survey was 3.9. This score is out of five and is based upon the average response to each question asking players to identify how they perform in empathizing with their teammates. 

The average empathy score of the post-lab survey was also 3.9.  While the averages remained the same, the numbers reported were different. Most exaggerated, was the response to the final two questions which had flipped. In the pre-lab survey participants reported being better at adjusting their communication methods in regards to the emotional state of their teammates outside of game. Participants reported less confidence in their ability to adjust their communication methods in regards to the emotional state of their teammates outside of game during the post-lab survey. The pre-lab survey also had participants report less knowledgeable in deducing how their teammates were feeling outside of game while the post-lab survey had them report more knowledgeable in deducing teammates emotions outside of game. 

It is possible that the lab made these participants more aware of their teammates emotions than prior causing them to report differently. However, it is more likely that eight participants simply is not enough to draw meaningful quantitative conclusions. 

Anecdotal evidence through short answer questionnaires and informal interviews did report show that all participants were both more aware of their allies emotions and had intentions of adjusting their behavior in response. In this regard, I am confident that the priming utility of the heart rate monitor did provide a fast thinking manner working around the disinhibition effect through making emotion transparent, blunt, and readily available. 

More research is required to create more useful data. Ideally, respiration and skin conductance would also be reported to give players a more accurate understanding of each others’ emotions.  Combined with contextual information, found in game, this can give players insight into how their actions influence another’s felt experience and vice-versa. This will allow for empathy to be made easier in an environment where cognitive power is being rapidly consumed by the task at hand, in this case, League of Legends. It is important that this specific conclusion can only be extended to players who already know each other. When taking this research outside the realm of teamwork in gaming, the same general principles carry through. 

As groups of people with little to no common ground come together to solve complex tasks on the global level, issues of communication arise through cultural and experiential differences. Emotions are more difficult to translate let alone be aware of, however as with all interpersonal relationships, emotions will still play a large part in the communication. Having biofeedback devices that make emotion more transparent for all parties involved in said discourse allows for an environment with more reflexivity to occur. With this awareness of each others emotion, empathy that would otherwise have taken more cognitive power, would be made easier despite the different cultural manners of displaying emotion. 

But Wait, There's More

 

This is not a good idea within the context of an online multiplayer game like League of Legends. 

While this site has posed a solution to the communication challenge addressed at the start, this solution should not be taken as an end to the question at hand. Connecting people to biofeedback tools that show their emotions in a transparent manner will have negative consequences.  Having players connect to biofeedback tools just to show each other that their actions have real impacts on the emotions of others, will probably backfire immensely if not done in person.  An entirely new breed of toxic behavior is likely to arise out of biofeedback bullying. This could take the form of harassing someone over their skin conductance, which measures arousal, or their respiration rates, which measure anxiety.

You may have read through this and decided at one point in time that this is a great solution. This can more likely be explained as Cognitive Ease, a relaxed cognitive state of fast thinking that occurs through familiarity with a concept. Maybe you were primed by the Bold fonts and the Blue text which made you feel more trusting with the data (Carey K Morewedge and Daniel Kahneman in “Associative Processes in Intuitive Judgement). Priming is also a tool of fast thinking, that utilizes associations with perceived norms. Blue and bold font are typically more trusted than alternatives. It is possible that you were quick to accept biofeedback tools as a positive addition to empathy online after experiencing ego depletion through the multiple slow thinking games, or after the long day you have experienced (Mark Muraven and Elisaveta Slessareva, “Mechanisms of Self-Control Failure: Motivation and Limited Resources”). There is another communication challenge in this site, and its one of being critical. It’s one about using slow thinking to not accept things just because they are easier to accept than to reject. 

With each solution, it is important to take time to understand the consequences, both intended and unintended. This is not an end to my search for empathy online no more than it is a start. This is just part of the process of slow thinking, of trial and error, and of making empathy easier. 

 

Rodger Caudill
Creator
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