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How Videogames Can Promote Empathy

There's an upside to pro-social videogames

Conventional wisdom and even some psychological studies tell us that violent videogames make people, especially kids, more violent. By rewarding mayhem and murder in a virtual world, these escapist simulations of reality make players more likely to behave with reckless disregard for human life in the actual world. However, what about the opposite scenario? If videogames instead reward kindness and other "prosocial" actions, can they also lead players to model more desirable behaviors?

Empathy is the tendency to feel the pain of others while they are suffering. When you hear that someone is hurt, an empathic reaction is for you to be concerned, not to laugh or be glad that the person is hurt. This is why empathy is a prosocial reaction. Empathy's evil twin is schadenfreude-- the antisocial response of glee that we feel when someone else is writhing in physical or emotional pain.

You are more likely to experience schadenfreude about people you don't like or are jealous of, particularly when that person's success or good fortune makes you feel worse about yourself. For example, you might feel schadenfreude if a co-worker who's sniped at you and made your daily life miserable is suddenly fired. Schadenfreude has a humorous side too. Why else would we laugh at slapstick humor when someone slips on a banana peel or is the recipient of pie in the face? Self-deprecating humor banks on schadenfreude as well. Those "oops" moments we experience reveal our weaknesses, and if we can laugh at ourselves, other people will join in the fun (and probably not laugh at us).

Where do videogames fit into this picture? Researchers at the University of Innsbruck led by psychologist Tobias Greitemeyer decided to see if videogames could turn schadenfreude into empathy. They build on the knowledge that violent videogames reinforce violence and can engender aggressiveness. The games they used in their study rewarded the opposite behaviors. Participants, students in their late 20s, played a version of "Lemmings," a videogame in which the player helps otherwise doomed creatures find ways to escape their fate. Participants in another condition played "Tetris," a neutral game. The participants spent 10 minutes playing the game in the assigned condition. Then they read a brief vignette about the misfortunes of billionaire heiress and actress Paris Hilton in which she was sent to jail after one of her many parole violations. Greitemeyer and his colleagues then tested participants to see how much schadenfreude they experienced.

Even the brief exposure to the cute and cuddly Lemmings game led participants to feel lower levels of schadenfreude after reading the Hilton story. However, the participants weren't just less likely to experience antisocial reactions. When these same people read other stories about regular people who suffered from misfortune (romantic break-up, fractured leg), they scored higher on an empathy scale assessing how compassionate, sympathetic, and soft-hearted they felt.

Arguably, people may feel that Paris Hilton deserved what was coming to her, and therefore whatever schadenfreude reactions people do experience may be understandable The researchers tested this possibility out in a second experiment in which everybody read the story of a man who was attacked in his own home and robbed of $60,000. Again, they found that the prosocial game increased empathy and decreased schadenfreude toward the hapless burglary victim.

Why do videogames hold such power over our reactions? According to the "General Aggression Model (GAM)," the aggressive material in violent media can affect our thoughts, emotions, and arousal. We then act on this model to become more violently inclined toward others. However, expanding beyond the GAM, Greitemeyer suggests that we should think of media content in terms of the "General Learning Model (GLM)." In other words, media can either affect us in pro- or antisocial ways. It's not only videogames, either, that can foster empathy or violence. Songs that promote peaceful themes (think "It's a Small World") can also heighten our awareness within us of our peaceful tendencies.

The moral of the story is that videogames aren't inherently bad. We know that they can sharpen your mental skills. In addition, when they have a prosocial theme, they can even make us more likely to experience compassion and less likely to take pleasure in the pain of others.

How can you use this knowledge to your benefit? Here are three implications of schaudenfreude research:

1. Recognize that schadenfreude is normal, but not inevitable. Everyone feels schadenfreude from time to time. However, if you find yourself constantly experiencing joy when others around you are failing miserably, you might ask yourself why. Does the success of others cause you to feel inadequate? If so, how can you build your own self-esteem?

2. Balance your exposure to violent media with prosocial media. Mix up your videogame playing to build your prosocial skills. You can have just as much fun saving lemmings as you can by annihilating alien targets, and your empathy will show a boost too. If you're a teacher or parent, find games that will give the kids a healthy dose of prosocial content.

3. Turn your prosocial feelings to action. Feeling sympathy and compassion are great, but you also need to act on those prosocial emotions. Taking the GLM to its next level, turn your inner empathy into outward action.

You can feel better not by gaining satisfaction at the suffering of your rivals, but instead by reaching out to help those who truly are in need. Turn your schadenfreude into empathy, and you'll boost your own fulfillment.

Copyright 2011 Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Check out my website, for more information and the backstories to my blog postings on the Weekly Focus.


Greitemeyer, T., Osswald, S., & Brauer, M. (2010). Playing prosocial video games increases empathy and decreases schadenfreude. Emotion, 10(6), 796-802. doi:10.1037/a0020194

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