Increasing Societal Well-Being Through Enhanced Empathy Using Computer Games

  • Judith AnnettEmail author
  • Stefan Berglund
Part of the Happiness Studies Book Series book series (HAPS)


Recent research suggests that the well-being of both individuals and society in general may have a neurobiological basis linked to empathy. This raises the issue of available routes for enhancing empathy (through interventions such as education, training, pharmacology, etc.). One of the most important features of the human brain, especially of the brains of children and teenagers, is its plasticity. Millions of children and teenagers spend many hours every day playing computer games. Many computer games include different forms of violence and aggression and there has been extensive research that indicates that there is a correlation between playing these games, aggression, and reduced disposition to pro-social behaviors. However, much less research has been conducted on the potential effects of pro-social and non-violent computer games. Since there is not yet a comprehensive model of the possible causal relationships between playing such games and neuropsychological function, neuroendocrine function (e.g. oxytocin release), empathy, pro-social behaviors, and individual and societal well-being, we provide a basic theoretical framework for empirical research on these issues. The aim of this framework is ultimately to establish not only correlational evidence, but to allow the development of experimental protocols to meaningfully examine the causal relationships and mechanisms.


Increasing societal well-being Plasticity of the human brain Using computer games Computer games and Well-Being Pro-social behavior and computer games Individual and societal well-being Causal relationships and mechanisms 


  1. Adolphs, R. (2010). Conceptual challenges and directions for social neuroscience. Neuron, 65, 752–767.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Ainsworth, M. S., & Bowlby, J. (1991). An ethological approach to personality development. The American Psychologist, 46, 333.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Anderson, C. A., Sakamoto, D. A., Gentile, N., Ihori, A., Shibuya, S., Yukaawa, K., et al. (2008). Longitudinal effects of violent video games on aggression in Japan and the United States. Pediatrics, 122, 1067–1072.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Anderson, C. A., Shibuya, A., Ihori, N., Swing, E. L., Nushman, B. J., Sakamoto, A., et al. (2010). Violent video game effects on aggression, empathy, and social behavior in eastern and western countries: A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 136(2), 151–173.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Antonisse, J., & Johnson, D. J. (2008). Hush University of Southern California Interactive Media Division MFA.
  6. Baron-Cohen, S. (2004). Mind Reading: The Interactive Guide to Emotions. Jessica Kingsley Publications. See also
  7. Baron-Cohen, S. (2011). Zero degrees of empathy: A new theory of human cruelty. London: Penguin/Allen Lane.Google Scholar
  8. Barraza, J. A., & Zak, P. J. (2009). Empathy toward strangers triggers oxytocin release and subsequent generosity. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1167, 182–189.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Bartholow, B. D., Bushman, B. J., & Sestir, M. A. (2006). Chronic violent video game exposure and desensitization to violence: Behavioral and event-related brain potential data. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 42, 532–539.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Bartlett, C. P., Anderson, C. A., & Swing, E. L. (2009). Video game effects—confirmed, suspected and speculative: A review of the evidence. Simulation and Gaming, 40, 377–403.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Bastian, B., Jetten, J., & Radke, H. R. M. (2012). Cyber-dehumanization: Violent video game play diminishes our humanity. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48, 486–491.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Batson, C. D. (2009). These things called empathy: Eight related but distinct phenomena. In J. Decety & W. Ickes (Eds.), The social neuroscience of empathy. Cambridge: The MIT Press.Google Scholar
  13. Belman, J., & Flanagan, M. (2010). Designing games to foster empathy. Cognitive Technology Journal, 14(2), 5–15.Google Scholar
  14. Bluemke, M., Friedrich, M., & Zumbach, J. (2010). The influence of violent and nonviolent computer games on implicit measures of aggressiveness. Aggressive Behavior, 36, 1–13.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Bushman, B. J., & Anderson, C. A. (2009). Comfortably numb: Desensitizing effects of media violence on helping others. Psychological Science, 20(273), 277.Google Scholar
  16. Carnagey, N. L., & Anderson, C. A. (2005). The effects of reward and punishment in violent video games on aggressive affect, cognition and behavior. Psychological Science, 16, 882–889.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Carnagey, N. L., Anderson, C. A., & Bartholow, B. D. (2007a). Media violence and social neuroscience: New questions and new opportunities. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 16, 178–182.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Carnagey, N. L., Anderson, C. A., & Bartholow, B. D. (2007b). The effect of video game violence on physiological desensitization to real-life violence. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 43, 489–496.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Chou, Y.-H., Yang, B.-H., Hsu, J.-W., Wang, S.-J., Lin, C.-L., Huang, K.-L., et al. (2013). Effects of video game playing on cerebral blood flow in young adults: A SPECT study. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, 212, 65–72.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Churchland, P. (2011). Braintrust: What neuroscience tells us about morality. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  21. Churchland, P., & Winkielman, P. (2012). Modulating social behavior with oxytocin: How does it work? What does it mean? Hormones and Behavior, 61, 392–399.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Coeckelbergh, M. (2007). Violent computer games empathy, and cosmopolitanism. Ethics and Information Technology, 9, 219–231.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Connolly, T. M., Boyle, E. A., MacArthur, E., Hainey, T., & Boyle, J. M. (2012). A systematic literature review of empirical evidence on computer games and serious games. Computers and Education, 59, 661–686.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Coplan, A., & Goldie, P. (Eds.). (2011). Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  25. Dalquist, U., & Christofferson, J. (2011). Våldsamma datorspel och aggression—en översikt av forskning 2000-2011. (English summary: Violent computer games and aggression—an overview of the research 2000–2011). Report from the Swedish Media Council. Available from
  26. de Vignemont, F., & Jacob, P. (2012). What is it like to feel another’s pain? Philosophy of Science, 79, 295–316.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. de Vignemont, F., & Singer, T. (2006). The empathic brain: How, when and why? Trends in Cognitive Science, 10, 435–441.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. de Waal, F. (2008). Putting the altruism back into altruism: The evolution of empathy. Annual Review of Psychology, 59, 279–300.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. de Waal, F. (2009). The age of empathy: Nature’s lessons for a kinder society. London: Random House.Google Scholar
  30. Decety, J. (2010). The neurodevelopment of empathy in humans. Developmental Neuroscience, 32, 257–267.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Decety, J., & Ickes, W. (2009a). Empathy versus personal distress: Recent evidence from social neuroscience. In J. Decety & W. Ickes (Eds.), The social neuroscience of empathy. Cambridge: The MIT Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Decety, J., & Ickes, W. (2009b). The social neuroscience of empathy. Cambridge: The MIT Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Decety, J., & Jackson, P. L. (2004). The functional architecture of human empathy. Behavioral and Cognitive Neuroscience Reviews, 3(2), 71–100.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Domes, G., Heinrichs, M., Michel, A., Berger, C., & Herpetz, S. C. (2007). Oxytocin improves ‘mindreading’ in humans. Biological Psychiatry, 61, 731–733.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Dresler, M., Sandberg, A., Ohla, K., Bublitz, C., Trendao, C., Mroczko-Wasowicz, A., et al. (2013). Non-pharmacological cognitive enhancement. Neuropharmacology, 2012, 529–543.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Dunne, S., & O’Doherty, J. P. (2013). Insights from the application of computational neuroimaging to social neuroscience. Current Opinion in Neurobiology, 23, 387–392.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Eisenberg, N., & Sadovsky, A. (2004). Development of prosocial behavior. In C. Speilberger (Ed.), Encyclopedia of applied psychology (pp. 137–141). London: Academic Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Engelhardt, C. R., Bartholow, B. D., Kerr, G. T., & Bushman, B. J. (2011). This is your brain on violent video games: Neural desensitization to violence predicts increased aggression following violent video game exposure. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47, 1033–1036.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Engen, H. G., & Singer, T. (2013). Empathy circuits. Current Opinion in Neurobiology, 23, 275–282.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Farah, M. (2002). Emerging ethical issues in neuroscience. Nature Neuroscience, 5, 1123–1129.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Farah, M. (2010). Neuroethics: An introduction with readings. The MIT Press, Cambridge.Google Scholar
  42. Farah, M., Noble, K. G., & Hurt, H. (2005). Poverty, privilege, and brain development: Empirical findings and ethical implications. In J. Illes (Ed.), Neuroethics. Defining the issues in theory, practice, and policy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  43. Fredrickson, B. L. (2013). Positive emotions broaden and build. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 47, 1–53.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Garland, E. L., Fredrickson, B. L., Kring, A. M., Johnson, D. P., Meyer, P. S., & Penn, D. L. (2010). Upward spirals of positive emotions counter downward spirals of negativity: Insights from the broaden-and-build theory and affective neuroscience on the treatment of emotion dysfunctions and deficits in psychopathology. Clinical Psychology Review, 30(849), 964.Google Scholar
  45. Gentile, D. A. (2009). Pathological video game use among youth 8 to 18: A national study. Psychological Science, 20, 594–602.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Gentile, D. A., & Gentile, R. J. (2008). Violent video games as exemplary teachers. A conceptual analysis. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 37, 127–141.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Gentile, D. A., Anderson, C. A., Yukawa, S., et al. (2009). The effects of prosocial video games on prosocial behaviors: International evidence from correlational, longitudinal, and experimental studies. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35, 752–776.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Gentile, D. A., Coyne, S., & Walsh, D. A. (2011a). Media violence, physical aggression and relational aggression in school age children: A short-term longitudinal study. Aggressive Behavior, 37, 193–206.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Gentile, A., Gentile, D. A., Choo, H., Liau, A., Sim, T., Li, D., et al. (2011b). Pathological video game use among youths: A two-year longitudinal study. Pediatrics, 127, 319–329.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Goldman, A. (2006). Simulating minds: The philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience of mindreading. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Goldstein, T. R., & Winner, E. (2010). Enhancing empathy and theory of mind. Journal of Cognition and Development, 13(1), 19–37.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Greenfield, S. (2011). How the internet dehumanizes children: We should be more concerned about the effects of computer use on young people.
  53. Greitemeyer, T. (2011). Effects of pro-social media on social behavior: when and why does media exposure affect helping and aggression? Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20, 251.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Greitemeyer, T., & McLatchie, N. (2011). Denying humanness to others: A newly discovered mechanism by which violent video games increase aggressive behavior. Psychological Science, 22, 659–665.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Greitemeyer, T., & Osswald, S. (2009). Prosocial video games reduce aggressive cognitions. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45, 896–900.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Greitemeyer, T., Brauer, C., & Osswald, S. (2010). Playing pro-social video games increases empathy and decreases schadenfreude. Emotion, 10, 796–802.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Handlin, L. (2010). Human–Human and Human–Animal Interaction. Some Common Physiological and Psychological Effects. Doctoral Thesis. Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Skara, Sweden.Google Scholar
  58. Hasan, Y., Begue, L., Scharkow, M., & Bushman, B. J. (2013). The more you play, the more aggressive you become: A longterm experimental study of cumulative violent video game effects on hostile expectations and aggressive behavior. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 49, 224–227.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Hoffman, M. L. (2001a). A comprehensive theory of prosocial moral development. In D. Stipek & A. Bohart (Eds.), Constructive and destructive behavior (pp. 61–86). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Hoffman, M. L. (2001b). Empathy and moral development. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  61. Hoffman, M. (2011). Empathy, justice and the law. In A. Coplan & P. Goldie (Eds.), Empathy: Philosophical and psychological perspectives. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  62. Iacoboni, M. (2011). Within each other: Neural mechanisms for empathy in the primate brain. In P. Goldie & A. Coplan (Eds.), Empathy: Philosophical and psychological perspectives. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  63. Illes, J. & Bird, S.J. (2006). Neuroethics: a modern context for ethics in neuroscience. Trends in Neurosciences, 29, 511-517.  Google Scholar
  64. Jonason, P. K., Lyons, M., Bethell, E. J., & Ross, R. (2012). Different routes to limited empathy in the sexes: Examining the links between the Dark Triad and empathy. Personality and Individual Difference, 54, 572–576.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Kierkegaard, P. (2008). In Inderscience Publishers. (2008, May 15). Could violent video games reduce rather than increase violence? ScienceDaily, retrieved September 25, 2013.Google Scholar
  66. Klimecki, O. M., Leiberg, S., Lamm, C., & Singer, T. (2012). Functional neural plasticity and associated changes in positive affect after compassion training. Cerebral Cortex, 23, 1552–1561.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Konrath, S. H., O.Brien, E.H., & Hsing, C. (2011). Changes in dispositional empathy in American college students over time: A meta-analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Review 15, 180–198.Google Scholar
  68. Lamm, C., Batson, C. D., & Decety, J. (2007). The neural substrate of human empathy: Effects of perspective-taking and cognitive appraisal. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 19, 42–58.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Lemmens, J., Valkenburg, O., & Peter, J. (2011). The effects of pathological gaming on aggressive behavior. Journal of Youth Adolescence, 40(1), 38–47.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Lim, M. Y., Leichenstern, K., Kriegel, M., Enz, S., Aylett, R., Vannini, N., et al. (2011). Technology enhanced role play for social and emotional learning context. Intercultural empathy. Entertainment Computing, 4(2), 225–231.Google Scholar
  71. Lin, J.-H. (2013). Do video games exert stronger effects on aggression then film? The role of media interactivity and identification on the association of violent content and aggressive outcomes. Computers in Human Behavior, 29, 535–543. Google Scholar
  72. Lorenzo, G., Pomares, J., & Lledό, A. (2013). Inclusion of immersive virtual learning environments and visual control systems to support the learning of students with Asperger syndrome. Computers and Education, 62, 88–101.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  73. Mascaro, J. S., Rilling, J. K., Negi, T., & Raison, C. L. (2012). Compassion meditation enhances empathic accuracy and related neural activity. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 8(1), 48–55.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  74. McGaugh, J. L., & Roozendaal, B. (2009). Drug enhancement of memory consolidation: Historical perspective and neurobiological implications. Psychopharmacology (Berl), 202, 2–14.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  75. Möller, I., & Krahe´, B. (2009). Exposure to violent video games and aggression in German adolescents: A longitudinal analysis. Aggressive Behavior, 35, 75–89.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  76. Montag, C., Weber, B., Trautner, P., Newport, B., Markett, S., Walter, N. T., et al. (2012). Does excessive play of violent first-person-shooter-video-games dampen brain activity in response to emotional stimuli? Biological Psychology, 89, 107–111.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  77. Ortiz de Gortari, A. B., Aronsson, K., & Griffiths, M. (2011). Game transfer phenomena in video game playing. A qualitative interview study. International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning, 2, 15–33.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  78. Pereira, G., Brisson, A., Prada, R., Paiva, A., Bellotti, F., Kravcik, M., et al. (2012). Serious games for personal and social learning and ethics: Status and trends. Procedia Computer Science, 15, 53–65.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  79. Persson, I., & Savulescu, J. (2008). The perils of cognitive enhancement and the urgent imperative to enhance the moral character of humanity’. Journal of Applied Philosophy, 25(3), 162–167.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  80. Persson, I., & Savulescu, J. (2012). Unfit for the future. The need for moral enhancement. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  81. Prinz, J. (2011a). Is empathy necessary for morality? In P. Goldie & A. Coplan (Eds.), Empathy: Philosophical and psychological perspectives. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  82. Prinz, J. (2011b). Against empathy. The Southern Journal of Philosophy, 49, 214–233.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  83. Rodrigues, S. M., Saslow, L. R., Garcia, N., John, O. P., & Keltner, D. (2009). Oxytocin receptor genetic variation relates to empathy and stress reactivity in humans. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106, 21437–21441.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  84. Ronay, R., & Carney, D. R. (2013). Testosterone’s negative relationship with empathic accuracy and perceived leadership ability. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 4(1), 92–99.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  85. Rosenberg, R. S., Baughman, S. L., & Bailenson, J. N. (2013). Virtual superheroes: Using superpowers in virtual reality to encourage prosocial behavior. PLOS ONE (1).Google Scholar
  86. Sander, T. (2011). Positive computing. In R. Biswas-Diener (Ed.). Positive psychology as social change. Springer: Netherlands, pp. 309–326.Google Scholar
  87. Sestir, M. A., & Bartholow, B. D. (2010). Violent and nonviolent video games produce opposing effects on aggressive and prosocial outcomes. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46, 934–942.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  88. Shamay-Tsoory, S. G. (2009). Two systems for empathy: A double dissociation between emotional and cognitive empathy in inferior frontal gyrus versus ventromedial prefrontal lesions. Brain, 132(3), 617–627.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  89. Shamay-Tsoory, S. G. (2011). The neural bases for empathy. The Neuroscientist, 18, 18–24.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  90. Slote, M. (2007). The ethics of care and empathy. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  91. Steinberg, L. (2008). A social neuroscience perspective on adolescent risk taking. Developmental Review, 28, 78–106.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  92. Striepens, N., Kendrick, K. M., Maier, W., & Hurlemann, R. (2011). Proscial effects of oxytocin and clinical evidence of its therapeutic potential. Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology, 32, 426–450.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  93. Uvnäs-Moberg, K. (1998). Oxytocin may mediate the benefits of positive social interaction and emotions. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 23(8), 819–835.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  94. van der Weele, C. (2011). Empathy’s purity, sympathy’s complexities; De Waal, Darwin and Adam Smith. Biology and Philosophy, 26, 583–593.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  95. Van Hook, J., Schutter, D. J., Bos, P. A., Kruijt, A.-W., Lenjes, E. G., & Baron-Cohen, S. (2011). Testosterone administration impairs cognitive empathy in women depending on second-to-fourth digit ratio. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108, 3448–3452.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  96. Walter, H. (2012). Social cognitive neuroscience of empathy: Concepts, circuits, and genes. Emotion Review, 4, 9–17.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  97. Whitaker, J. L., & Bushman, B. J. (2012). “Remain calm. Be kind”. Effects of relaxing video games on aggressive and prosocial behavior. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 3, 88–92.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  98. Zak, P. J. (2011). The physiology of moral sentiments. Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, 77, 53–65.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  99. Zak, P. J., Kurzban, R., & Matzner, W. T. (2005). Oxytocin is associated with human trustworthiness. Hormones and Behavior, 48, 522–527.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  100. Zhen, S., Xie, H., Zhang, W., Wang, S., & Li, D. (2011). Exposure to violent computer games and Chinese adolescents’ physical aggression: The role of beliefs about affession, hostile expectations, and empathy. Computers in Human Behavior, 27, 1675–1687.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Cognitive Neuroscience and PhilosophyUniversity of SkövdeSkövdeSweden

Personalised recommendations