United Way and 24G Team Up on Digital Simulation to Teach Empathy

We’ve heard a lot, especially since the presidential election in 2016, about how technologies like social media are effectively reducing empathy and harming civil discourse. But what if technology could instead be used to stoke a better appreciation of the daily struggles others are going through?

That’s the goal behind 24G’s “The Cost of Living,” a digital simulation that the Troy, MI-based software developer created for the nonprofit United Way of Southeastern Michigan.

“The United Way had a physical game it used during facility tours to get donors to understand how people live in poverty,” says Devin Polaski, 24G’s creative director. “We felt like the game had a lot more potential, so we digitized the experience.”

According to the United Way, 40 percent of Michiganders struggle to afford basic needs. The game is designed to put  players in the role of that 40 percent. They’re tasked with making tough financial choices based on the real-life trials and tribulations one can encounter.

The Cost of Living, built on the Crowd Play platform, can be played on a large screen with as many as 100 participants using their smartphones as controllers. (One can also play alone, as I did, using only a PC.) The game gives each player a set of “asset tokens,” used to represent each person’s access to money, relationships, education, healthcare, and other resources.

Players choose where and how to allocate their asset tokens: food, housing, healthcare, and child care are among the categories. Then, each player is confronted with five life events—a child has an accident that requires medical care, for example—and can see the outcomes and unintended consequences of how they choose to deal with it based on the assets they have.

The Cost of Living takes about 10 minutes to play, and Polaski says there are many different real-world scenarios to contend with, making it possible to play “The Cost of Living” multiple times with very different outcomes.

“It’s interactive, and the idea is to create empathy,” he says.

24G, an 80-employee firm that works mostly in the automotive, tech, and retail sectors, first came into contact with United Way through one of its clients, Fiat Chrysler, which also happens to be one of the organization’s biggest donors. After collaborating on a different project, United Way asked 24G for help in getting more people to understand United Way’s programs and the societal issues they address.

“We’re passionate about the power of games as teaching or learning tools,” Polaski says. “People are way more invested in information if they have to live through an experience, even if it’s in a digital simulation. It really hits people.”

Once a group session of the game has concluded, all the participants find out how many asset tokens each player started with. Polaski says players are consistently surprised that their fellow participants weren’t simply making stupid choices with their tokens.  Players are also provided with more information on the United Way.

“It illustrates things like privilege without saying the word privilege,” he points out, adding that there’s a fine line between illustrating the issues and beating people over the head with them. “It was a very collaborative process with United Way, and it made us think of things in a different light. We realized everything needed to be about illustrating a failure of the system and not a failure in people.”

“The Cost of Living” is free and accessible to anyone with an Internet connection; go here to start the game.

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