The Empathy Game by Saskia H. Herrmann & Jorik Elfernik, visual design by Rinske Spijkerman


The Empathy Game
Review Copy from Laurence King

Starting conversation with the roll of a dice, The Empathy Game encourages sharing, listening and engaging with our fellow humans. Empathy is the active act of recognition and vulnerability, the act of understanding others and thinking outside of oneself and relating to different people. While the capacity for empathy is inborn, it is a learned behavior that, as our nation (world?) becomes increasingly divided and divisive, we desperately need more of, especially in our leaders. Like most aspects of emotional intelligence (the ability to know what you are feeling, to accurately label and name the different emotions and use your emotions to inform your thinking), empathy is a skill that needs to be taught, from classrooms to boardrooms. Over the last few years, an increasing number of quality picture books that support social-emotional learning have been published (my reviews of SEL titles here) but when it comes to empathy, actively doing beats passively reading every time.

The Empathy Game is for two to eight players, ages 12 and up, taking about thirty minutes to play. The game is marvelously simple, as players pick cards and tell personal stories. Afterwards, listeners engage with the story teller by rolling dice and exploring elements of their human experience. The guide that comes with the game is brief, encouraging players to find a comfortable space to play (making sure everyone can see and hear each other) and also to get warmed up for play by doing a quick emotional check-in with yourself. Rolling the category die, the first player chooses a card from one of three decks, each of which has fifty cards. Here are a few examples from each deck:

Memory :
  • When did you feel good about something you did but no one was around to see it?
  • When did you break a promise?
  • What has been incredibly rewarding to do?
Imagine :
  • If you were invisible for 12 hours, what would you do?
  • What historical figure you make the best ghost to be haunted by?
  • What would be a great way to die?
Who Is . . . ? :
  • What makes you nervous?
  • Where do you go when you want to be alone?
  • What is something you think everyone should do at least once in their life?
After the first player finished telling their story, the engagement die is rolled and listeners are invited to engage with the shared story guided by these creative categories. I especially love this aspect of the game, both for how it gives listeners a platform to actively engage with the story teller and how it supports studies showing that physical activity boosts learning. 
  • COLOR What's the color of the story?
  • TASTE What does the story taste like?
  • SMELL What does the story smell like?
  • TOUCH How would the story feel to touch?
  • DRAW Visualize your interpretation of the story
  • POSE Use your bodies to find a pose which represents the story
To end the game, I will quote from the guide because I think this is the perfect way to warmly, thoughtfully close what will likely be an emotional experience experience:

The game ends whenever you want it to end. Before you put the game away, make sure you round it off together. What do you take away from this experience? Share your answers one by one, in whichever order you want.

Finally, I want to share my own personal story here. The Empathy Game arrived in my home at a busy time and, before I could gather the family to play it, my sons opened the box and started immediately. I was definitely surprised that my twenty-three and sixteen-year-old sons (as opposed to my adult daughter, who is an elementary school teacher, and myself) were the first to try it and, not wanting to interrupt their experience, I went about my business, listening in when I could. I overheard them sharing stories about the pain of having acne and feeling like everyone was looking at them, and the desire not to be seen. I saw some tears and watched my older son roll the engagement die and draw his experience of the story. They played for about twenty minutes, cleaned up and hugged. 

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