Two 50-minute class periods

Empathy through Game Play

Essential Questions

  • What is empathy? How can empathy help a group, such as a community or society, achieve a goal?
  • How can empathy improve communication?

Learning Objectives

  • Students will experience the value of the skill of empathy by playing a game that requires understanding the perspectives and goals of others in order to succeed.
  • Students will practice hard empathy by identifying the opposing view on an issue they read about in a newspaper article.
  • Students will be able to use empathy and their understanding of differing perspectives to strengthen their own communication.


This lesson is an introduction to the concept of empathy as a way to improve communication. Students will begin the lesson by playing the game Empathy Builders, which will allow them to experience the value of understanding others’ perspectives in a game-like setting. Students will then debrief the game in order to solidify their understanding of the concept of empathy. Next they will read two opposing op-ed pieces (ideally from a local newspaper and focused on a local issue) and will try to explain the issue by reporting on the opposing viewpoint. Through these activities, students will improve their understanding of empathy, their ability to explain the value of empathy in achieving a desired outcome, and their ability to understand the perspective of someone who thinks differently than they do.


The activities in this lesson help students practice and reflect on hard empathy. For background information on this concept, we recommend watching the video Practicing Empathy with Jane McGonigal. In this video, McGonigal defines hard empathy and describes current research into its effects and benefits.

Notes to Teacher

To prepare for this lesson, visit the Empathy Builders website and complete the instructions for setting up the game. Download the Instructions and Rules and print enough pages of Role Cards for groups of 5–7 to have one sheet each. You will need to cut out the seven cards from each sheet. You will also need 18 colored blocks per group (most math departments have these) and paper lunch bags or other bags from which students may draw blocks.



  1. Play Empathy Builders
    Empathy Builders is a game designed to engage students in a collaborative task in which they must use the skill of hard empathy to succeed.
    • Set up the classroom for the game (See “Notes to Teacher”) before the period begins.
    • Once the class period begins, introduce the game and give students the opportunity to play in groups of 5–7 students. Note that the game is played silently. Support students in playing without talking.
    • Monitor the game play. Make note of observations you have while students play.
    • Provide students enough time with the game to figure out the multiple individual objectives (hidden at first) and to practice completing the game so that everyone succeeds. The amount of time this will take may vary.
  2. Debrief the Game
    • After the class has completed playing the game, gather students for a whole group discussion.
    • Ask questions to help students recognize moments of empathy in the game and to recognize where empathy helped teams be more successful. Questions may include:
      • What makes this game difficult?
      • When did the game start to become easier?
      • How did you feel at the beginning of the game? In the end?
      • What did you want others to know or understand?
      • Did you ever feel uncomfortable? Did you ever feel relieved or more comfortable? When?
      • What did you learn from playing this game?
    • Before the end of the discussion, introduce the concept of empathy. You might ask students to create working definitions or concept maps to capture their thinking about the meaning of the term.
    • Then show the video Practicing Empathy with Jane McGonigal and ask students to reflect on or discuss the following questions:
      • According to Jane McGonigal, what is “easy empathy”? What is “hard empathy” or “cognitive empathy”?
      • Why is each of these types of empathy valuable?
      • How could hard empathy help a group, community, or society?
    • Finally, ask students to reflect on how playing the game helped them practice hard empathy. Possible responses might include:
      • “We couldn’t accomplish the task (build the tower) until we understood the point of view of our teammates.”
      • “ It was easier to build when we were able to share our point of view with others.”
  3. Apply Hard Empathy to Analysis of Op-Eds
    In this activity, students will read op-eds from newspapers and attempt to predict the opposing viewpoint to the argument presented in the article.
    • Divide students into pairs and provide each partner with a different op-ed. The two articles should argue opposing sides of an issue or debate. You might use the following articles from the Denver Post or find other articles of local interest to your students:
    • Students should read their assigned article and identify the point of view.
    • Then, based on the reading of their article, students need to “predict” what the other, opposing article is arguing. In other words, they are attempting to anticipate an argument for the opposite position on the issue in question.
    • As students attempt to make their predictions, remind them to think about what they learned from the game (i.e., you know other players are playing differently from you, and you must trust that they have a reason for doing so) and the video with Jane McGonigal (i.e.,, you must use your imagination along with what you already know about the issue to imagine what the other side believes, thinks, or feels).
    • Students then share their prediction about their partner’s article with their partners.
      For example, student A, who reads the op-ed in support of the smoking ban on the 16th Street Mall, predicts that her partner’s article is against the policy. She believes that the opposition is connected to the many homeless or jobless people who are often panhandling along the street. She predicts that homeless people and their advocates feel that the ban isn’t about public health but about finding a way to remove the poor and homeless from the area. Her partner would then confirm or clarify this prediction. Next, the partner shares her prediction about student A’s article.
    • As a class, come back together to share observations, successes, or challenges. You might begin with the following questions
      • What made this activity difficult?
      • What clues in your own article did you use to predict the opinion of the opposing article?
        • How can hard empathy help you share your opinion or convince others to take action?
        • Why would journalists want to practice hard empathy? How would empathy help an investigative journalist?
  4. Exit Ticket
    • Ask students to respond to one or both of the following questions on an exit card.
      • What is empathy? What is the difference between easy empathy and hard empathy?
      • What is a job, career, or situation where practicing empathy would increase the likelihood of success?


  1. Defend Yourself!
    • Choose an appropriate, debatable topic.
      • Higher risk topics might be something like, “Should NFL player be allowed to kneel during the national anthem?” or “Should the United States offer free healthcare to all citizens?”
      • Low-risk topics might be something like, “Which team is better, Cleveland Cavaliers or Golden State Warriors?” or “Which is more delicious, pizza or tacos?”
    • Write the question on the board with the choices on either end of a wall.
    • Ask students to “vote with their feet” by standing in front of the side that represents their own, personal opinion.
    • Once students have settled on an opinion, explain that their task is to develop an argument for the opposing option (the side they did NOT choose). You might have students attempt to do so spontaneously in a class discussion, or you might give them the opportunity to reflect on their notebooks for a few minutes before beginning a discussion in which they attempt to anticipate opposing arguments.

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