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Video games have seemingly been blamed for seemingly everything under the sun, from violence to bad grades. But a crop of game developers willing and, in fact, wanting to tackle tough topics like depression, cancer, and addiction might have the power to change the medium's image. 

The Wall Street Journal reports on the growing trend of "empathy games," a genre that focuses on weighty topics instead of asking you to just mindlessly kill aliens or terrorists. These first started popping up earlier this year, but The Journal gives them their fullest treatment to date: 

There are games about depression (Depression Quest), other maladies (Tourette's Quest), immigration (Papers, Please) and being multiracial and transgender (Mainichi). Gravitation uses a game of catch between father and son to simulate the difficulty of balancing work and family.

No, these games don't sound very "fun," which is the whole point. And while there have always been more thoughtful games, like the SimCity franchise, this is a bigger trend that suggests that video games are growing up and trying to appeal to a demographic beyond just teenaged boys in the suburbs. 

Speaking of which: In the aftermath of the Newtown shooting, the National Rifle Association quickly began blaming the video games shooter Adam Lanza had been playing. Seemingly part of the same trend was the first bill to be introduced to the Senate floor in response to Newtown — a proposal to study the effect of violent video games.

Yet whether violent video games cause real violence remains a matter of dispute. Studies have shown that youth violence has actually decreased even as the number of violent video games available has increased. Nevertheless, few people would actually argue that, say, Grand Theft Auto is benefitting humanity.

That's why these new games are an encouraging new sign: they foster what Psychology Today calls "prosocial" attitudes, and what The Journal deems "empathy."

Reviewers seem to be appreciative of this new trend, too. "Depression Quest...can be an effective tool for teaching folks who don't have to deal with depression what it feels like," Kotaku's Phil Owen wrote in his review of the game. Owen, who suffers from depression, reviewed four video "empathy games" and generally enjoyed the experience. "Playing them is indeed a rewarding experience, whether you're depressed or not."

That sentiment was echoed by a gamer who tried out That Dragon, Cancer, an experience focused on being a parent of a child with terminal cancer. That gamer told Dougherty that "there's something really satisfying about experiencing narratives that are outside your own experience." This is, of course, what reading books or watching movies used to do. For today's young people, that responsibility falls to games.

But what do these games do for people who are actually depressed or dealing with emotional stressors like family illness? Kokatu's Owen argues that they can help: "I think those who are [depressed] can play these and gain greater context for the things happening in their minds. That's the true power of artistic media."

Screenshot via: That Dragon, Cancer

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.

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