The ‘FeelThat’ system wires kids up with tech that monitors their hormones and voices for emotion as they play an online game, in an attempt to improve their empathy online
The video opens on a young girl with shiny hair and a big smile sitting at a table with a box in front of her. The setup is similar to that of any unboxing video, in which YouTubers open packages and discuss the contents for the entertainment of their subscribers. This video is different, though; the item in the package doesn’t really exist — at least, not yet.
I watch as the girl removes two items: a pink wristband that looks kind of like a Fitbit activity tracker, and a matching headset that reminds me of the headphones I used to wear to listen to my portable CD player. The FeelThat system, the girl explains, will detect changes in her hormones and analyze her voice for emotion. When she’s ready, she can switch a privacy setting on the device to “public” and it will transmit her actual feelings — not just information about them — to her connections on a network of other FeelThat users.
She seems a little nervous as she gets set up to try the system, but the overall tone of the video is excitement. The Institute for the Future (IFTF), a Palo Alto think tank, created the scenario as part of an online multiplayer game called Face the Future, developed to teach middle and high school students to think critically about the impact of technology on their lives, now and in the future. The game, which launched just after the 2016 presidential election, asked players to imagine a future in which a device like the FeelThat has become as commonplace as a smartphone. “Who would you share your FeelThat data with?” the game asked. “Whose data would you want to see?”
When Calee Prindle, then a ninth-grade English teacher at the Facing History School in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of New York City, queued up the FeelThat video to show her class, many of her students were feeling vulnerable. The presidential campaign and election had been emotionally stressful for the school’s diverse student body; many felt personally threatened by the rhetoric and policy proposals of newly elected President Donald Trump. Prindle told me that she had been planning to spend two days preparing her students for the Face the Future game, explaining the concept of empathy and how it relates to the way we use technology. But after the election, she scrapped her plans and instead spent an entire day addressing the elephant in the room. Then, with the political drama and its potential impacts on their own lives still top of mind, the students dove into the game.
Using their own feelings as a guide, her students considered the big questions that parents, teachers, and pundits had been discussing for months: Can we ever truly understand the way another person feels? Should we bother trying? And then they went beyond: What if a Trump supporter — or Trump himself — could literally feel what a Mexican immigrant was feeling as they approached the border? What if we could all feel what it was like to stand at a lectern in the White House and address the nation? What if a police officer could feel the fear of a black man during a traffic stop? What if that man could feel what was coursing through the cop’s veins too? What if it was all out in the open, in the cloud — not words about feelings, but the feelings themselves? What might be fixed? What could go wrong?
The students in Prindle’s class, plus thousands of others who logged in to the game from around the world, started by watching a series of videos that ranged from endearing (the young girl excitedly unwrapping her FeelThat) to disturbing (a young man receiving his girlfriend’s feelings in real time as she dies in a car accident). Then the players answered questions — some with an optimistic theme (labeled “Positive Imagination”) and some for those who were more skeptical or concerned about the concept (labeled “Shadow Imagination”). “What would you want to do in this future?” for example, and “What could go wrong with the FeelThat Network?”
Players’ answers showed up in a feed where others could express their encouragement with an “upvote” (similar to a Facebook or Twitter like or favorite) or comment. Players earned “foresight points” for engagement with others, while a moderator ensured that bullying and trolling didn’t derail the game. The interface highlighted the comments with the most engagement in real time, so players (and other observers like myself) could see which hypotheses were getting the most attention. Participants’ comments built on each other to create a visual representation of the conversation as it unfolded.
Many were worried or fearful:
“This could start a war!”
“It could create more separation. We have racism based on physical traits. What if we discriminated based on emotional traits?”
“I worry about privacy. I am currently concerned about phones tracking our locations. What will future governments do with FeelThat data?”
But some saw an empathic opportunity:
“People could become friends based on having the same emotions about the same things.” “What an opportunity to show people with empathy deficiency how certain things literally feel.”
After two days of play, there was a deep web of concern and excitement about the future of technology — and of empathy. In class, some of Prindle’s students started thinking out loud about how important it was to pause before typing or speaking. Others questioned the goals of the game’s creators. After the game, one student approached Prindle confused, saying she’d thought they had been done talking about the election in class. She’d begun to associate discussions about thinking before you speak and putting yourself in others’ shoes with discussions about American politics. “They made that connection with talking about the importance of trying to understand people’s perspective[s] and hear people out,” Prindle told me later. “That’s empathy.”
The game was fun. I played a bit myself, choosing different “Positive Imagination” and “Shadow Imagination” scenarios, and imagining a world in which, instead of explaining myself with my most comfortable mode of expression — words — I could (or maybe even had to) simply press a button and transmit how I felt. But I knew something many of the students didn’t yet know: It was more than just a thought experiment. Technology makes it easier every day to communicate without much effort, and there are already products in the works whose stated purpose is similar to that of the FeelThat. The fact is, teenagers like those in Prindle’s classroom could be the ones using this technology for real within the next few decades — if they aren’t the ones making it.
Considering the many concerned responses and worst-case scenarios in the game, it could be a scary proposition. We aren’t ready. But if we take a step back, these concerns about hypothetical technology are not much different from what parents and educators are worrying about in the present: what the technology we already have might be doing to their kids’ ability to empathize. Studies show that teaching traits like kindness, compassion, and empathy, in an explicit and intentional way at a young age, can make a difference.
A 2011 meta-analysis of social-emotional learning, which many U.S. curricula have embraced in recent decades, suggested that it led to higher graduation rates and safer sex, even 18 years later. Clinical psychologist Lisa Flook and teacher Laura Pinger have studied the effects of a “kindness curriculum” on preschool-age kids and found that 12 weeks of mindfulness training and lessons about social-emotional development led to marked improvements compared to a control group, whose members became more selfish over time.
The idea of teaching empathy in schools is not new, though openness and creativity about it have grown in recent times. For decades, a Canadian organization called Roots of Empathy has been bringing babies into classrooms with the intent of illustrating this skill. The program enlists neighborhood parents to take their babies to a classroom once every three weeks, allowing students there to observe and try to label the baby’s feelings. According to Roots of Empathy, this activity helps kids learn to recognize emotions and understand that they aren’t the only ones who feel things — an important social-emotional milestone. By 2001, according to a study commissioned by the government of Manitoba, students who observed Roots of Empathy babies showed improvement in social behavior, physical aggression, and indirect aggression, both immediately and in the years after participating. The program has also been used in the U.S., where several studies have found similar effects.
The Future of Feeling apps, games, and virtual reality experiences represent the latest evolution of empathy education. Classrooms around the country now have tablets stocked with interactive lessons on kindness, integrity, empathy, and understanding. But with new educational tools come new responsibilities and concerns. Even as they turn to tech to help teach soft skills, parents and teachers worry about how much time children are spending in front of screens.
John Medina, director of Seattle Pacific University’s Brain Center for Applied Research, writes in his book, Attack of the Teenage Brain! Understanding and Supporting the Weird and Wonderful Adolescent Learner, about how difficult it is to find straight answers about tech’s impact on kids. He shares two pieces of research on the impact of video games on kids. One found that playing video games was associated with problems paying attention later on; the other said video games were great tools for research facilities because they helped kids pay attention. Even social media, as Medina found, has a dual nature when it comes to brains of all ages.
In one 2016 study, 10-to-14-year-olds who used Twitter and Facebook saw improvement on the Adolescent Measure of Empathy and Sympathy, a test used by psychologists to measure kids’ cognitive and affective empathy and sympathy levels. The researchers found that the teenagers improved in both cognitive empathy (understanding others’ feelings) and affective empathy (sharing those feelings, putting themselves in others’ shoes).
On the other hand, recent research has also shown increased levels of narcissism among people who post on Facebook a lot, and narcissism doesn’t go well with empathy. Though teaching empathy and kindness to kids can pay off, Medina and most other researchers in this field aren’t ready to say for sure whether technology is to blame for kids’ lack of empathy, or whether it can be used to help fix the problem — or both.