How Video Games can Change the World for Domestic Violence Survivors

Domestic violence gaming

Domestic violence is a major issue worldwide with almost one third of women worldwide experiencing some form of physical and sexual violence by their intimate partner in their lifetime. 1 Domestic violence can also be experienced by men and other gender groups, and by family members other than intimate partners. Whilst there are many complex reasons why domestic violence is still present in society, a cultural shift is required in our attitudes to gender power and relationships to even begin to challenge this. 2 Can video games begin to start such a shift?

Empathy is the experience of understanding someone else’s thoughts or feelings. Research shows that invoking ‘social empathy’, allows us to not only understand other people by perceiving or experiencing their own life situation, but encourages us to begin to challenge the structural inequalities and imbalances that are present in society. 3


Exploring the life situations of those experiencing these inequalities provides us with opportunities to gain a deep understanding of how they impact on the the lives of those who are affected by them. When Social empathy is invoked, it also encourages us to apply our new empathic awareness of these inequalities to address this, and to take steps towards creating social change. 4 There are many ways to invoke social empathy but creative mediums have been successfully utilised to do this, especially where difficult or complicated topics are discussed.

In the United States, an empathy based peer education sexual assault prevention program was implemented with young University fraternity men. The program used several forms of media, including as film to help participants develop an understanding of the experiences of those who had experienced sexual assault, and incite social empathy in those participating in the program. After completion of the program, participants reported that they had developed a greater understanding of how it might feel to experience sexual assault and that they had refrained from ‘telling jokes’ about sexual assault and had experienced lasting attitude and/or behavior changes since taking part in the program. 5

In Her Shoes

The Washington State Coalition Against Domestic violence utilised social empathy in the creation of In Her Shoes, 6 a non-digital card based simulation game that explored domestic violence. 7 In Her Shoes incites social empathy in its players by exposing them to some of the ‘complex, dynamic and constrained’ experiences of those experiencing domestic violence. By doing so, In Her Shoes challenged ‘victim-blaming myths’ and allowed participants to identify barriers and difficulties experienced by those experiencing domestic violence whilst attempting to access safety and justice.

Video games are extremely powerful tools and have been used to improve perception and cognition, improve vision, 8 develop problem solving and critical skills as well as prosocial behavior. 9 Games have been been used to help treat mental health conditions such as PTSD. 10 Video games are regularly used in education and training industries to make learning experiences engaging and relevant, allowing for deep learning and coinciding with existing educational theories. 11 Games are well positioned to invoke social emapthy, as they are able to trigger emotional experiences and have the ability to engage players in a ‘flow state’, meaning they are deeply engaged with what they are playing. 12

Detroit: Become Human
Snap from video game Detroit: Become Human.

Researchers have explored the potential for video games to be used in empathy education and their ability to help players practice skills in a safe environment, where potentially harmful circumstances that may happen in a real life situation are removed. 13 The ability to experience a perspective that is different to that in which we experience every day allows for a deeper exploration of these ethical issues and therefore more opportunity to synthesise and consider these. 14 Stories and narratives are important parts of video game design and have also been used in forms such as literature, to help explore complex subjects such as domestic violence and develop social empathy skills.

Law students are being taught about domestic violence by engaging with creative works such as literature and narratives around this. A student engaged with these domestic violence narratives noted that she was able to make a deep connection with her learning through the narrative, explaining that ‘when she read assigned cases describing violent abuse, she was almost indifferent’ but that when she was provided with narrative poems describing abuse, the student stated that she ‘felt the dramatized punches and bruises’. 15

Detroit: Become Human
Detroit: Become Human

Recently, video games that include themes around Domestic violence such as Quantic Dream’s Playstation 4 game Detroit: Become Human, 16 had been slammed by child protection groups and domestic violence academics, with some Australian national groups requesting that the game not be stocked in Australia. Refusing to allow mediums such as video games to explore themes such as domestic violence is not the answer.

With video game culture being so prevalent in today’s society, and narrative and social empathy being such powerful tools to invoke social change, video games are uniquely positioned to share messages and ideas with their players like no other medium can. Video games can utilise the power of narrative to explore difficult topics, whilst engaging players in their experiences, invoking social empathy in their players.

As creators of this medium, game designers are uniquely shaped to challenge social norms and begin to lead cultural shifts in our society. Rather than preventing games to explore difficult or complex issues such as domestic violence, game developers should be supported to work together with charities, non-profits and social welfare groups. An informed collaborative process would allow for us to co-create engaging and moving video games, that raise awareness of inequalities and disparities in our society, invoke social empathy in their players and begin to address these issues in the real world context.

Works Cited

  1. World Health Organisation. (2017). Violence against women. World Health Organisation. Retrieved from
  2. Sutherland, R. (2015). Causes of Domestic violence, and implications for Primary Prevention. Ending Domestic violence Conference, Sydney, 11 June, 2015. St Vincent De Paul.
  3. Segal, E. A. (2011). Social empathy: A model built on empathy, contextual understanding, and social responsibility that promotes social justice. Journal of Social Service Research, 37(3), 266-277.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Foubert, J., & Newberry, J. T. (2006). Effects of two versions of an empathy-based rape prevention program on fraternity men’s survivor empathy, attitudes, and behavioral intent to commit rape or sexual assault. Journal of College Student Development, 47(2), 133-148.
  6. Washington State Coalition Against Domestic violence. (n.d). In Her Shoes [Card game]. Washington.
  7. Adelman, M., Rosenberg, K. E., & Hobart, M. (2016). Simulations and social empathy: Domestic violence education in the new millennium. Violence against women, 22(12), 1451-1462.
  8. Caplovitz, G. P., & Kastner, S. (2009). Carrot sticks or joysticks: video games improve vision. Nature neuroscience, 12(5), 527-528.
  9. el, A., & Engels, R. C. (2014). The benefits of playing video games. American Psychologist, 69(1), 66.
  10. Muckenfuss, M. (2008). Military studies virtual reality as therapy for post traumatic stress disorder. The Pres-Enterprise. Retrieved from
  11. Becker, K. (2005). How are Games Educational? Learning Theories Embodied in Games. Conference proceedings of the 2005 DiGRA International Conference: Changing Views: Worlds in Play. Retrieved from
  12. el, A., & Engels, R. C. (2014). The benefits of playing video games. American Psychologist, 69(1), 66.
  13. Zagal, J. P. (2009). Ethically notable videogames: Moral dilemmas and gameplay. Breaking new ground: Innovation in games, play, practice and theory, Proceedings of DiGRA 2009.
  14. Schrier, K. (2015). EPIC: A framework for using video games in ethics education. Journal of Moral Education, 44(4), 393-424.
  15. Ayres, S. (2014). Teaching Empathy: Using Dramatic Narrative to Understand Domestic Violence.
  16. Quantic Dream. 2018. Detroit: Become Human [Video Game]. Paris, France.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. Stephanie M.

    Interesting and timely combo of topics!

  2. Chelsea

    Detroit is a great game. The impact of each character’s individual decisions can be felt or directly experienced across the several different tales being told, and believe me – the emotional price you will pay for these decisions is at a level that I have never, ever experienced in any game before.

  3. Michelle

    I’ve just finished my first run through of Beyond: Two Souls and despite being laughably bad in all areas I still enjoyed it for what it was.

    I don’t get how David Cage and co routinely make games that are a complete mess and yet I still return to them and still find them enjoyable.

    • Beyond two souls is brilliant at times but it also has probably the worst examples of video game story writing too with the diabolical north Korea secret base bit which for me ruined the whole game.

    • I’ve never been a huge fan of David Cage’s stuff, I found Heavy Rain OK and that’s about the height of it, but watched the first hour of Detroit and I’m quite intrigued (even if parts are very David Cage). Beyond Two Souls is on PS+ at the moment, might give it a go and see how I feel before paying full price for this.

    • I’m interested enough in the potential of branching narrative games to give this a go.

    • I love David Cage games. I even love doing the mundane daily tasks with the joysticks.

  4. Natalee

    The concept of giving players the agency to do horrible, deeply troubling things in a game is not new.

    Some games even get tripped up on their own morality — I seem to recall Dishonored presenting ‘giving away a woman into sexual slavery’ as the morally correct choice, when opposed to killing her.

    Presenting situations like this in a more “realistic” setting doesn’t make it any more real, though. Whether or not this game turns out to be good, well-written, etc., or an absolute disaster, one studio and one game exploring a dark concept neither normalizes nor trivializes child abuse. A player who chooses a complacent route in this game to see what happens will not suddenly become unempathetic towards child abuse, nor become an abuser themselves — it’s an opportunity to see and explore a dark, morbid, troubling scenario that they haven’t personally experienced in a fictional setting without causing anyone harm.

    A little sick, a little troubling, I’d say, but it has the potential to be challenging, and frankly that is and always has been part of fiction.

    • I don’t recall Dishonored specifying any of the binary choices on how to get rid of objective targets as being right or wrong; just that some contribute to the accumulation of chaos (and thus the decline of the city) worse or less than others. Every single one of those decisions leads to the prime targets facing dead or something worse than death. The closest there is to a judge is the character of the Outsider and he doesn’t criticise except when the player chooses to kill Daud as that is so predictable, he’s mainly disappointed in himself for having chosen player-character Corvo to give power to.

  5. I’m not sure how I feel Detroit game. I personally think the game sounds great as I love choice stories and also love everything i’ve seen of Heavy Rain and similar games. I believe this can, if executed properly, teach us something about abuse. I will buy the game this weekend and write a follow-up comment here when I have played it. Thanks for the article.

  6. Dimpling

    The immersive experience of playing a game may incline an individual to defend that game due to the personally rewarding/satisfying experience of playing it. I was enlighted/stimulated/educated/entertained etc therefore I must not objectivly question the concept because what then does that say about me?

    People, gamers and not, should not be afraid to examine these things. In this instance, one plays as a witness to child abuse and makes choices about action/inaction. Even if you are not personally disturbed by this it should not be difficult to appreciate why others might be.

    Anyone who criticises video games is automatically deemed to be “wrong” by many gamers. This is the classic behaviour of an addict.

  7. Interesting topic. In Spec Ops: The Line the player is given the choice of committing a war crime, and this was also criticised despite it being an obvious motivator for spurring thought and discussion on such topics in video games. Sometimes the point is to have these discussions without resorting to “how dare video games do this thing?!”

    Video games are age rated and so should be able to provoke thoughts with their content, no matter how cute people might find them. In this way they offer more protection than books.

  8. A “game” where you watch the domestic abuse of a child by her father and you have to “play ” by deciding if, when and how to intervene? If you want to play this then fine but don’t be self righteous about it by trying to argue that this as a concept is not troubling. It is.

    • Yep. I’d like to know why people are drawn to playing these ‘games’.

      I’d say there will be a Pandora’s box of complex factors for some, that could become a compulsion for people who are not self aware or have some darker repressed needs.

      It’s just the very idea of someone locked in their room feeling momentarily elated or empowered they averted murder by a simple click or disengaged choice- while a few doors away someone might be going through a real life situation that requires extremely delicate handling.

      These games imo have the potential to desensitize the players to the material.

      Those attracted to playing this ‘game’ will have at least some disturbing aspects to their psyche that could very well direct their mental processing in real life.

      This game arena is really dangerous in my opinion.

      • That’s just your opinion though. We’ve had years of tabloid headlines about “violent” games encouraging people to go out and commit violent acts, but the actual evidence that this ever happens is… well, non-existent.
        Just because a lot of people think “well, there must be some sort of connection” doesn’t mean it does.

    • tay-tal

      Most disturbing than game playing is societal indifference.

      How many times have we missed opportunities to intervene where we see children in distressed ? neglected?

    • The active element of video game playing has the capacity to make any subject matter troubling, does this mean it shouldn’t be explored?

  9. Video games have so much to offer us entertainment wise and why shouldn’t they challenge us in the same way movies and books do?

  10. MorrisBoris

    A general question. What difference is there is making a film which tackles the issue of child abuse, or a game which does the same?

    • Sweet-pea

      People who haven’t been updated since around 1970s and don’t understand there are age ratings in games as well, so assume all games are for kids under the age of 12 and that it’s their target audience.

  11. Detroit: Become Human appears to perpetuate the myth that only men are abusers and only females can be victims.

    • Absolutely. Well said. There is no place for gender stereotypes.

      But, men are still predominately more likely to take out their frustrations and unmet needs aggressively on those around them, whether that manifests as sexual violence or physical violence.

      Entitlement, power, status and the obsession with titles, false manners, and the engrained class stereotypes along with a sort of silently accepted subservience to the rich or powerful in the UK have been a massive enabling factor for abusive men to hide behind. And that is a lot do with how our disgusting rape culture has become so normalised and accepted.

      I think both genders are going to be capable of psychological abuse.

      • Thanks. I agree with what you say about the class system and subservience to the rich and powerful in the UK.

        With regard to domestic abuse I would want to be cautious. There are no doubt more reports of women being abused by men than there are of men being abused by women.

        Is this because men are more often the abusers and women are more often the victims?

        Could it be that women are more likely to report physical abuse (thus skewing the statistics and the public perception)?

        Could it be that the police take a complaint of violence more seriously if it comes from a woman?

        These may be difficult questions but I think they need to be asked.

  12. I don’t play video games, so I could never comment on the quality of Detroit Become Human, but I do know something about child abuse and especially the various inquiries into child abuse responses over the past forty years over in several countries. One of the commonalities of all those inquiries is the finding that people – often social workers, but also doctors, nurses, family members, and so forth – failed to notice or act upon simple things that, in retrospect, seemed obvious indicators of future catastrophic consequences.

    I wonder then, if this ‘game’ might not serve a training function in much the same way that other ‘games’ such as flight simulators assist in pilot training? And, since these inquiries have also frequently repeated the mantra that child abuse is everyone’s business, perhaps the gaming community is a good place to disseminate knowledge of the subject?

    But I think what most catches my eye about this description is the emphasis on choice. Too often, child abuse is presented as a technical problem solvable through various mandatory procedures developed from ‘evidence-based’ research. While this approach certainly has merit, it does tend to obscure the role of choice, and therefore the difficult moral issues that confront anyone trying to figure out if something is child abuse, and it is, what should be done about it.

    As I say, I’m not a gamer so I’m not qualified to address the quality of this game, but I am intrigued by its possibilities.

    • What a thoughtful comment.

    • I doubt any social worker ever has a simple choice.

      Pressure to cover up things depending on who is implicated will be relevant in a system that seems geared to placating those in the highest echelons is the problem.

  13. Maurice

    That Detroit game is actually thought provoking… You have to make difficult decisions in the game it will actually tell you more about yourself than any other movie or any other medium. One might actually be able to empathize better with victims (if it’s done right) in a simulation better then any movie or tv series can. And much more importantly no movie or tv-series or play never get it right completely just like these simulations.

    Just because they are called “games” doesn’t mean they are games they are more like simulations and just like any other media they can be either thought-provoking and empathetic to the user or they can be a deterrent. It’s really on the user how he/she would interpret it.

    Stop treating people like children you be surprised with our capacity to evaluate whats accurately represented or not.

    Movie/TV-Series industry created the scourge on society known as celebrity culture it has made all of us shallow and really really dumb. At least in the gaming/simulation industry there are none. The creators of games have to be truly dependent on their art not their number of followers or their likes.

  14. Heavy Rain (also by David Cage) was a very good game and very relevant. At one point you have to murder someone in cold blood (to stop your child being killed). It was horrific.

  15. Liberty

    There is an open-world game where one has to kill a character about 70% of the way through the story to keep the story line going. If you have made your character ‘good and law-abiding’ and only killing evil people/monsters then this is a major choice in the game. I know of one person who never finished the game because his character would not kill an innocent…i.e. put the game down for a week as it bothered me too. I did go through wit it just to finish the game.

    But it shows how one’s morals sticks within even games – some people say violent games desensitise one to violence. I’d say they can challenge ones own real-world values and bring them to the fore.

  16. As someone who has grown up with video games, it is always refreshing when someone tries to take them beyond the generic tropes that tend to be successful.

  17. A related game to this (even though it’s focus is mental health more broadly, not specifically domestic abuse) is Doki Doki Literature Club.

  18. Oftentimes video games are deemed negative towards any sort of emotional growth due to their emphasis on combat and winning. It is such a good point to make, however, that games that are more immersive in difficult topics help make the individual playing these games emphasize more with the game’s subject. It is one thing to say that you understand something, however, it is another thing to actively be in that situation and navigate through it. Putting individuals in harms way is not ideal, so these video games are the perfect solution to that downfall.

  19. Invoking collective social empathy via video games is just like invoking it via a book or other form of art. First, you need to be commercially successful, and only then you can have an impact. Most of the bigger studios like EA, Rockstar, or even CDPR for that matter, don’t really have this as a priority because of the cashflow they need to maintain, and that’s such a bummer.

  20. Really very interesting article

  21. M.C. Cherif

    I like the idea of this article a lot! video games have been regarded as a source of teaching violence while they are the total opposite. Research indicates that even hack and slash games with morbid violence have the ability to relinquish impulsive behavior. Games like Layers of Fear, Beyond: Two Souls, and Life Is Strange have made me even more empathetic and sensitive towards others and even myself. Good work!

  22. interesting take, and I suppose you’re on to something. we see these cultural shifts in hollywood too, why not gaming?

  23. Some intriguing developments in education and treatment here. It’ll be interesting to see further research coming from the video games as therapy realm. Jess Hill wrote a thoroughly researched and nuanced book covering domestic abuse called “See What You Made Me Do” — I cannot recommend it enough to any readers interested in domestic abuse.

  24. I really love this topic. You have provided a insight information. Your article is very informative. Welldone.

  25. This is really fascinating. At first I figured, why would a domestic violence survivor want to re-live that through a video game? But after reading this it definitely makes more sense. Also, I had no idea about empathy education. This was super informative and a great topic to shed light onto!

  26. Sierra Refit

    This was beautifully written and well researched – well done! I loved your approach to rather than banning video games from addressing serious social issues like domestic violence, allow them to be used as a teaching tool. I think that too often humans are afraid to confront the ugly parts of humanity, so we shy away from them and sweep them under the rug, when change won’t come if we don’t face issues head on. I really liked your point that banning these sorts of topics would essentially have more of a negative effect than allowing creators to have free rein with content.

  27. Lucinda

    Really interesting article! It definitely attests to the importance of diverse characters and narratives in gaming.

  28. I think that’s what I really love about video games, it’s easy to immerse yourself into the world and live through the eyes of the player character. It’s a great way to discover the world through the perspective of someone else, and empathize with the character’s struggles.

  29. The idea of video games being used as a tool to employ empathy is new to me. It makes perfect sense. This is something I foresee companies using when training new hires, or when employees go through DEI modules.

  30. I feel as though there is an intersection with gaming and the humanities/literature studies. An excellent professor for my teaching program once said that English and the study of humanities is the teaching of empathy, as literature can become portals to explore the human perspective and thus allow readers to understand and empathize with their fellow human without necessarily agreeing with them. I feel as though video games can have the same effect, if not greater, of immersion into understanding social issues and human perspective.

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