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How a variation of the Oregon Trail game can help learners develop empathy toward modern-day problems

Empathy is a tough skill to develop through formal training. Here's an elearning sample which may hold some transferable lessons for L&D professionals.

As I fret through the final days of the American presidential election (seriously people, how is this even close??), I find myself spending a lot of time on various news websites, searching for a glimmer of hope that will tell me that everything will be ok.

On Friday, the New York Times didn’t do much to set my mind at ease, but it did publish something that I thought was a great example of how learning and development professionals can leverage technology and rapid authoring tools in order to help create a sense of empathy among their learners: The Voter Suppression Trail (a play off the 1980’s school library classic The Oregon Trail).


Here are three transferable lessons that L&D professionals can take away from this example:

  1. Role play (without having to role play). In this game you can choose between three different personas. While in-person role plays can be awkward, testing the limits of a learner’s acting ability, an online simulation like this allows learners to feel what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes without needing to act in front of other people. It’s one thing to talk about a concept (in this case voter suppression), it’s quite another to experience what different people from different backgrounds may actually face when trying to vote.
  2. A sense of humor. If you’re going to borrow (steal?) an idea from another source (something that I highly recommend because there really aren’t a lot of new ideas out there, just recycled ones), it’s nice to offer a nod to the original source. If you’re able to do so in a clever way, even better. In the original version of The Oregon Trail, my journey was cut short many times when I contracted a case of dysentery. In The Voter Suppression Trail, you’re standing in line to vote and you get a call from the school nurse that one of your children has come down with dysentery. I appreciated the nod toward the original.
  3. Simplicity. I think the best learning experiences include less talking and more doing. This program doesn’t go through the historical roots of voter suppression, it doesn’t go through the processes that local and state governments engage in to restrict (or expand) the ability to vote, it doesn’t provide information about what experts think about the issue. If you want more information like this, there are links to other articles on these topics. Instead, however, learners are challenged to experience what voter suppression looks and feels like and then make up their own minds.

I was amused by the way in which the New York Times introduced game elements to teach their readers about a complex topic – voter suppression – in a fun, light-hearted way. I could absolutely see our organization borrowing this idea and applying it to things like: what it’s like to work in a remote office or what it’s like to be in the shoes of one of our customers.

So, even though Donald Trump has called the New York Times “really disgusting” and “a laughingstock rag”, I appreciated this piece of reporting. Thanks for the inspiration, New York Times!!


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