Strengthening Empathy Skills: From Digital to Reality

Empathy is defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. At Kognito, we know that building empathy skills is incredibly valuable when it comes to fostering relationships in classrooms, clinics, and our daily informal settings. That’s why, as a writer at Kognito, I want to meet people where they are, and incorporate empathy skills into every simulation that I work on.
People matter, and of course our end goal is for our users to apply empathy skills in real life. So why do we design learning experiences that teach empathy skills in the digital space as opposed to the real world?

Making Kognito Simulations Feel Alive

Part of the “secret sauce” that makes Kognito simulations seem so alive is how our virtual humans dynamically react to your choices, and remember those dialogue choices going forward. When a digital character has a memory, they start to feel more alive, and create a better opportunity to practice empathy skills.

As a writer, my team and I have several key roles. We work closely with instructional designers to create the structure and language that goes into a simulation. We think as much about meaningful choice as we do character and conflict. Writers add a lot of the drama to Kognito simulations to help the conversations feel less like a multiple choice test, and more like a natural dialogue between two people.

Every time Kognito starts developing a simulation, we start from the ground up by answering some key questions, such as:

  • What skills do we want learners to practice, and how can we naturally weave those choices into the conversation?
  • What range of approaches can we offer to learners? Which approaches are more effective? Which approaches are less effective?
  • How will the other character in the conversation react to a dialogue choice immediately, and how will they remember that choice as the conversation continues?

Building Empathy Skills with Charlie

These questions help us take steps toward making the simulation as lifelike as possible. One example in my own writing here at Kognito was for the Trauma-Informed Practices for K12 Schools simulation. I was the lead writer for the middle school practice conversation with a student named Charlie.


Charlie had some intense reactions to an assigned book in her English class where a dog gets hurt, and hasn’t been participating in class. Her teacher Mr. Bauer sits down with her to check in. The learner assumes the role of Mr. Bauer, and Charlie will dynamically react to what he (you) chooses to say.

This is a conversation that takes place in two parts, with a week in between. We wanted learners to get the sense that it would take time to support a student who was experiencing some mental health challenges in class.

Dynamic Reactions

When writing for a simulation, our team outlines with a logic chart that visualizes outcomes of the conversation based on dialogue options that the user chooses.

In this conversation, if learners are dismissive and judgemental – telling Charlie that she has to participate in class discussions no matter what – Charlie will ask to leave the first conversation early, and the simulation ends. Learners see guidance on where they might want to consider different choices, then they get the chance to restart the conversation.

If learners have consistently been supportive, the moment plays out a little differently. The conversation continues to explore Charlie’s feelings about the book. In this path, Mr. Bauer had built up enough trust earlier for Charlie to decide to stay and give him another chance.

After building trust in the first conversation, here’s another example of where paths can diverge. They can choose to offer Charlie the opportunity to write in her journal instead of only reinforcing her need to speak up in class.


If learners said Charlie could write in her journal: If learners said Charlie could not write in her journal:

Mr. Bauer: Hi Charlie, I’m glad it worked out for us to talk again.

Charlie: Me too, I like talking with you.

Mr. Bauer: I like what you wrote in your journal yesterday about the dog symbolizing the boy’s childhood.

Charlie: Thanks. I liked what you said about characters representing parts of other characters.

Mr. Bauer: Hi Charlie, I figured it was time we had another chat.

Charlie: Sure.

Mr. Bauer: I haven’t seen quite as much of an improvement in your participation as I would have hoped. I’d like to talk a little more about that, if that’s okay.

Charlie: Okay.

Applying Empathy through Virtual Humans

Since Charlie’s responses change based on a series of choices in the past, it begins to feel more like a natural conversation. It’s less about the need to always choose the “best” response, and more about how to build a trusting relationship with another person over time.

And, learners are practicing what it means to see the world from Charlie’s perspective as they make choices for Mr. Bauer.

If they go into the conversation with the goal of convincing Charlie to act the way Mr. Bauer wants her to act, Charlie will get upset and leave. If they listen to what Charlie needs and find ways to meet those needs, Charlie will begin to sit up straighter, have more confidence, and eventually feel safer and supported in the classroom. If you’re interested in trying out a conversation like this for yourself, try a demo of Trauma-Informed Practices here!

Building Empathy Skills Through Simulations: 3 Steps

The Charlie conversation touches on some sensitive subjects, so we wanted to convey the value in taking small steps. In order to “understand and share the feelings of another,” a person like Charlie needs to feel enough trust to share their feelings. So the first step to empathy is to:

1. Build trust

In the conversation with Charlie, learners have to build trust in the first meeting in order to advance to the second one. There are a lot of ways to build trust, but one that’s pretty universal across Kognito simulations is to listen actively. When people feel heard, they are more likely to speak up. Depending on the past relationship between the characters, this may take a little time.

In Kognito simulations, learners are in no way rushed through the content.

  • The majority of the work allows learners to explore options, undo their choices, and generally take their time.
  • Learners can pause the simulation at any time, whether during a didactic movie or the conversation itself.
  • If learners need to leave the simulation for any reason, they can pick up exactly where they left off.

Once trust is built up, one or both characters will take the next step toward empathy, which is to:

2. Be vulnerable

This is one of the best ways writers at Kognito can reward learners for making effective choices. There’s a lot of value in little moments where a character opens up about their feelings or shares a little information. In the conversation with Charlie, Mr. Bauer can talk about how he had a dog growing up, and how he also felt upset when he read the book in question. Charlie responds well to this, when she feels like Mr. Bauer is comfortable opening up to her.

In Kognito simulations, learners are asked to explore some pretty intense topics.

  • We work with subject matter experts and people with lived experience to create simulations that are as realistic as possible without being needlessly explicit.
  • All conversations created by Kognito encourage more supportive, understanding dialogues between people.
  • Some of the choices offered to learners can lead to pretty heartfelt reactions from the virtual humans, delivered by high-quality voice acting talent with nuanced 3D animations.

And finally, when the other character has been brave enough to share their thoughts and feelings, the final step is to:

3. Gently reinforce a safe space

By offering Charlie the chance to write in her journal, Mr. Bauer is giving Charlie a safe space to express herself. It’s never easy for anyone to open up, especially folks who are in intense situations. When someone decides to open up, it’s important to react in a way that makes them feel like it’s okay they shared without pressuring them to share any more.

In Kognito simulations, there’s no judgment from any aspect of the content.

  • Text is carefully written with experts to give feedback on choices that supports improving for all learners.
  • Learner dashboards dynamically respond to choices made throughout the simulation, always from the perspective of what a learner did well and where they can work on improving.
  • At the end of the day, despite all the effort that goes into creating these dynamic worlds… Kognito simulations are not real. This allows people to practice without the same stakes they face when they interact with a real person.

For all these reasons, Kognito simulations not only promote empathy within the digital world, but give people a call to action that goes beyond digital interactions.

Back to Reality

Here’s one of many examples of those who went on to help other real people because of  Kognito:

“I think this is helpful to make sure that we’re not making a situation all about us and balancing the need to empathize with a student with asking them more open ended questions. I think there have been times when I have approached a student with immediate setting of expectations or judgmental language, rather than being more neutral or open-ended.”
-Educator who completed a Trauma-Informed Practices simulation

Across other Kognito simulations, our survey data capture how more people are engaging in important mental health conversations with students. With the At-Risk for Middle School Educators simulation, data show a 66% increase in the number of learners who approached students to have a conversation after completing a Kognito simulation.

In the end, that’s what makes Kognito’s work stand out. As the world we’re in becomes increasingly digital, Kognito uses those screens to bring learners back to taking action in the real world. In multiple ways, Kognito simulations give people practice with building trust, being vulnerable, and gently creating a safe space. Because at the core of Kognito’s design is one simple, easily overlooked idea.

People matter.

Ben Zeiger is a writer at Kognito. He was featured at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival for an interactive short called Holy Night, and has won awards in the past for TV Pilot teleplays. He has been a lead writer for eight Kognito conversations.

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