Two figure talking, two speech balloons above them intersecting with an 'I' inside

The Goal

The goal is for players to understand how they communicate and work with others' ways of thinking...

Three people sitting around a table, playing the game

The Gameplay

...by speaking and listening creatively to solve puzzle-based challenges together.

Two people highfiving after completing the game

The Outcome

...The challenges and behaviours act as play metaphors that represent how we face and engage with social or academic problems outside the game.

The Empathy Toy is a puzzle.

...But not the kind you can solve alone – or the kind with one right answer.

  • The game is simple. The pieces are low-tech. There are no intricacies to blame or cause confusion. The only unpredictable factor is you and the other players. Can you build a common language?
  • You practice collaboration – not just division of labour. You can only succeed by understanding the different perspectives on the same challenge.
  • You learn to communicate creatively – and listen with an open mind for clues, needs, assumptions, blind spots.
  • The sensory problem is immediately personal. The game demands a rare focus and engagement with others – not to mention precise wording. No multi-tasking here.
  • Insights come quickly. These become metaphors for how we think, communicate, learn, and work together.
  • Play metaphors open up difficult conversations in a relaxed, low-stakes way. (It's "just a game", right?)
  • The tangible, tactile artifact leaves physical proof of your communication and interaction.

Basic Gameplay

(at a glance)

You'll need:
5 – 25 minutes
3 – 10 players
1 toy set
  • One half light half dark circular piece (x2), one half light half dark short arrow (x2), and one half light half dark long arrow

    5 light pieces & 5 dark pieces in a set. Half-sets are identical in every other way.

  • Short light arrow and long dark arrow connected

    Different sizes and ways to connect.

  • One dark circular piece and one light circular piece together

    Tactile and semantic clues: textures, Braille-like bumps, grooves and dovetails.

  • Three different patterns using the Empathy Toy pieces

    Thousands of potential patterns.

  • More ways to play...
    1. Choose your role (guide, builder or observer).

      The guide and builder explore how the puzzle pieces fit together (this will avoid undue frustration once the game begins).

      The observer instructs the guide and the builder to put on blindfolds.

      The observer gives the builder the light puzzle pieces.

      The observer assembles a pattern of dark pieces and gives it to the guide.

    2. Game objective: The builder must assemble their puzzle pieces to match the guide's pattern. They have only their words to describe the pattern.

      Observers watch, but may not speak. If the guide's pieces fall apart, an observer can put them back together.

      When the builder and guide believe they have matching puzzle patterns, they remove their blindfolds.

    3. After the gameplay here are some questions to ask...

      What was the most challenging for the guide, builder, and observer?

      How did the players help each other?

      What instructions worked most/least effectively? Why?

      How did your communication change throughout the game? Why did it change?

    4. More ways to play...

      More Ways to Play

      1. Choose your role (guide, builder or observer).

        The guide and builder explore how the puzzle pieces fit together (this will avoid undue frustration once the game begins).

        The observer instructs the guide and the builder to put on blindfolds.

        The observer gives the builder the light puzzle pieces.

        The observer assembles a pattern of dark pieces and gives it to the guide.

      2. Game objective: The builder must assemble their puzzle pieces to match the guide's pattern. They have only their words to describe the pattern.

        Observers watch, but may not speak. If the guide's pieces fall apart, an observer can put them back together.

        When the builder and guide believe they have matching puzzle patterns, they remove their blindfolds.

      3. After the gameplay here are some questions to ask...

        What was the most challenging for the guide, builder, and observer?

        How did the players help each other?

        What instructions worked most/least effectively? Why?

        How did your communication change throughout the game? Why did it change?

      4. More ways to play...

      More Ways to Play

    • Observers as Lifelines

      Two people playing with the Observer giving a hint

      Observers can provide a one sentence hint at a player's request.

      Maximum 3 hints per game - choose these lifelines wisely!

      ?

      What made each hint useful (or not)?

    • Questions Only

      Two people playing, one can only ask questions and is questioning the Guide

      The builder can only speak in questions

      The guide only speaks when responding to the builder's questions.

      ?

      What's the difference between learning from instructions and learning from questions?

    • Multiple Guides

      Two guides sharing a pattern with the builder, while the Observer watches

      2 or more guides share a puzzle pattern and provide directions to 1 builder

      The builder is blindfolded, but the guides DO NOT wear blindfolds.

      The guides take turns, providing one sentence instructions at a time.

      ?

      What's challenging about having multiple bosses?

    • Text Message Communication

      Two people playing and communicating via text messages

      The builder and guide DO NOT wear blindfolds.

      They sit back to back so they can't see each other's puzzle pieces.

      They can only communicate in text message.

      ?

      What are some ways you were able to get a lot of info into few words?

    • Syncing it Up

      Two people playing while the Observer watches

      An observer builds two slightly different patterns - one out of the light pieces and one out of the dark pieces.

      Each pattern is given to a different blindfolded player.

      The 2 blindfolded players must make the shapes identical, moving as few puzzle pieces as possible.

      ?

      What skills were required to solve this challenge?

    • Multiple Builders

      Three people building the same pattern while the Observer watches

      1 guide provides directions to 2 or more builders.

      The builders share puzzle pieces, and take turns building.

      ?

      What are the drawbacks of having multiple people work on the same problem? What are the benefits?

    • Co-Building

      Two players trying to build together

      2 blindfolded players each start with loose puzzle pieces.

      They must create two identical patterns using all five of their pieces.

      The players decide what pattern to create as they play.

      ?

      How did you decide what pattern to build?

    • A Guide Without a Puzzle

      Two people playing and trying to create the same pattern at the same time, with the Guide dictacting what to build

      2 builders start with loose pieces and must create two identical patterns.

      A guide decides what pattern they build.

      The guide DOES NOT have a built puzzle to refer to and must imagine the pattern they are describing.

      ?

      What's challenging about describing a picture you have in your head?

    K - 12 Outcomes

    See how educators are using the physical challenges of the Empathy Toy to help their students improve a variety of abstract, 4C, and social-emotional skills.

    Show me how

    Our Roots

      From a student project . . .

    • Our founder Ilana Ben-Ari speaks at TEDx Concordia on the development of the Empathy Toy – originally meant to be a navigational aid designed with the Canadian National Institute for the Blind.
      Ilana Ben-Ari
      Speaking at
      TEDxConcordia
    • It all started as a student project with a very specific assignment: design a navigational aid for the blind. Address the key questions of, "Where am I? Where am I going? How do I get there?" ...and how a visually impaired person might get others to help them answer them.

      . . . to a classroom tool.

    • See a few moments of game play across the age spectrum.
    • Exploring the problem through a toy resulted in an open-ended tool that mainstream educators and even the public can use to come to rich lessons and deep insights. It made us passionate about harnessing the unscripted energy of play for other under-practiced skills.