For years, video games have had a bit of a PR problem.

Gun-heavy games like Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty are often cited as bad influences, especially on children, because of their emphasis on graphic violence.

Seasoned gamers, however, will be familiar with entire genres that focus on positive relationships rather than confrontation — they've built global empires through diplomacy in Civilization or tended to pastoral farms in Stardew Valley.

The subject matter in games has become quite diverse, and rather than compelling you to carry out acts of aggression, many games now ask you to consider the decisions behind them.

Take This War of Mine, which puts you in the shoes of a civilian trying to escape a conflict zone, or Papers, Please, where you play an immigration officer approving or denying applicants on the border of a 1980s authoritarian state.

Commentators have coined them "serious" or "empathy" games, which use their narratives and underlying mechanics to evoke powerful human emotions.

The United Nations has taken notice, which is why UNESCO's Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace (UNESCO-MGIEP) commissioned a Toronto researcher to write an extensive study on the topic.

Not only that, but the UN is set to release two empathy games of its own.

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Unlike many popular games, empathy games often put you in a sitaution of powerlessness. (Ink Stories)

When done right, games such as these can be more effective than traditional media like film or books in inspiring compassion, says Paul Darvasi, who teaches at Royal St. George's College in Toronto.

"The interesting thing about video games is you make the decisions while you're playing, and then you also have to deal with the consequences of those decisions," said Darvasi.

That level of immersion "brings you much closer to the reality of the situation," he says, and has the potential to foster greater understanding between people of different perspectives and life experiences.

Empathy through interaction

In a statement, UNESCO-MGIEP director Anantha Duraiappah told CBC News that when it comes to evoking empathy, "video games have an edge over traditional classroom teaching."

In the study, Darvasi examined several games for their potential "to cultivate perspective-taking and empathy [and] explore ethical dilemmas."

In other words, players learn to appreciate complex moral quandaries when they are forced to play them out themselves and confront the consequences.

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Your characters in This War of Mine can die of starvation, wounds or even depression if you don't manage their health and morale. (11 bit studios)

The games that Darvasi studied often take place in settings familiar to action games, like war zones. The difference is that they place you in a position of vulnerability rather than power.

In Hush, a free-to-play game set during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, players must help a Tutsi woman keep her child asleep by singing lullabies in order not to attract attention from a Hutu patrol.

The study also looks at 1979 Revolution: Black Friday, an adventure game set in the Iranian Revolution. Players take on the role of Reza, a photographer documenting protests against the Shah who finds himself increasingly embroiled in the political unrest.

In several scenes, Reza, detained in Tehran's notorious Evin Prison, must decide whether to cooperate with his interrogator. Choosing to resist or comply will determine whether his brother, who is also imprisoned, will be tortured.

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Paul Darvasi's UNESCO paper argues that video games can be used to promote peace education and conflict resolution. (CBC)

"I believe that suspense and action can be just as strong when somebody's shooting at you by ducking and trying to choose, 'Who do I save — my brother or my cousin?'" said Navid Khonsari, the Iranian-Canadian producer behind 1979 Revolution, in a CBC Radio interview last year.

"That element can be just as suspenseful as picking up a gun and shooting the soldiers back."

Survivor's guilt

In This War of Mine, you control several civilians in a ruined city loosely based on the 1996 siege of Sarajevo during the Bosnian war. They have to scavenge ruins for food and supplies while tending to their injuries and avoiding sniper fire.

Players often have to steal from, harm or even kill other characters to survive.

From a strategic perspective, you take advantage of every available resource to do so. But does the equation change when the resources are the lives of other people who are also simply trying to survive?

This War of Mine brings empathy to the forefront by asking players whether they're willing to sacrifice compassion to win.

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In 1979 Revolution: Black Friday, you are Reza, a photographer observing the political unrest during the Iranian Revolution. (iNK Stories)

"I was aghast at how quickly my empathy eroded in a video game, which made me more cognizant of its fragility in real life," wrote Evan Narcisse in his review for the gaming site Kotaku.

"It's the kind of game that could potentially change the way you watch the news, treat others or cast a vote in an election."

Games for peace education

UNESCO-MGIEP is so committed to exploring the potential for social-justice education that it plans on launching two games made in-house.

World Rescue, due in March, asks players to solve global problems such as disease, deforestation and drought. Another, as-yet unnamed title based on the UN's Inclusive Wealth Index forces players to strike a balance between building short-term wealth and long-term sustainability.

Although he lauds empathy-driven games, Darvasi cautions that playing them won't instantly teach someone to be a better person — any more than playing a first-person shooter automatically breeds real-life violence.

"Much work remains to be done before this emergent, complex and rapidly evolving medium can be more effectively leveraged for the ends of social good," he writes.