My research with Maja Djikic and Raymond Mar suggests that reading fiction improves empathy and social intelligence. But do films, TV, and video games bring the same benefits? The answer is yes, they can, but it depends on the subject matter of each work and the intention behind it.
When we talk about intention, we must make a distinction between art and non-art. In our view, non-artistic communication tries to produce some specific emotional response. In a thriller, for instance, the intention is to produce anxiety, which will later be relieved. But in art, the intention is to give people material to create their own thoughts and emotions.
No sharp boundary can be drawn: Fine art can have political implications; advertisements can have artistic aspects. Many fiction films share properties with short stories and novels. Just as in reading, film viewers must create simulated worlds. The camera is in places a person could never be. But there are differences between writing and film: Literary fiction can more easily prompt inner reflection, whereas films juxtapose verbal and visual elements in ways that can be more literal and manipulative.
The second consideration is subject matter. My colleagues and I argue that literary fiction tends to be about problems of understanding selves and others in the social world. But some movies and video games actually seek to obstruct that understanding, particularly in the use of violence. Most violent television programs and games offer experiences of angry vengefulness, but little in the way of suffering or consequences.
In these cases, violent, non-artistic media have the opposite effect of a short story by Anton Chekhov or a novel by Jane Austen. Instead of encouraging understanding of ourselves and others, they limit empathy and social intelligence.