Game-Based Learning

Teaching Empathy With Video Games

Some video games can be used in the classroom to help children develop an awareness of both their own and their peers’ emotions.

April 13, 2018
Two elementary students playing videogames on PCs
©Shutterstock/Poznyakov

Playing video games socially with others can boost a child’s soft skills—those 21st-century competencies that students should possess to be able to compete and innovate in today’s interconnected, global economy.

Soft skills include the so-called 4 Cs: creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, and communication. For example, playing the popular block-building game Minecraft together with friends can put soft skills into practice, as children solve meaningful problems collaboratively.

But can the 4 Cs present in video game play also gird one’s ability to develop social and emotional learning (SEL) skills? In particular, can playing video games make children better aware of their own emotions?

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How Games Can Bring Us Together

Data reported by the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) contradicts some popular opinions about who actually plays video games, and in what contexts. The ESA’s 2017 report found that 94 percent of parents pay attention to the video games played by their children.

And many parents play games together with their children—67 percent do so at least once a week. Video games, it seems, are a medium that doesn’t make us less social—rather, they bind us together.

Games for Change, a nonprofit organization dedicated to games for social impact and good, produced an 88-second tribute to the beauty in video games. And in an article for Polygon, Games for Change president Susanna Pollack said, “Our organization is built on the belief that video games can affect positive change by educating people, building awareness around an issue, or bringing people together.”

Empathy Games

Dr. Karen Schrier and I recently coauthored a working paper for UNESCO’s Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development (MGIEP) titled “The Limits and Strengths of Using Digital Games as ‘Empathy Machines’.” In it, we explored how players can become immersed in game worlds by taking control (agency) of avatars (your digital on-screen representation), and how that affects people’s ability to be empathetic.

As it turns out, when controlling one’s on-screen character there are unique opportunities for taking perspective, one of the components of SEL. For example, we looked at Karen Schrier and David Shaenfield’s study on the game Way from 2016. Way is a two-player game in which all communication is visual—no words are exchanged. The game challenges players to collaborate to succeed at a common goal.

In the paper, we also looked at the literature around the game Spent, a free, text-based poverty simulator. The game is overt in its messaging—making an argument that it is hard to dig oneself out of being poor—but we found a Yale University study that indicated that some people became less empathetic after playing. Because Spent offers players choices, the game seemed to indicate to some players that people are poor because poor people make bad choices.

But that doesn’t invalidate the game’s utility as a teaching tool. Students can play it, write a critique of it, and then make a new version using free interactive fiction tools like Twine or inkleWriter. (For more, see my interactive fiction post.)

We also analyzed That Dragon, Cancer, an autobiographical game about a family who lost a child to cancer. This game restricts player agency, thus indicating that in life, we sometimes don’t have control over what comes at us. In one vignette, players become Ryan, the father, who ineffectively tries to console a crying young Joel overnight in the hospital; however, none of the player’s interactions have consequences, and Joel persists in crying.

Perspective-Taking With Games

I recently spoke to Ami Shah, the cofounder and CEO of Peekapak, a literacy-based platform that uses narrative in children’s books as a foundation to teach young children about empathy. Peekapak also uses self-regulation as a way to help children understand how to manage emotions. Aside from the stories, there’s a suite of play-based activities, including games, to help parents and teachers reinforce concepts presented in the stories.

The game worlds of myPeekaville (which is in beta, or early pre-release version) bring the narratives of the characters to life. In myPeekaville, players must first create avatars, thus becoming Peekapak characters. They then go on quests to help characters overcome challenges and manage emotions. Through a series of mini-games, children practice SEL skills in an immersive setting.

Peekapak specifically leverages animal characters who live in their natural habitats. One example is Leo the Hedgehog, who lives in a burrow. “All of a sudden [students] have to think about life from [Leo’s] point of view, what his life is like and how things are different from his perspective,” Shah explained. Perspective-taking through player agency drives empathetic thinking.