George Lucas Educational Foundation
Facing a large monitor, three elementary school-aged boys play a video game.
Social and Emotional Learning

How Gaming Connects to SEL and Career Readiness

Leverage your students’ interests in gaming to build social and emotional learning—skills that will be valuable in their future jobs.

What kinds of jobs will our students have, and how well are we preparing them for the future? The World Economic Forum, a not-for-profit foundation, is reaching out to educators worldwide. Their call to educators includes redefining what it means to be educated and prepared for work and civic participation—as well as an integration of technology. 

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According to the World Economic Forum’s 2016 report titled New Vision for Education: Fostering Social and Emotional Learning Through Technology, “To thrive in the 21st century, students need more than traditional academic learning. They must be adept at collaboration, communication, and problem solving, which are some of the skills developed through social and emotional learning (SEL). Coupled with mastery of traditional skills, social and emotional proficiency will equip students to succeed in the swiftly evolving digital economy.”

For Future Jobs, SEL Will Matter Greatly

The report also says, “A projected 65 percent of children entering grade school will work in jobs that do not exist today, a transformation that will require social and emotional skills such as creativity, initiative, and adaptability to navigate. Some economists argue that the emerging labor market will require workers to be able to solve unstructured problems, work with new information, and carry out non-routine manual tasks.”

What we can be most sure about in the future is that our ability to know our own feelings and thoughts, solve problems, and establish and sustain positive, constructive relationships will matter tremendously. A recent longitudinal analysis by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) titled Skills for Social Progress: The Power of Social and Emotional Skills claimed that social and emotional skills will play a pivotal role in improving children’s chances of success in facing the challenges of the 21st century. 

The debate about SEL should be over. However, we still have to grapple with the power of current educational mindsets among adults as well as children. Adolescents and young adults are pessimistic about the range of jobs within their reach, and traditional educational modes categorize many students through a deficit lens, leaving children with a negative mindset about themselves and their learning potential. And this has a contagious effect on some educators, who also believe that some students are limited in their potential vocational and educational attainment.  

Games Can Bridge SEL and Job Readiness

I recently spoke with Jessica Berlinski, an educational technology entrepreneur and consultant in SEL, about how technology and SEL can forge a great synergy for our students’ future benefit. Berlinski is also the cofounder of two SEL game companies and consults with organizations about how to leverage technology to build SEL in youths.

EDUTOPIA: In the New Vision report, surveys identified SEL competencies and character as increasingly important in jobs.

JESSICA BERLINSKI: To succeed at work, people must be able not only to analyze problems without the benefit of an instruction sheet but also to communicate their findings to others, across borders and time zones. Jobs of the future certainly will continue to require routine manual abilities. However, the résumés of successful candidates will need to include social and emotional proficiency.

EDUTOPIA: Most kids won’t see that their SEL skills and character matter in future jobs. How can technology and gaming show them otherwise?

BERLINSKI: I don’t think it’s enough to say that SEL skills and character development are increasingly important—they’re critical. It’s easy to see why tech skills like coding are necessary for future jobs. What’s less obvious, but proven equally as necessary, is that SEL skills are needed for these same jobs. An on-the-rise company that trains future coders, Dev Bootcamp, evidences this with their Engineering Empathy curriculum. For real-world success, they know students need empathy, communication, and problem-solving skills, so they explicitly teach them alongside teaching them coding. 

Fortunately kids love tech, specifically games. Gaming provides a great opportunity for educators to build their students’ SEL skills and make explicit how SEL will help prepare them for future jobs. First, teachers can introduce students to games where they can use SEL skills in real-world job situations. Second, teachers can show students how the games they’re already playing are building their SEL skills while preparing them for future jobs. 

EDUTOPIA: Tell me about the first category. Where can teachers go to find games that connect SEL skills to careers—games that help illustrate for kids what jobs are like and what is required?

BERLINSKI: Classroom Inc. should be a first stop. Their two signature games—After the Storm and Community in Crisis—put middle school students in the roles of the editor of a magazine and director of a community center, respectively. Kids navigate a real-world crisis of a hurricane hitting their community as the working professional in charge. They learn that critical thinking and strong decision-making are must-have skills. One student recently shared that he “really likes being the boss” because he doesn’t get to make decisions in his real life. The game helped him realize his decision-making is valuable. He felt empowered. 

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The Perspective Games section of BrainPop’s GameUp and Common Sense Education’s biweekly list of SEL-focused apps are also worth checking out. 

EDUTOPIA: Now tell me how teachers can leverage students’ engagement in the games they’re already playing to build SEL and connect to future jobs. That seems harder.

BERLINSKI: It’s not, and you don’t necessarily need to know specifics about games to do it. Here’s a simple exercise:

  1. Ask your students to identify what job they’re interested in or imagine what kind of job they might like.
  2. Have them share their favorite game. What are they playing? This also serves to establish your interest in their world and your acknowledgement that their interests have value. (By the way, if they are not playing an electronic game, you can still help them make the same kind of connections.)
  3. Have them identify the SEL skills they’re currently using in the game: collaboration, persistence, decision-making, communication skills, problem solving, and empathy, for example. Where and how do they use them? 
  4. Have them identify and share how their future job will require those skills or how they might use them on the job.

I did this with a small group of middle and high school students recently.  Among many examples, Charlie, a senior, wants to be a business manager like his dad. His current favorite game is Pokémon Go (the augmented reality game that requires kids to move in the real world to catch different Pokémon characters). First he identified the need for tenacity in the game. He told me, “You have to keep moving around to find the Pokémon, and sometimes that can take a while.” 

Charlie then shared with me that his favorite part of playing was teaching his friends about the game world. He got into the game first, so he knew more than they did. He told me it boosted his confidence and he liked acting in the role of a leader. He also anticipated that these skills of communication, leadership, and persistence will be critical to securing a managerial role in the finance industry. 

As it happens, this process—of connecting students’ interests to learning and to real-world opportunities and vocational possibilities—is connected learning in action and is a tangible example of how tech can foster effective pedagogy for students.

Building SEL Skills and Positive Mindsets

Berlinski makes a key point: Children are attracted to games, and educators (and parents) can be alert to using games as tools to build kids’ SEL skills, show how these skills matter in all kinds of jobs, and perhaps most importantly, help children better understand how to prepare themselves for success in life. Children’s experiences with games can contribute to building positive mindsets with regard to preparation for and securing meaningful jobs. 

How have you used games and technology to teach SEL? What are your experiences with opening children’s perspectives about what matters in future jobs? Please share your stories in the comments section below.

About the Author
  • Maurice J. Elias Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (www.secdlab.org), Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (engage.rutgers.edu) @SELinSchools
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Andrew Lopez's picture

Honestly why do you guys hate tech? We as a country are moving into a day and age were paper and pencil soon will die. Not only that, but coding or making any type of game is a all around educational thing. For example, I was recently doing a project in my hardware class. While I was in that class I came across a very complicated math equation because I had to code a program so I was able to install some software into a computer. Not only that, I have a very close friend who is in the Video Game Programming class. In that class you have to know words that you would never thought they existed. So if you do reply to this comment and tell me that I am wrong I will prove to you that I am correct in many ways.

Maurice J. Elias's picture
Maurice J. Elias
Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (www.secdlab.org), Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (engage.rutgers.edu)

Tech is the Future!
Andrew, I am not sure you meant your comment for our blog, but the point of the blog is that the SEL/SECD world has to embrace technology. I feel as if we are on the cusp of new technologies that will make teaching SEL sklls and character even more effective.

Stevie Lucero's picture

I found this artical very interesting. I am a student in the process of obtaining my Inclusive elementary education degree. So as you can imagen it is very crucial for me to find ways to integrate technology into my future classroom. I found your connection of SEL and gaming very interesting. I too believe that students can learn real life lessons through video games, and I think by bringing such topics up in the classroom and integrating the students personal favorites is a great way to engage students in the lesson. I think it is imporant for students to recognize these features in games do actually relate to their futures. However, i did come up with one question, how do you incorporate games that are not suitable for the classroom. What i mean by that is, alot of students are playing video games such as Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty. These games are ment for a much more mature audience, however, many younger students are playing them. So how would i as a future educator respond to a student who asks how one of these games relate to the "real world" or SEL subjects?

Dr. Kendra Strange's picture
Dr. Kendra Strange
Principal | Achievement Consultant | Curriculum Specialist

Activating student interest automatically increases engagement. It's a win win strategy.
Dr. Kendra Strange Shaffer

John S. Thomas's picture
John S. Thomas
First & Second Grade Teacher/Adjunct faculty Antioch University New England, former Elementary Principal

Stevie, If a student asked, I would say that those two game examples don't relate much to the real world except for very unpleasant situations. Hopefully when kids play them they realize how unrealistic they are in regard to the real world interactions. I hear you on the younger kids playing these sorts of games. The things they are witnessing in a very realistic way are not good for developing brains. As a classroom teacher I share and meet with parents in our community to help them understand the implications of younger children playing and even watching these sorts of games. I've even done a gaming night to help parents understand more about the issues at hand. Add to this situation the horrible and hateful language used in the audio chats during the multiplayer games. I try to share game links with families like Roblox https://www.roblox.com and Minecraft https://minecraft.net/en-us/ to help these kids find more age appropriate games that still have bad guys, swords, and or battles but also include virtual building blocks more like Legos.

Kelly SimpsonRoberts's picture

This is a very relevant article, in that as it notates, career paths within technology and gaming will flourish, and as educators it is essentially our role to provide students with the knowledge and the awareness to pursue these potential career paths. There is naturally the Catch 22 in which we allow students to practice this activity, and they tune out the content, and focus only on the gaming, or the Internet.

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