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Can video games be used to teach children empathy? Recent research suggests yes. Intentional video game design can help improve children's emotional capacity.

Jori Hamilton

March 20, 2019

5 Min Read

Since the earliest days of Pong, video games have been a part of our culture. They’ve especially attracted — and maintained — the interest of young children and teenagers, a fact that’s worried parents for generations. With the development of young minds on the line, lots of questions have been raised about the impact of video games on children’s health both mentally and physically.

However, gone are the days of worrying that too many hours of video games will lead to violent or aggressive behavior. Now, researchers are finding ways that video games can help elicit social good in our younger generations. One example is a recent study that found that video games can be a vehicle for developing greater empathy in young children.

A research team at the University of Wisconsin-Madison recently set out to discover whether or not a video game could teach children social values. As reported by Healthline, the team built a sample game in which middle schoolers had to help aliens rebuild their spaceship through a language barrier. Their only means of communication was facial expressions, and the results of the study through this game were astounding.

The Experiment Was a Success

After their subjects played the game for a few hours, it only took a few weeks to see positive results. The children who played the game showed “greater connectivity in the brain pathways dedicated to empathy: experience sharing and perspective taking,” according to the Healthline article on the study. That means that the kids who played the game had a more active part of their brain that allowed them to engage with the world in a more empathetic way.

Of course, not every kid who played demonstrated these results. Children develop at wildly different rates, so that could account for some of the differentiation. The researchers also pointed out that many participants found the game to be easy, and that may have affected the amount of empathy the children gleaned from the experience.

What matters about the study, of course, is that it shows how video games can be used for social good and not just entertainment value. Educational computer games have existed for different age groups for a while, but few really focus on emotional development the way the one in this study does. This research demonstrates how the content and message in a game matter more than anything else.

We Should Build Better Games for Children

It’s worth it to build better games for children. Children spend an increasing amount of time in front of screens as technology advances, so they learn a lot about how they believe the world works from the content they engage with. Games that promote more positive emotional development could help cut down on a number of emotional issues that children experience at a young age, like bullying, for example, which has reached such concerning levels that many schools are engaging in innovative ways to address the issue.

Cyberbullying in particular has become a more widespread issue as new technology is introduced to children at a young age. The disconnect created by long hours on social media can make children think that what they do online doesn’t have real-world consequences. Combined with the boundary exploration that’s a part of growing into an adult, technology in the hands of a middle schooler or teenager can be potentially dangerous.

It’s been proven that technology can be used to improve empathy. In fact, some developers make it their specialty to find ways to incorporate empathy-building into their gaming titles, adding that extra little something to the experience for the user. There are endless opportunities for childhood development by combining gaming and VR or AR for a lesson in empathy.

Technology for a Greater Good

Schools have been using educational video games since the early days of computers, with the popular Oregon Trail simulator getting kids to engage with history in an interactive way. Now they’re used in a variety of ways for a vast array of topics. They can bring a little excitement to the classroom for students who don’t simply want to listen to a lecture. One author even thinks that video games can help change the face of education as we know it.

Greg Toppo released his book “The Game Believes in You” in 2015. In it, he discusses all the ways bringing video games into the classroom can benefit both students and teachers. For one, modern video games encourage both failure and exploration — key tenets of an engaging education that are frequently missing from a traditional classroom. Students are heartily discouraged from failing a math assignment, for example, but there’s no punishment for failing a game level over and over again while they puzzle through the solution.

Going forward, there seems to be an endless amount of opportunity for creating video games for social good. This can help children to become more engaged with the world around them in a connected and empathetic way. It can also help a multi-billion dollar industry give back to the people who keep it moving every day. Video games have never looked so encouraging as they do in the educational world, and that’s a good thing.


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