Science & Technology

Scientists Used Video Games to Teach Children Empathy

Video games get a bad rap for being violent and addictive. But let's face it: Kids love them. They're entertaining, stress relieving, and a great way to spend time with friends. Since the love of video games isn't going anywhere, a team of researchers decided to see if they could use video games for good. It turns out that they can.

Related Video: Are Your Emotions Contagious?

Game On

According to data from the Kaiser Family Foundation, kids between the ages 8 and 18 rack up more than 70 minutes of video game play daily. It's during these years that critical cognitive and emotional development takes place, and some worry that the intense stimuli of video games might put kids' brains at risk. That's why researchers from University of Wisconsin-Madison decided to see if they could use video games for positive emotional development by designing a game to boost children's empathy.

Picture this: A space-exploring robot crashes on an unfamiliar planet, leaving its spaceship unusable. The only way to repair it? Build emotional rapport with the local alien inhabitants. The problem is that the robot and the aliens speak totally different languages. Luckily, the aliens' facial expressions are remarkably human-like. To win the game, kids have to learn to identify the type and intensity of emotion the alien's faces are displaying, whether it's anger, fear, happiness, surprise, disgust, or sadness. The hope was that as they played, the kids would learn how to better understand the emotions of their fellow humans.

For the study, researchers randomly assigned 150 middle schoolers to two groups. The first group would play the experimental empathy-training game, which was called "Crystals of Kaydor," while the researchers measured how accurate they were in identifying the characters' emotions. The second group played the commercially available action role-playing game "Bastion," which isn't designed to measure empathy. The researchers had the kids play their assigned games for two weeks. Both before and after the study period, the researchers scanned the children's brains in an fMRI machine to help them measure brain connectivity, especially among areas associated with empathy and emotion regulation. During each brain scan, the researchers also had every participant complete tests that measured how accurately they could empathize with other people.

I Can't Fight This Feeling

The results, which were published in the Nature Journal npj Science of Learning, revealed that kids who played "Crystals of Kaydor" for two weeks showed greater connectivity in brain networks related to empathy and perspective taking than those who played the other game. What's more, some "Crystals of Kaydor" players showed more connectivity in emotion regulation as well, and these players also improved more on their empathy test after playing the video game. The kids who didn't show an increase in brain connectivity didn't improve their scores on the empathy test. That shows that while video games could help some kids build empathy skills, it's not a cure-all for everyone.

Richard Davidson, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at UW Madison, explained in a press release that teaching empathy is the first step in helping change bad behaviors by causing the urge to help others in need. He states "If we can't empathize with another's difficulty, the motivation to help won't arise." By teaching empathy skills in something as universal as a video game, the whole population could benefit.

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For more on the psychology of gaming, check out "Getting Gamers: The Psychology of Video Games and Their Impact on the People who Play Them" by Jamie Madigan. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Annie Hartman September 7, 2018

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