Can Video Games Actually Teach Kids Empathy? New Study Says Yes

Researchers have discovered a video game designed to teach children empathy can change young brains and improve social behavior.

kids empathy

The Wall Street Journal recently released a story with a concerning headline: Videogame Developers Are Making It Harder to Stop Playing. Relying on commentary from parents, mental health experts, and industry insiders, the piece spoke to changes game developers have made over the years to create games that are more pervasive, enthralling, and ultimately harder to turn off.

It’s a reality many parents have become used to, prompting even the World Health Organization to add a new diagnosis to their International Classification of Diseases: gaming disorder.

But screens aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, and neither are the video games being played on those screens. Which is what prompted a research team from the University of Wisconsin–Madison to ask the question: Is there a way to use the games kids are playing to teach pro-social values?

The team set out to find an answer to their question by developing an experimental game for middle-schoolers titled “Crystals of Kaydor.” It was designed with the goal of potentially boosting empathy in the kids who had the opportunity to play it.

“The task for us became really, how can we use this technology in ways that are less addictive and also socially valuable?” lead researcher and professor of psychology and psychiatry at UW-Madison, Richard Davidson, PhD, told Healthline.

The basic premise of “Crystals of Kaydor” includes a distant planet, a damaged spaceship, and the need to communicate with local alien life, despite the existing language barrier. In this game, facial expressions are the only thing players have to go off of in building relationships with the aliens they need help from.

The research team began studying kids playing the game and discovered it worked. Within just two weeks of playing the game, study participants were exhibiting greater connectivity in the brain pathways dedicated to empathy: experience sharing and perspective taking.

However, not all kids who played the game demonstrated improvements in behavioral measures of empathic accuracy, but the researchers concluded that may have been because most participants found the game to be quite easy.

So, while one size may not fit all in terms of video game teaching tools, there does appear to be potential for video games to positively impact the social awareness of those playing the games.

“The problem isn’t the medium, the problem is the message,” Davidson explained. “If we could get game manufacturers to take this seriously and to design games that cultivate the heart rather than killing people, think about how beneficial that could be for the social and emotional development of kids.”

The decline of empathy

It’s a point that’s worth considering, especially as research shows an otherwise declining rate of empathy among American college students. Analyzing the data of almost 14,000 college students dating back 30 years, students today score about 40 percent lower in empathy than their counterparts of just a few decades ago.

But what’s at risk with this declining empathy rate?

Monica Jackman is an occupational therapist located in Port St. Lucie, Florida. She told Healthline, “Empathy is an important precursor to social awareness, social connection, relationship building, and subsequent actualization of pro-social behavior.”

Without it, kids may be less likely to notice when another person is suffering or to show remorse after hurting someone else. Meanwhile, they’re more likely to mock or laugh at others.

These aren’t exactly qualities most parents would want to see in their children. And as it turns out, they’re also not qualities that lend well to future life success.

“We know that a child’s emotional and social intelligence is actually a better predictor of major adult life outcomes than grades, standardized test scores, and IQ all put together,” Davidson explained. “We also know that the teenage years are a time when the influence of the peer group becomes more important. Being able to put yourself in another person’s shoes is absolutely a key ingredient to reducing the kinds of challenges teenagers face today, like bullying.”

The link to bullying

A connection has been found between a lack of empathy and rates of bullying, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported on the relationship between bullying and suicide, stating, “We know that bullying behavior and suicide-related behavior are closely related. This means youth who report any involvement with bullying behavior are more likely to report high levels of suicide-related behavior than youth who don’t report any involvement with bullying behavior.”

StopBullying.gov reports that between 25 and 33 percent of U.S. students say they’ve been victims of bullying at school, and that kids who’ve been bullied are more likely to experience “depression and anxiety, increased feelings of sadness and loneliness, changes in sleep and eating patterns, and loss of interest in activities they used to enjoy.”

These feelings don’t necessarily go away once the child enters adulthood and escapes the torment of their bullies.

So, if a video game could improve empathy for the kids playing, and improved empathy reduces the possibility of a child potentially becoming a bully and hurting others, new video games developed with this in mind could potentially have a profound social impact.

Other ways to improve empathy in adolescents

Of course, video games aren’t the only way to teach children empathy.

Dr. David Hill, a pediatrician and chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Communications and Media, told Healthline, “I think the best way to improve empathy remains face to face contact with other human beings, especially with the guidance of parents and family members who might help kids to understand the situations they’re encountering.”

Hill called the idea of a video game used to improve empathy an “interesting adjunct to the learning process,” and talked specifically about kids who may have a harder time developing empathy than others.

“For those kids, every interaction with another person has the potential to turn negative. One of the advantages of a game like this is the stakes are very low. So, it’s possible that building those skills in a virtual environment could makes those personal interactions less fraught,” he said.

Jackman agreed, saying, “Given that some children have difficulties with social interaction and social cognition and may lack the motivation to engage in social situations, video game modalities offer a way to introduce empathetic and emotional awareness skills in a way that may be fun, motivating, and socially nonthreatening.”

Still, both Jackman and Hill insisted that parents have the best opportunity to teach empathy to their children.

They suggest:

providing positive reinforcement for signs of empathetic understandingmodeling empathetic behaviortalking about the emotions witnessed in others — both positive and negativeproviding opportunities for social interaction where real-life skills can be honed

“The research we did isn’t meant to suggest a video game is the only, or even the best, way to cultivate empathy,” Davidson said. “Rather, it’s meant to take advantage of the fact that kids love screen time anyway.”

It’s a point worth pondering for parents as technology becomes a larger part of kids’ lives. Perhaps advocating for games that teach a positive message and help to build valuable life skills could help children level-up their empathy in the near future.

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