Harnessing the power of video games to teach children empathy

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock 

Violent video games have long been blamed for increased aggression and decreased empathy in the teenagers who play them - but thankfully the news is not all bad. Researchers have found the power of video games to influence young minds can also be used to promote empathy and the ability to understand the point of view of others.

A US study of 150 11 to 14-year-old students found less than six hours of gaming over two weeks could have a positive impact - as long as the correct games were played.  

Students who took part in the study played either a game designed to teach empathy called Crystals of Kaydor, or a control game called Bastion and undertook brain scans. In Crystals of Kaydor a space-exploring robot who crashes on an alien planet needs to develop an emotional rapport with the local aliens to rebuild its damaged ship. The aliens speak a foreign language but have human-like facial expressions. 

The teens who played this game improved their scores on empathy tests and brain scans showed increased connectivity in brain networks associated with empathy. They also showed neurological changes associated with regulating emotions – an important skill that is just being developed during the teens.

The teenage years are a time of rapid growth, paralleling the immense development that occurs during the first five years of life. Dealing with the escalating physical, hormonal, cognitive and emotional changes can lead to anxiety and depression. During this time, teens are ready to develop complex cognitive abilities like empathy and the ability to see other people's perspectives. These abilities could reduce bullying and aggression and support pro-social behaviours like helping others.

"If we can't empathise with another's difficulty or problem, the motivation for helping will not arise," says lead researcher Richard Davidson, professor of psychology and psychiatry at UW-Madison.

The teens playing Crystals of Kaydor learned to identify the aliens' emotions, which included anger, fear, happiness, surprise, disgust and sadness, and their intensity. The study measured how well they recognised the emotions and learned empathy.

Players are given feedback on their accuracy, giving them the opportunity to practice and improve their skills. The researchers suggest this may also be a means by which the pro-social skills can be transferred from the video game to real life.

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When they respond appropriately, children are rewarded by the alien avatar smiling and by the satisfaction of solving a problem correctly. As they progress through the game and gain the avatar's trust, they unlock opportunities to go on further quests.

In the control game, "Bastion," players similarly had to collect materials to build a machine that will save their village, but the tasks didn't involve learning empathy.

This research is the first to show that playing a video game over as little as two weeks can lead to functional changes in the brain related to empathy and perspective taking, according to lead researcher Richard Davidson, professor of psychology and psychiatry at UW-Madison.

"What's unique is that we could link these changes in the brain to actual improvements on empathy tests in the lab," says Davidson, explaining that players who performed better at identifying and relating to the emotions of others were the same teens who showed stronger connections in associated brain regions.

These skills predict greater emotional health and wellbeing throughout life, according to lead author Tammi Kral, a psychology graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison who conducted the study at the Center for Healthy Minds.

And they could help reduce bullying, which affects over a third of teens, according to a grouped analysis of studies. Bullying is linked with social problems, suicidal attempts and health issues that can have long-lasting effects.

Violent video games have been strongly linked to aggression and decreased empathy and prosocial behaviour.

Three out of four Australian children under 18 play them, according to a recent survey. Five to 14-year-olds play up to two hours a day, increasing to two and a half hours daily in 15 to 24-year-old players.

This research offers a unique opportunity to harness video games to teach empathy.

But Davidson points out that not all children in the study responded, saying that "when it comes to interventions to relieve suffering or to cultivate some aspects of well-being, one size will not fit all."

His centre offers several tips for youths to learn empathy.

First, they say, it is important to recognise that children in this age group empathise differently to adults.

While adults feel empathy when they take someone else's perspective and when they imagine the emotions that others feel, teenagers build empathy just by perspective-taking.

The researchers think they may lack the self-regulation that is needed to offset feelings of distress they might experience when empathising emotionally.

The tips to build empathy include building emotional awareness through self-observation, practice, teamwork exercises and sharing kindness cards that communicate caring.

Perhaps most importantly, parents and teachers are influential role models for children. "If you want to teach these social emotional skills to your kids," Davidson suggests, "it starts with embodying them yourself."