Can a Video Game Teach Empathy? The Guy Behind Madden NFL Thinks So. 

Snapshots of life at home.
Feb. 28 2014 11:07 AM

Can a Video Game Teach Empathy?

The guy behind Madden NFL thinks so.

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After a few more rounds of multiple choice, Simon clued in. “There’s always the confused answer, the bad person answer, and the good person answer,” he said. He started to consistently pick the good person answer, like I’m grateful I had the chance to help. In one sequence, Simon met a character named Cinda who’d been separated from her baby. “Should we help her?” another character asked him. Simon clicked on Yes, let’s help her (rather than It’s not our problem). After he reunited Cinda with her baby, he was asked questions about how he’d felt and how he thought Cinda had felt. Again, he picked the appropriately sensitive answers. When I asked why, he said the right choices were obvious. He also started to get restless. After following a prompt to breathe deeply (“Draw the air down deep and let it out,” YouDog said. “Be mindful.”) Simon looked at me quizzically. “This will work better with younger kids,” he said.

I asked Harvard education professor Stephanie Jones to play IF with her kids, and her 10-year-old daughter similarly felt the game was for a younger age group. Jones asked if she thought IF would “work” as intended. “No, because whenever someone tells me stuff like that, I’m like, OK, you’ve told me that a million times,” her daughter answered.

Jones’ 7-year-old son was more receptive, and gave IF a 6 out of 10 for an iPad game. I tried the game out on another 7-year-old named Sebastian. “I like it,” he said after playing. “I like how you can listen to the game and you can play it, too. It’s two things at once. It’s like you’re sort of making your own movie up and your own story.” The best part, he said, was rebuilding the houses, but he liked the multiple-choice questions too. “They wanted you to listen and then remember things you heard, and I could do that,” he said.

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Jones and Richard Weissbourd, her colleague at Harvard, have written about a challenge for SEL efforts they call the "empathy-action gap." In a review of several SEL programs, they found that that while there was a lot of talk about empathy, the curricula often didn’t connect the dots about why and how empathy spurs pro-social actions. “One of the ongoing challenges is that interventions like this game, and many of those implemented in schools, are great at building awareness and knowledge of these issues (i.e., I know how I feel), but don’t take it all the way to real behavior change (i.e., in the real world when things are crazy, emotions are running high and things are out of control, can I use that knowledge to do something different?),” Jones says. “This, I think, happens through modeling and practice, in school and at home. I’m not sure a game can really do that.”

Weissbourd and Jones offer suggestions for exercises that schools can use to address the empathy-action gap: getting kids to lay out concentric circles of the people in their lives to see how connected we all are and reflect on kinship with people who seem different, or make videos profiling examples of caring in their communities. That’s a lot more ambitious than handing a kid an iPad. Still, Jones said that for younger kids, the game could be “an introduction to the language of emotions and some strategies that are useful.”

That seems like a sensible way to think about it. I wouldn’t download IF and check “instill empathy” off your childrearing list. But that’s too much to ask of any app. If you rotate this one into your child’s screen time, will it offer more sustenance than FIFA and Jetpack Joyride? Sure. And if you daughter thinks of YouDog and remembers to breathe deeply when she’s under stress, or answers Yes, I’m glad to help if she seems someone in trouble, then the next $6.5 million should be easy to raise.