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.

YouDog.
IF aims to help kids manage their emotions with characters like the game’s guru figure, YouDog (left).

Image via If You Can Company

Can kids learn empathy on an iPad?

This is the somewhat unfair but inevitable question surrounding this week’s release of a new tablet game called IF. Designed for 6 to 12 year olds, IF aims to help kids manage their emotions, cope with stress and conflict, even deal with bullies. It comes with big expectations because it’s made by a new company, If You Can, started by Trip Hawkins, a gaming giant who is also the founder of Electronic Arts, the makers of Madden NFL and other sports games loved by my children and probably yours (and maybe by you too).

In other words, this is a relatively rare moment in which Silicon Valley is lending its money and cachet to programming that’s about emotional development—what’s increasingly called social and emotional learning, or SEL. Hawkins has raised $6.5 million for this new startup and gotten advice from SEL experts around the country. And he is super into it. “Everything I’ve done in my life has led to this,” he told me over the phone. “I see problems like global warming, and my generation can’t fix that, so there’s a lot of guilt and shame. The only way to fix things in the future is to raise children with different values.”

Advertisement

There are plenty of educational games out there, bidding to reassure parents that tablets aren’t electronic babysitters that will turn their children’s brain to mush. But they tend to focus on intellectual rather than emotional development. Parents who want tablets to be more than escapist entertainment treat them “like precision surgical instruments, gadgets that might perform miracles for their child’s IQ and help win some nifty robotics competition,” as Hanna Rosin writes in the Atlantic.

Empathy is not like math or computer programming. It’s not even quite right to call it a skill. To absorb the importance of understanding—and valuing—other people’s feelings, every kid needs to interact with other people. At the dinner table with family, in the classroom and the cafeteria with teachers and classmates, and outside of school with peers. You can’t replace that with screen time.

But could IF reinforce the tools of healthy social development, for all kinds of kids? “The mighty big challenge is that this product has to be ‘good’ on two levels,” says Mia Doces of the Committee for Children, a leading organization in SEL and bullying prevention that is partnering with the IF team on related projects. “The game has to be fun and engaging for kids, and it has to show positive behavior change. I know a lot of people are paying attention to this project and hoping it will be successful.”

The drumrolls made me intensely curious about what actual kids would think of the game. I downloaded IF, and handed the iPad to Simon, my 11-year-old. He was engaged right away. This game has Pixar-quality audio and video. It unfolds as a series of challenges and narratives in the charming town of Greenberry, a place of toadstools and thatched roofs. Simon quickly met his avatar—a dog—whose style of clothing and even tail he got to choose. He liked the way he could move the dog on the screen, with a flick of his finger. Simon also met the game’s guru figure, YouDog, who asked if he wanted to repair some houses in Greenberry. Simon said yes. He spent some contented minutes picking up bits of wood, which made a satisfying crunching noise as he collected them. “Really awesome graphics,” Simon said (he has played enough games to have an informed opinion).

Soon YouDog moved the story line to the main action: Scrubbing bad energy away from creatures called Vim, which reminded Simon of Pokemon. “They are critical to the balance of our world,” YouDog said. “Will you help me restore the balance?” Simon had to choose from three answers—a pattern of multiple choice that would recur throughout the game. One answer was something like Yes, I’m glad to help. A second was willing but a little more tepid and confused. And a third was, I’ll do it if I get paid.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Lifetime Didn’t Think the Steubenville Rape Case Was Dramatic Enough

So they added a little self-immolation.

Two Damn Good, Very Different Movies About Soldiers Returning From War

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore, and Schools Are Getting Worried

The Good Wife Is Cynical, Thrilling, and Grown-Up. It’s Also TV’s Best Drama.

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 19 2014 9:15 PM Chris Christie, Better Than Ever
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 19 2014 6:35 PM Pabst Blue Ribbon is Being Sold to the Russians, Was So Over Anyway
  Life
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 19 2014 1:34 PM Empty Seats, Fewer Donors? College football isn’t attracting the audience it used to.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 4:48 PM You Should Be Listening to Sbtrkt
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 19 2014 5:09 PM Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?   A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.