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.”
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.
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.
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.