By Elizabeth Svoboda
As a veteran public school counselor, Gregg Graves has seen kids bully their peers for all kinds of reasons, from being too short to wearing the wrong brand of boots. “A group of privileged girls were teasing another child because she got ‘Fuggs’—fake Uggs,” he says. “I have thousands of those types of stories.”
This targeted ridicule, studies show, can have lasting effects. Bullied kids are more likely to get anxious or depressed and even drop out of school. So when clinical psychologist Melissa DeRosier asked if Graves would like to try Zoo U, a computer game she’d created to teach kids skills like empathy and cooperation, he was intrigued. He decided to test-drive the game with his 125 fourth-grade students at North Forest Pines Elementary in Raleigh, North Carolina. They took to the cartoon scenes of hallway chats and playground four-square right away, he says. “When kids started taking the headsets off, they were saying, ‘Can we do that again?’ and ‘That was kind of like real life.’”
The prospect of using video games to mold the psyche has been gathering momentum for some time. The nonprofit Games for Change, founded in 2004, has been funding promising socially conscious games for years; this past spring, the organization kicked off a high-profile event as part of New York City’s Tribeca Film Festival, complete with a “Games for Learning” summit co-sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education. Meanwhile, several prominent social-impact titles have recently made their debuts. MindLight, developed by the Netherlands’ GainPlay Studio, has been praised for its immersive experience that helps kids overcome fears and anxieties. Zoo U was released last November by 3C Institute, a social-skills researcher based in Durham, North Carolina, and nearby spinoff company Personalized Learning Games handles distribution. And If, a game designed to build empathy and relationship skills from Electronic Arts founder Trip Hawkins, launched its first “chapter” in early 2014 with more than $6 million in funding from enthusiastic backers; other chapters followed later in the year.
Mid-’90s pundits lamented that kids who played violent video games were destined for lives of crime, but proponents of gaming for change have given this theory a constructive twist. Practicing positive behavior in a game setting, they say, pays real-life dividends. New research backs them up. A 2014 Psychological Science study, for example, reported that when kids play video games that encourage cooperative behavior, they show more caring and empathy in the real world. Another study at the U.K.’s University of Sussex found that kids who took part in a cooperation-centered game were more likely to help a person who’d dropped something and intervene if they saw someone being harassed. And earlier this year, participants in Germany who played story-based video games in a University of Freiburg study showed progress in understanding others’ emotions—a skill that researchers believe could be useful to kids on the autism spectrum.
Using video games to teach social skills makes sense given how the brain works. Social and behavioral theories posit that outside reinforcement and repetition drive learning, and video games provide ample opportunities for both. Remember storming Bowser’s castle over and over in Super Mario Brothers, figuring out what worked and what didn’t? “Games are Skinner boxes: You do a behavior, you either get rewarded or you get punished,” says Iowa State University psychologist Douglas Gentile, a co-author of the Psychological Science study. “We’re training ways of perceiving and thinking about the world.”
Envisioning themselves as agents of social change, the creators of these games are setting their sights high. That makes for an intensive development process. “I’m a lifelong fan of learning by doing—getting feedback from my choices,” says Hawkins. When he built Electronic Arts’ Madden NFL franchise, Hawkins consulted the Oakland Raiders playbook, and he wanted to bring the same rigor and detail to If, an adventure-based game that challenges kids to help warring groups of dogs and cats make peace. He enlisted top social experts to help him develop the game, including Fred Luskin, a Stanford University psychologist and consultant, and Janice Toben, who designed and taught a social and emotional learning curriculum for years at the Nueva School in Hillsborough, California.
One reason they think the game will work is that it’s not lame. While If is geared toward elementary-age kids, “a lot of teens love the game,” Hawkins says. “It appeals to a much wider age range than we thought it would.”
DeRosier, the CEO of 3C Institute, sees the video-game platform as an effective way to teach social skills on a national scale. Her experience in schools convinced her that social and emotional learning curricula boost kids’ well-being and achievement, but there were few teachers around the country who had the right training to deliver the specialized lessons. So with the help of funding from the U.S. Department of Education, she and her team designed a game that guides kids through the process of becoming virtual zookeepers—and rewards them for cooperating with other characters along the way. How adeptly players navigate social scenes determines how many coins they receive, and at each scene’s close, a nutty professor character named Principal Wild explains what they did well and what they could have done better.
These types of “stealth assessments,” as DeRosier calls them, are built into the game so teachers can make sure players are mastering the material and track each student’s progress. How kids interact with other characters reveals how adept they are at communicating and cooperating. In a scene where a teacher asks your character to run an errand, responding with “How can I help?” garners more points than a surly “What do you want?”
When 3C researchers did a trial of Zoo U with a group of 7- to 11-year-olds, kids who’d played the game felt more socially confident afterward, behaved less aggressively and were better able to regulate their emotions. “My kids love that they can create a character and complete missions. They also like that they have choices in how to approach a bully,” says Laura Villegas, a teacher at Oak Ridge Elementary School in Sacramento, California. In addition, they show signs of understanding the impact of bullying—they definitely don’t like it, Villegas says, when in-game bullies lash out at their characters.
Graves was impressed with how quickly the game supplied him with a wealth of information on all 125 students’ social acumen. “At the end of the day, I had data for my entire grade level and on each individual student,” he says. “I was able to sit down with [the teachers] and explain what it revealed about social skills that kids were struggling with.”
Virtual social learning has its limits. There’s a distinct possibility kids might “smell the spinach,” as Hawkins puts it, and tune out once they sense the games’ wholesome purpose. Games that issue instructions like, “Let’s calm our feelings down. Breathe with us!” might court eye-rolls from more sophisticated players. All do-gooder developers face the ongoing challenge of creating games that are both engaging and edifying—a clunky lesson that interrupts a game’s flow is all but guaranteed to make kids pull out their phones in boredom.
And even if a game elicits Candy Crush-level enthusiasm from young players, adults need to get fully on board. If debuted last year to plenty of industry buzz and racked up 600,000 Apple App Store free downloads of its first chapter, but downloads of additional chapters, costing $3 to $5 each, have been less brisk. Hawkins declined to share specific sales numbers, but says he’s run into trouble trying to sell some school administrators on the If concept. “You would think they’d embrace the ability to use this tool, but it’s gone nowhere,” he says, adding that he feels schools are slow to adopt new technology-driven approaches to teaching. Another issue is that cash-strapped districts can be reluctant to pony up for enrichment programs outside the academic domain; given the current push to get kids to perform up to No Child Left Behind standards, lessons in empathy and cooperation aren’t always parents’ or teachers’ first priority.
Still, research shows that kids who display soft skills like empathy do better in the classroom, and “school climate” measures, which reflect the health of a school’s social environment, are gradually becoming part of broader assessment strategies across the country. “There’s a growing acknowledgment of the value of social-emotional learning,” says Jessica Berlinski of Personalized Learning Games. “When we introduce this, there’s an incredibly positive reaction.” Zoo U is being tested in multiple school pilots across the country, laying the groundwork for potential launches in many more districts by 2017. Berlinski, who worked with Hawkins on If, is aware of the struggle she might face getting the game to take off, but she thinks that if 3C Institute can put together solid study results, it will be able to sell schools on the concept.
DeRosier and her colleagues plan to release several titles similar to Zoo U within the next couple of years, including one designed to help autistic kids hone their social savvy. Another social and emotional skills game in the pipeline is a superhero-themed adventure called Hall of Heroes. Graves—an early tester—says he can picture the game helping some of the socially challenged middle school students he’s advising these days, and the Marvel-style characters and familiar school setting do seem like they might pique kids’ interest.
For years, there has been a widespread perception that video games are inherently bad for children. Screen time, the thinking goes, is bad time, leading kids to become poor students, unhealthy and antisocial. Today, though, it’s becoming clear that’s not the whole story. Even violent video games are starting to be recognized as potentially edifying in some respects. One recent review study reports that they boost kids’ cognitive and social skills. Imagine the impact if games with a positive bent could go one better.