Gen Z Busts the Myths of Gaming – 3 of 3

By Beth Ann Townsend, Narrative Designer at skillsgapp //  

Video Games Teach Empathy & Other Hard-to-Teach Skills

Ready to bust some more gaming myths? The second blog in this series combats outdated and unfounded fears of video games by highlighting their universal nature, cooperative space, and potential for skills development. This third installment looks to similar positive traits in a demonstration of video games’ power over the mind and heart as a force for good. 

The incomparable firsthand experiences that video games generate can put players from any background into new circumstances, facilitating the formation of critical social-emotional skills (and global awareness, like I talk about in the last blog post). Video games allow people to interact “firsthand” with concepts, places, and times they otherwise wouldn’t be able to experience, from the streets of modern Hong Kong to the rooftops of Renaissance Venice. We can see the wider world on a very personal level while moving through a story in someone else’s shoes, defying the limits of wherever our own feet can take us. Games have the power to spark conversation, induce awareness, and share a diverse range of voices. 

Social-emotional skills and gaming

It’s why educators are advocating for specially designed video games that teach empathy: “Perspective-taking through player agency drives empathetic thinking.” Games put their audiences in the driver’s seat and provide active engagement with the material, distinguishing playing video games from the more passive experience of watching a video. Because the player has an impact on the game environment to varying extents, and because the player is taking on a new point of view, they are in an ideal position to learn and empathize. 

Indeed, a game designed by University of Wisconsin-Madison for middle schoolers was found to improve empathy in young learners. In this game, Crystals of Kaydor, players assume the role of a crash-landed robot and must successfully identify the emotions of aliens in order to find a way home. Researchers discovered that the kids’ social-emotional skill development through the game actually changed neural connections in their brains. “The realization that these skills are … trainable with video games is important,” lead researcher Tammi Kral says, “because they are predictors of emotional well-being and health throughout life and can be practiced any time.”

This is a big deal. We’re finding that not only can games engage kids with each other, allow them to realize their own creative and intellectual potentials, and meet them wherever they may be; games can also prepare the next generation for the workforce by equipping them with “hard-to-teach” skills. These include soft skills like collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking, as well as social-emotional skills like the abilities to relate with others, make appropriate decisions, maintain awareness of other people’s emotions, and understand one’s own thoughts and feelings.

Professor Matthew Farber (Assistant Professor of Technology, Innovation, and Pedagogy at the University of Northern Colorado) underscores the importance of such skills in his article entitled Teaching Empathy With Video Games.” He calls them “21st-century competencies that students should possess.” Farber poses the question of whether or not playing video games can make children better aware of their own emotions and become more sensitive to the non-verbal behavior of others, and he concludes his article by saying yes, yes they can. As a result of playing games like Crystals of Kaydor and practicing social-emotional skills, students will be able to “compete and innovate in today’s interconnected, global economy,” Farber says.  

Games, empathy, and the next workforce generation

When the player has the ability to make choices in another’s shoes—when they can witness something firsthand and feel like they have a personal stake in the matter—then they can take ownership of their experience and find themself relating to different persons and places. They’re practicing empathy. In games like that, students can exercise the developing parts of their brain, thus making themselves world- and workplace-ready, prepared for tomorrow’s challenges intellectually, socially, and emotionally. 

What hard-to-teach skills do you think every student should learn before high school graduation?