Video games teach children empathy

A recent study has shown evidence that young children can develop their empathy skills using computer technology. Specifically, a game created by the researchers named The Empathy World was used to test and improve children’s sensitivities to social cues and emotional reactions.

The study was performed by Ms Ling Wu, a Research Fellow at Monash University, and Dr Minkang Kim and Professor Lina Markauskaite of the University of Sydney. The Empathy World was implemented in a preschool with a total of 12 children involved.

The findings are particularly important, say the researchers, at a time when many children’s screen time is increased, and the range of their social interactions is reduced by COVID-19 lockdowns.

As computers and video games have become more popular over the last two decades, concerned commentators have asked whether these technologies stunt children’s ability to feel empathy—a core emotion that affects interpersonal relationships, conflict management, and even personal emotional issues such as depression and anxiety. The researchers wanted to see if they could use technology to solve the issues that technology is said to have worsened.

It seems, so far, that we can. “The findings from this study show an increase in children’s in-game perception of empathy-worthy stimuli and enhanced empathic concern,” the researchers said.

As the study progressed, children were exposed to increasingly complicated social situations, along with deliberately distracting stimuli such as brightly-coloured images of food or toys. They noticed that the children became better at filtering out irrelevant details and showed a greater concern for emotions that warranted empathy. Their ability to see when a situation required empathy became stronger.

It could seem counter-intuitive to combat a potential problem with technology by using more technology. However, the researchers argue that digital empathy programs could actually be better at developing the trait than other methods.

“[In-person] programmes may not achieve long-lasting change because of their limited time or frequency. They also focus directly on behaviour outcomes, which are largely influenced by how the child perceives the social situation. Therefore, learning opportunities that tap into the building blocks of empathy, such as the perception of social situations, may be the key to effective empathic learning pedagogies.”

While they’re based on real-life situations and use photographs of real human faces, digital representations are different from real-life scenarios. However, imaging studies have shown an overlap in brain activity when viewing emotional images and emotions in real life.

The success of the study suggests that playing computer games focused on developing empathy can help children develop the ability to “see” empathy-worthy cues. “This increase may have a positive relationship with the development of empathic perception and concern of these young children.”

Becoming selectively attentive to others’ distress and emotional states in general is an important factor indicating dispositional empathy,” the authors write. “This suggests that technology-mediated learning can support social-emotional development.”

The researchers point out that games like The Empathy World need not take the place of real-world social interaction and the development of empathy skills the old-fashioned way. Instead, they write that the two methods can be used simultaneously and complement each other.

“While the current game is designed for and was used in educational settings, it has potential for future use in informal learning environments such as families.

“The simplicity of the design would also enable teachers and parents to become designers themselves, with the platform allowing flexible change of images and characters so that adult users can change the stories to better suit the social context for children of their care.”

This media release was first published on MCERA.

Journal: Ling Wu, Minkang Kim, & Lina Markauskaite. (2020). ‘Developing young children’s empathic perception through digitally mediated interpersonal experience: Principles for a hybrid design of empathy games’, British Journal of Educational Technology.