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Videogames can help kids develop empathy and respect for others

Videogames can help kids develop empathy and respect for others

Many parents worry that videogames will desensitize their children to violence and thus stunt their emotional growth. While it’s true that some games have violent components, this line of thought doesn’t capture the whole picture. Depending on game-specific characteristics such as design and narrative choices, along with the way in which children conceptualize and play videogames, they can actually help kids become more empathetic and respectful of others and their differences.

But let’s back up for a moment; why is it important for kids to develop empathy in the first place? According to UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, emotion researchers have defined empathy in two parts: the ability to sense and identify another person’s emotions, and the ability to imagine what another person is thinking and feeling. This kind of emotional competence is invaluable to children as they’re growing and learning to cultivate interpersonal skills, maintain healthy relationships, and begin to establish a personal identity and sense of self.

Furthermore, studies by Daniel Batson and Nancy Eisenberg have demonstrated that people with high levels of empathy are more likely to help those in need, even if it offers no benefit to them personally. Empathy has also been proven to reduce instances of prejudice, racism, and inequality by pushing people to identify with those who are not in their “in-group.” In a study by Mary Gordon’s Roots of Empathy program, it was found that empathy reduces bullying and aggression, making kids kinder and more inclusive of their peers.

What’s more, the advantages of acquiring empathy at a young age do not stop in childhood; researchers at Duke and Penn State Universities followed a group of people for 20 years, starting in kindergarten. At the end of their study, they concluded that people who displayed empathetic traits such as a willingness to share and help others in kindergarten were more likely to graduate high school and to be employed full-time. Thus, there is a clear link between promoting empathetic behaviors to children and them obtaining material success further along in life.

So now that we’ve established that empathy is important, how does it connect to videogames? To begin with the most straightforward example, consider a videogame genre called Role-Playing Games (RPGs). These games allow the player to assume the identity of a fictional character, whether that’s a specific character or an avatar the player creates themselves and customizes to their liking. Many games in this genre also give the player the opportunity to make choices, some of which may involve moral decisions which can affect the outcome of the game and the identity and character of the protagonist.

According to a study published by the American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis in which researchers studied people who regularly play sci-fi and fantasy RPGs, “Fantasy role-players report experiencing higher levels of empathic involvement with others.” It’s not difficult to see why. RPGs require the player to put themselves in someone else’s shoes, otherwise known as perspective-taking. They must think through actions and make decisions that may have drastic consequences for both themselves and other characters. In fact, players are often given the power to assist and be kind or ignore and be rude to Non-Playable Characters (NPCs), thus establishing a heroic or malevolent reputation for their protagonist. Through this type of game, kids can safely “try out” certain patterns of behavior, make mistakes, and ultimately learn how their actions end up affecting others.

And although the videogame industry still has a long way to go with regards to its representation of characters from marginalized communities, many games nowadays allow users to experience the world through the eyes of someone whose background may differ radically from their own. The number of games featuring protagonists from underrepresented groups increases every year, showcasing new and original perspectives that players may not have encountered elsewhere. Furthermore, online gaming allows people to instantly connect with other gamers from across the globe, thus exposing them to new cultures, worldviews, and ideas, and the potential to initiate online friendships.

On the topic of connecting with other players, researchers from the University of Innsbruck in Austria proved that playing videogames cooperatively in a team increased interpersonal empathy towards those in need. It also decreased schadenfreude, or enjoyment derived from another person’s misfortune. This last conclusion directly contradicts the belief that videogames encourage kids to perpetrate aggressive acts towards others. In fact, the same researchers found that playing videogames in a co-op mode actually mitigated negative effects of violent videogames on empathy. Thus, playing videogames in cooperation with other players can provide various benefits towards reinforcing an empathetic mindset.

Finally, it is valuable to point out that due to how they are written and designed, videogames provide unique (digital) experiences with the potential to help their users grow their empathy skills. This was evidenced in a report sponsored by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and the Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development. The authors first emphasized the immersive quality of videogames, which can often transport players into their fictional world and narrative. This is the same thing that happens when we get lost in a good book, movie, or tv show, because the storytelling is compelling enough for us to forget about “the real world” for a while.

For this to happen though, gameplay and narrative design must facilitate the player’s emotional investment in the protagonist and the intricacies of their world. This can be achieved through masterful storytelling and character-building, providing opportunities to form attachments to and build relationships with NPCs, and the ability to make choices that affect the game’s narrative direction or protagonist reputation. This last point, player agency, is another distinguishing characteristic of videogames (as opposed to more passive forms of entertainment like watching a movie) that can lend to empathy-building in users. When players feel a sense of control over the game’s outcomes, they put more thought into making difficult moral decisions and how they treat NPCs because they know their actions will have consequences further down the line, just like in real life.

So, while some videogames may be better suited than others to promote empathy and emotional intelligence in their users, games in general should not be overlooked as an effective tool to help teach kids to be more accepting of those who are different from them and consider perspectives outside of their own experiences.