The Rise of the 'Gaming for Good' Movement; New Games Are Designed to Improve Children's Sociability, Schoolwork and Overall Behavior

By Svoboda, Elizabeth | Newsweek, June 19, 2015 | Go to article overview

The Rise of the 'Gaming for Good' Movement; New Games Are Designed to Improve Children's Sociability, Schoolwork and Overall Behavior


Svoboda, Elizabeth, Newsweek


Byline: 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. …

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