All Tech Considered
1:34 pm
Wed November 20, 2013

Video Game Creators Are Using Apps To Teach Empathy

Originally published on Thu November 21, 2013 6:06 am

Much of the modern education reform movement has centered around the drive for data. Standardized tests now gauge whether children are at grade level seemingly every few months. Kids are observed, measured and sorted almost constantly.

In Silicon Valley, a $20 billion industry does much the same thing — but for a different purpose.

Video game design has become a data-driven industry where games evolve depending on how they are played.

Now, some game designers are hoping to take these new skills and apply them back to education. But not in a classroom — they want to teach with a game on an iPad.

From Football To Feelings

More than 30 years ago, Trip Hawkins left Apple and founded Electronic Arts, the company behind EA Sports. The man who helped make Madden NFL a cultural icon now has a new vision for games: He wants to teach.

For sports video games, Hawkins brought game designers together with experts in the field — athletes and statisticians. Now he's bringing counselors into the mix. He wants to give those counselors data about what kids are actually doing in the games they play.

Analyzing data on how people play has become a huge part of the gaming industry.

"It's incredibly important," Hawkins says. "In the past you couldn't do it at all because the customer was playing a game in the basement on a machine that's not hooked up to the Internet. Once you bring the Internet into the equation, it's much easier to figure out what your problem is and how to improve the product."

So now, he says, they can apply that to other new markets, like education and social development.

Hawkins thinks a well-designed video game can teach kids empathy — how to listen to each other and control negative emotions. It could teach children basic skills that would ultimately help them get along better with each other and adults out in the real world.

Working Through Failure

Hawkins has gathered experts in social development and learning, and they're creating a new game called If. In the game, players visit an imaginary village called Greenberry.

"Greenberry is a world in which there are cats and there are dogs, and they don't get along well," says Jessica Berlinski, who helped design and write the game's story. "So part of the challenge is to figure out why, and then working to heal that."

As kids progress through the game, they begin to rebuild the village of Greenberry. And kind of like in Pokemon, they collect magical creatures who enhance their power.

Sometimes the creatures might die — but the game does something totally different: It helps them work through it. There's a virtual counseling session with a community leader, who teaches kids deep breathing exercises and has a dialogue about feelings of loss.

Berlinski, a founder of the educational tech company If You Can, says one goal of the game is to get kids to navigate interpersonal challenges and failures.

"The messaging that kids get in real life and certainly in schools is not that failure is OK — but in game environments, 80 percent of the time, gamers are failing, yet they are completely motivated to keep going," she says. "So something is going on there that is very positive. And we need to capitalize on that."

Will It Work?

But Catherine Steiner-Adair, a clinical psychologist at Harvard and author of The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age, is concerned that kids and their parents already spend too much time on devices.

"Nothing — no new app, no new game — can replace the old truth, I think, that children thrive, that families thrive, in the context of healthy real-life relationships," she says.

Still, Steiner-Adair says, a game that helps kids practice skills like listening and working through difficult emotions might be useful if it's played in moderation. "I am cautious, but I am guardedly optimistic that there could be some kind of computer game that could strengthen children's social and emotional intelligence," she says.

In the end, even Hawkins is the first to admit that kids won't actually play this game or learn anything unless the game is fun.

And building a kind of virtual counseling session into a fun video game is a tough trick.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

If you're around teens or 'tweens, you already know this. They don't talk on the phone, they text. In fact, kids are growing up immersed in so much technology that many people worry they're losing the ability to communicate and solve problems directly with one another. Researchers have documented declines in empathy.

But as NPR's Steve Henn reports, Silicon Valley thinks it has a solution - another video game.

STEVE HENN, BYLINE: More than 30 years ago, Trip Hawkins left Apple Computer and founded Electronic Arts. You know, the company behind EA Sports.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEOGAME)

S. HENN: But the man who helped make Madden Football into a cultural icon, whose former company encourages gamers to spend hundreds of millions of hours pretending to play sports instead of actually playing them - that guy has a new vision for games. Trip Hawkins wants to teach.

TRIP HAWKINS: Yes, absolutely. In fact, we're trying to figure out how to use a business model, like what I did previously with EA Sports.

S. HENN: Basically, Hawkins brings game designers together with experts in a field. In the case of sports it was athletes and statisticians. Now, Hawkins is bringing counselors into the mix. He wants to give those counselors a lot of information about what kids are actually doing in the games they play. Analyzing data and how people play has become a huge part of the gaming industry.

HAWKINS: It's incredibly important and it's one of these things where in the past where you couldn't do it at all because the customers was playing a game in the basement on a machine that's not hooked up to the Internet. Once you bring the Internet into the equation, you get these metrics on every little twist and turn. And then it's much, much easier to figure out what your problem is and how to improve the product.

S. HENN: For game designers, data analysis has become an incredibly powerful tool.

HAWKINS: And it makes perfect sense to apply that same methodology to other new markets, where there are big opportunities, like education.

S. HENN: Or social development. Hawkins thinks a well-designed video game could teach kids empathy; could help them learn to listen to each other and control negative emotions. Hawkins believes a gadget could teach children basic skills that will help them get along better with each other and adults out in the real world.

CATHERINE STEINER-ADAIR: I am concerned.

S. HENN: Catherine Steiner-Adair is a clinical psychologist at Harvard and author of "The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age."

STEINER-ADAIR: Nothing - no new app, no new game - can replace the old truth, I think, that children thrive and families thrive in the context of healthy real-life relationships.

S. HENN: Nonetheless, Trip Hawkins has formed a company, gathered experts in social development and learning together. And now they're creating a new game called "If."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

S. HENN: The game is not finished yet, but this week, I got a chance to play a beta version with my own kids.

ELLA HENN: It actually is called "If?"

S. HENN: It is called "If,"

E. HENN: Oh, really? I didn't know that.

FAYE HENN: Wait. Who gets to play first? Can I please play first?

S. HENN: In the game, players visit an imaginary town called Greenberry.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEOGAME, "IF")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Step forward and show your face. I've been expecting you.

JESSICA BERLINSKI: Greenberry, right now, is a world in which there are cats and there are dogs and they don't get along well.

S. HENN: Jessica Berlinski helped design and write the game's story.

BERLINSKI: So they don't get along in Greenberry, and part of the challenge is figuring out why and then working to heal that.

S. HENN: Berlinski is the chief learning officer and co-founder of If You Can, the company making this game.

BERLINSKI: We want to build kids that not only navigate academic challenges and failures but interpersonal ones. And the messaging that kids get in real life and certainly in schools is not that failure is OK. But in game environments, 80 percent of the time gamers are failing, yet they're completely motivated to keep going.

(LAUGHTER)

BERLINSKI: So something is going on there that is very positive. And we need to capitalize on that.

S. HENN: As kids progress through Berlinski's game they begin to rebuild the village of Greenberry. And kind of like Pokemon, they collect magical creatures who enhance their power.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEOGAME, "IF")

E. HENN: That's Kibble.

F. HENN: Kibble is so cute...

S. HENN: But as my kids played, they made a mistake and one of these creatures, a sprite named Kibble, seemed to die.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEOGAME, "IF")

S. HENN: And then this game did something totally different. It helped my kids work through that virtual loss. And clinical psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair says when played in moderation, a game like this might not be so bad.

STEINER-ADAIR: I am cautious but I am guardedly optimistic that there could be some kind of computer game that could strengthen children's social and emotional intelligence.

S. HENN: But building a kind of virtual counseling session into a video game is a tough trick. And as Trip Hawkins admits, no one is going to play if the game is not fun.

Steve Henn, NPR News, Silicon Valley. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.