Video games never seem to be in the good books of a parent. They are viciously despised for being responsible for the millions of kids locked up in their rooms trying to desperately unlock stages. With countless video games across every possible genre, the market doesn’t face too many challenges due to the existence of games that cater to the needs of all individuals, with the spectrum of fantasy pushed to all its boundaries. Realistically, we know videos games aren’t going anywhere, so why not make use of it? Building on this, a team of researchers decided to see if they could use video games for good. It turns out that they can.

According to data from the Kaiser Family Foundation, kids between the ages 8 and 18 rack up more than 70 minutes of video game play daily. Crucial cognitive, emotional and physical development takes place during these years leading people to worry about the potential risks that could be faced by children with prolonged exposure to gaming. Children follow gaming with an abnormal sense of devotion that bothers parents. Researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison decided to use this factor to their advantage and see if they could use video games for positive emotional development by designing a game to boost children’s empathy.

Simply put, the game goes like this: A space exploration ship crashes on an alien planet. The only means of survival? To build an emotional rapport with the alien inhabitants. But wait, there is catch! The aliens speak a different language and have different means of communication and emotional comprehension. The only familiarity in the situation is that the aliens have human like features. To win the game, kids have to learn to identify the type and intensity of emotion the alien’s faces are displaying, whether it’s anger, fear, happiness, surprise, disgust, or sadness. The hope was that as they played, the kids would learn how to better understand the emotions of their fellow humans.

For the study, researchers randomly assigned 150 middle schoolers to two groups. The first group was made to play the experimental empathy-training game, which was called “Crystals of Kaydor,” while the researchers measured how accurate they were in identifying the characters’ emotional input and the students’ subsequent actions. The second group played the commercially available action role-playing game “Bastion,” which isn’t designed to measure empathy. The researchers had the kids play their assigned games for two weeks. Both before and after the study period, the researchers scanned the children’s brains in an fMRI machine to help them measure brain connectivity, especially among areas associated with empathy and emotion regulation. During the test, the researchers’ mingled the two groups of students and recorded the extent and difference in their sense of empathy and emotional capabilities.

The results, which were published in the Nature Journal npj Science of Learning, revealed that kids who played “Crystals of Kaydor” for two weeks showed greater connectivity in brain networks related to empathy and perspective taking than those who played the commercially available game. Interestingly, some kids displayed improved emotional regulation and reception with an exponential change in performance on the empathy test. The kids who didn’t show an increase in brain connectivity didn’t improve their scores on the empathy test. That shows that while video games could help some kids build empathy skills, there is no set formula for success.

Richard Davidson, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at UW Madison, explained in a press release that teaching empathy is the first step in helping change bad behaviors by causing the urge to help others in need. He states “If we can’t empathize with another’s difficulty, the motivation to help won’t arise.” By teaching empathy skills in something as universal as a video game, the whole population could benefit.

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