In recent years, perhaps thanks to the popular and pervasive power of Minecraft, the myth of the underachieving, reclusive, antisocial, video game-addicted child has been busted wide open. We’re seeing study after study about the power of video games and technology for helping kids with a range of things, from working memory to math.
Video game play has been demonstrated to improve executive functions (working memory is just one of these thinking skills), problem-solving, and processing speed. But can video games improve social emotional learning skills (SEL) that help children to manage their emotions, understand others, display empathy, and engage in positive relationships?
There is increasing evidence that they can. It has been shown that video games improve SEL skills as well as many other attributes of positive psychology — optimism, civic duty, perseverance, and the capacity for insight. The benefits of gaming for improving SEL skills are found not only in the gameplay itself, but in the act of playing video games with others, learning from one’s mistakes, and using communication and collaboration skills.
There are a very limited number of games that have been designed to improve SEL skills. Most of the games that have been designed to teach these social and emotional skills are not that much fun for kids. The good news is that you don’t have to hunt far and wide or settle for a game that lacks fun and engagement. As with thinking skills, it’s possible to use popular video games to reach kids and teach them SEL skills. Most of these games facilitate practicing the skills in gameplay and are also excellent tools for teaching the skills outside of the game. To make the most of these games for learning social emotional skills parents, educators, and childcare clinicians need to promote SEL experiences that connect gameplay to the real world. That’s where our LearningWorks for Kids Playbooks are extremely helpful.
Here are some of our favorite video games (and their accompany Playbooks) for improving SEL skills:
Ori and the Blind Forest A puzzle platformer for PC and Xbox One, Ori and the Blind Forest is a challenging game that puts players in control of Ori, a “guardian spirit” whose home and community have been destroyed by a catastrophic event. Players must navigate through the now damaged and infested Forest of Nibel in order to restore balance and return it to its former glory. The story of Ori’s personal journey from devastation to healing offers families the opportunity to talk about SEL and positive psychology topics like empathy, resilience, friendship, and community.
Star Wars: Uprising The Star Wars universe is a diverse one, with different races, cultures, and beliefs coming together for better or for worse. Add in the social interaction players get from an MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game) like Star Wars: Uprising, and you have a robust tool for teaching self-awareness and interpersonal skills. When kids team up with others to complete missions and objectives in games like Star Wars: Uprising, they get important practice using social and emotional learning skills like communication and teamwork.
Thomas Was Alone is a single player puzzle platformer with a surprising amount to teach about empathy, relationships, community, resilience, and hope. Players take control of small rectangles of different colors — newly sentient artificially intelligent beings, the main character being Thomas — as they escape the computer mainframe in which they were created. As Thomas navigates the mainframe he also navigates complex relationships between beings with different personalities and abilities. Thomas Was Alone offers important lessons about metacognition, empathy, teamwork, and emotional resilience.
SuperBetter is an app developed by game designer Jane McGonigal, whose philosophy has garnered somewhat of a cult following. McGonigal believes that games can make people better, and SuperBetter is the app she developed to prove it. SuperBetter is like a video game for life, helping users achieve personal goals by allowing them to make everyday chores and responsibilities into quests and missions. Drinking more water, exercising, avoiding unhealthy foods and habits, calling a friend, writing a letter, taking a bike ride — anything a user needs to work on, they can find some outside accountability and video-game-style immediate rewards in SuperBetter. “Leveling up” as a person using SuperBetter can give kids good metacognitive and social awareness practice.