Social Emotional Learning in Video Games: Finding the Golden Rule

One of my favorite stories from my son’s Ethan childhood came from one of his preschool classmates at the Child Development Center (CDC) at the University of Rhode Island.  The CDC in the 1990’s, under the incredibly capable and insightful leadership of my late friend, Sue Warford, was a wonderful place for kids to learn. Sure, the kids learned the ABCs and other academic skills, but what they really learned was how to have a relationship with others, regulate their feelings, and understand the perspective of their classmates. They were practicing the social emotional learning skills (SEL) that many schools are finally incorporating into their curricula.

The story as told to me came from the dad of Ellsie, one of Ethan’s classmates. Apparently, one of the 4-year-old kids in their classroom had called another student a name, something like Little Marco or Lyin’ Ted, as I recall. This type of unkindness was a prime opportunity at the CDC for teaching social emotional skills. Ellsie informed her teachers what had happened, and the staff seized on this incident as a teaching moment to help kids with limited SEL skills recognize how they might display collaborative behaviors, emphasizing the principles of empathy, respect, and caring about others. Much of the lesson probably went beyond the grasp of both Ellsie and Ethan, but Elsie’s simple after school statement will always stay with me. She came home that night and said to her father, “Why don’t people always follow the Golden Rule?”

If I were to fast forward to 2018, I might reference a certain politician who seems to have forgotten this principle. When I think more about the Golden Rule (Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.), I realize that teaching SEL skills of self-awareness, social awareness, and making constructive and respectful choices about personal behavior is more important than ever. And teaching SEL skills to preschoolers is where we need to begin. SEL skills can help children listen to others and have an interest in the perspectives of people who are different, thereby following the Golden Rule.

Effective SEL skills are not just those of kindness and empathy but are also those of making good decisions, negotiating conflict constructively, and resisting inappropriate social pressure. In a world where many of our leaders seem to find it acceptable to ignore the Golden Rule and to think only of their needs and perspective, it is more important than ever before to find role models who are both empathic and assertive.

Where do we find models who are kind, heroic, think of others, and follow the Golden Rule? In the past we might have found these models through religion or fairy tales. While these continue to be sources for such models, I suggest that today’s parents might find a modern version of these tales in the form of video games. Many of the best children’s games are populated by heroic characters who do unto others as they would have other do unto them. While kids can learn from these characters through game play alone, it is better when parents talk to them about what game heroes are doing. Even more powerful is when parents play the games with their kids, getting into the role of the hero and add running commentary and questions that highlight the positive social emotional skills used in game play.


The hero of the ever-popular Legend of Zelda series is one of the original lights in the pixelated darkness. Link has a mission to save the world, but along the way he always has time to help friends big and small along the way. From fetching prescriptions and rounding up chickens to soothing spirits and reconnecting loved ones, Link doesn’t shy away from a task. If there was a citizenship award for video game characters, Link would be the winner hands down.


The co-star of Nintendo’s popular Super Mario Bros. series, this plumbing brother is a perennial platforming favorite. No matter how one may feel about the “princess needing to be rescued” trope, the fact remains that through the years Mario has catapulted through caves, endured sewer speed-swims, and hurled himself across lava pits for the love of his life, Princess Peach. At his own peril, he stands up to the bully Bowser and his minions over and over.


Sonic the Hedgehog is well known as the speedy blue streak with a penchant for gems and gold rings. But his mission transcends treasure. Sonic’s true desire is to stop the evil Dr. Robotnik from kidnapping animals and using them to power his weapons and destroy the Earth. When Sonic bounces on a baddy, he releases an innocent bunny or bird from their mechanized personal prison. It’s easy to point out to kids how Sonic models what it is to treat others as you would like to be treated.


Featured image: Flickr user Anthony Quintano

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