Can a video game improve empathy?

Written by: Øystein

University of Wisconsin-Madison introduces a fantastical scenario: That a video game can change the brain, may improve empathy in middle schoolers.

A space-exploring robot crashes on a distant planet. In order to gather the pieces of its damaged spaceship, it needs to build emotional rapport with the local alien inhabitants. The aliens speak a different language but their facial expressions are remarkably humanlike.

This fantastical scenario is the premise of a video game developed for middle schoolers by University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers to study whether video games can boost kids’ empathy, and to understand how learning such skills can change neural connections in the brain.

Researchers randomly assigned 150 middle schoolers to two groups. One played the experimental game, called “Crystals of Kaydor,” which was created for research purposes and intended to teach empathy. The second group played a commercially available and entertaining control game called “Bastion” that does not target empathy.

“If we can’t empathize with another’s difficulty or problem, the motivation for helping will not arise,” says Davidson, who headed the research team. “Our long-term aspiration for this work is that video games may be harnessed for good and if the gaming industry and consumers took this message to heart, they could potentially create video games that change the brain in ways that support virtuous qualities rather than destructive qualities.”

“The fact that not all children showed changes in the brain and corresponding improvements in empathic accuracy underscores the well-known adage that one size does not fit all,” says Davidson. “One of the key challenges for future research is to determine which children benefit most from this type of training and why.”

Teaching empathy skills in such an accessible way may benefit populations who find these skills challenging, including individuals on the autism spectrum, Davidson adds.

The game — developed in partnership with Gear Learning at UW-Madison and researchers Constance Steinkuehler and Kurt Squire, who are now professors of informatics at the University of California, Irvine — is only being used for research purposes and is not available to the public but has helped inform other games being submitted to the FDA for clinical applications.

The research was funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Learn more from the Center for Healthy Minds about simple and tech-free ways to teach empathy in youth at https://centerhealthyminds.org/join-the-movement/5-tips-for-empathy-building-in-teens