Experimental video game may improve empathy in children

By Allen Cone
Researchers developed a video game called "Crystals of Kaydor" to study whether video games can boost kids’ empathy. Photo courtesy of University of Wisconsin
Researchers developed a video game called "Crystals of Kaydor" to study whether video games can boost kids’ empathy. Photo courtesy of University of Wisconsin

Aug. 8 (UPI) -- Researchers have developed a video game they believe can improve empathy of children in middle school.

The game was developed by University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers to see how learning empathy skills from the game can change neural connections in the brain. The results were published Tuesday in the journal npj Science Learning.


The researchers found in as little as two weeks that children showed greater connectivity in brain networks related to empathy and perspective taking. In addition, some showed altered neural networks commonly linked to emotion regulation.

Youth between the ages of 8 and 18 play more than 70 minutes of video games daily, according to data from the Kaiser Family Foundation. At the same time, during adolescence, there is a big increase in brain growth, as well as a time when kids are susceptible to first encounters with depression, anxiety and bullying.


"The realization that these skills are actually trainable with video games is important because they are predictors of emotional well-being and health throughout life, and can be practiced anytime -- with or without video games," research leader Tammi Kral, a UW-Madison graduate student in psychology at the Center for Healthy Minds, said in a press release.

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

The game, called "Crystals of Kaydor," was 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. The game is not available to the public.

In the study, 150 middle schoolers were randomly assigned to two groups: one played the experimental game, and the others played a commercially available game called "Bastion" that does not target empathy.

The researchers measured how accurately the players in the experimental game identified the emotions of the characters in the game.

In the other game, participants collected materials needed to build a machine to save their village -- "Bastion" is not designed to teach or measure empathy.


The team had magnetic resonance imaging scans performed before and after two weeks of gameplay. Participants completed tests during the brain scans that measured how accurately they empathized with others.

The researchers found stronger connectivity in empathy-related brain networks for those playing "Crystals of Kaydor" compared with "Bastion." Also, "Crystals" players with strengthened neural connectivity in key brain networks for emotion regulation also improved their score on the empathy test.

"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," Davidson said. "One of the key challenges for future research is to determine which children benefit most from this type of training and why."

Davidson also wants further research to explore whether games that teach empathy skills may help children on the autism spectrum.

"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," said Davidson.


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