Video Games and Social Emotional Learning
A lot of talk, press, and focus in this era of learning is on common core standards and 21st century skills and literacies. What is often neglected is the importance of building social emotional skills within the classroom.
The challenge of raising knowledgeable, responsible, and caring children is recognized by nearly everyone. Few realize, however, that each element of this challenge can be enhanced by thoughtful, sustained, and systematic attention to children’s social and emotional learning (SEL). Indeed, experience and research show that promoting social and emotional development in children is “the missing piece” in efforts to reach the array of goals associated wit h improving schooling in the United States. http://www.ascd.org/publications/books/197157/chapters/The-Need-for-Social-and-Emotional-Learning.aspx
It’s not enough to simply fill students’ brains with facts. A successful education demands that their character be developed as well. That’s where social and emotional learning comes in. SEL is the process of helping students develop the skills to manage their emotions, resolve conflict nonviolently, and make responsible decisions. Research shows that promoting social and emotional skills leads to reduced violence and aggression among children, higher academic achievement, and an improved ability to function in schools and in the workplace. Students who demonstrate respect for others and practice positive interactions, and whose respectful attitudes and productive communication skills are acknowledged and rewarded, are more likely to continue to demonstrate such behavior. Students who feel secure and respected can better apply themselves to learning. (Why Champion Social and Emotional Learning?)
Two principles guide this article:
- Social-Emotional skills and strategies should be addressed and taught in school settings.
- Video and online games can promote SEL skills and as such, should be integrated into classroom instruction.
Social Emotional Skills in School
According to the Collaboration for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL)
Schools that create socially and emotionally sound learning and working environments, and that help students and staff develop greater social and emotional competence, in turn help ensure positive short- and long-term academic and personal outcomes for students, and higher levels of teaching and work satisfaction for staff.
CASEL identified core competencies for social-emotional learning:
Social Emotional Benefits of Gaming
Self-awareness is accurately assessing one’s feelings, interests, values, and strengths; maintaining a well-grounded sense of self-confidence (http://casel.org/why-it-matters/what-is-sel/skills-competencies/). Video games, by their very nature, provide ongoing feedback about personal performance. The gamer becomes a critical learner, a highly self-aware individual able to critically assess, compare and contrast the various virtual environments s/he finds her/himself within. In other words, the side-show mirror reflection of him/herself that the video game provides is not naively accepted, but critically examined (http://www.etc.cmu.edu/etcpress/node/209).
Video games also provide powerful opportunities to explore and experiment with different aspects of one’s identity:
Video games allow people to adopt virtual identities. According to Przybylski, Weinstein, Murayama, Lynch, and Ryan (2012), the appeal of video games is in part due to the players’ ability to explore aspects of their ideal selves that might not find expression in real life. Gameplay experiences that were congruent with perceptions of a player’s ideal self were the most intrinsically motivating and emotionally engaging http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/positively-media/201208/video-games-problem-solving-and-self-efficacy-part-2#_ENREF_12
The Future of Identity, one of the influential Foresight reports that looks ahead to highlight emerging trends in science and technology, found . . .
. . . that far from creating superficial or fantasy identities that some critics suggest, in many cases it allowed people to escape the preconceptions of those immediately around them and find their “true” identity. This is especially true of disabled people who told researchers that online gaming enabled them to socialize on an equal footing with others. The internet can allow many people to realize their identities more fully. Some people who have been shy or lonely or feel less attractive discover they can socialize more successfully and express themselves more freely online.
Management of Emotions to Reach Goals
Self-management is the ability to regulate one’s emotions to handle stress, control impulses, and persevere in overcoming obstacles; setting and monitoring progress toward personal and academic goals; expressing emotions appropriately (http://casel.org/why-it-matters/what-is-sel/skills-competencies/). The impact of gaming comes from its emotional connections and from the gamer managing those emotions as s/he works towards achieving the game’s goals.
Hugh Bowen fielded a national online survey with 535 gamers to explore how important the range of emotions is to the success of any particular game. Half of all gamers he survey stated that emotion in games is extremely or somewhat important. Here is a list of feelings that gamers say video games most strongly inspire.
Jane McGonigal in How Might Video Games Be Good for Us? explored research that examined the types of emotions gamers sought from the gaming experience.
The top ten positive emotions of video games range from bliss, to relief, to personal pride, to feeling emotionally close to another player, to surprise, to curiosity, to excitement, to awe and wonder (see survey results at Top Ten Videogame Emotions). What’s extraordinary about these ten positive emotions is that gamers have figured out how to spark and feel them whenever they want, no matter where they are, or what kind of day they’re having. It doesn’t matter if they’re bored or stressed or lonely or frustrated or anxious – gamers can change how they feel, just by starting to play. We know that this is true even for gamers in incredibly difficult conditions. For example, children in hospitals prior to surgery are able to control their anxiety by playing a handheld video game (see the research), while soldiers in Afghanistan are able to reduce psychological stress by nearly 75% by playing video games for three to four hours a day (see the research, specifically pages 33-34). In fact, recent clinical trials have demonstrated that online games can outperform pharmaceuticals for treating mild to moderate depression and anxiety. (See the research) Even if games don’t change anything else in our lives, the power to change how we feel in the moment is a very good thing indeed. Games give us more control over our emotional destiny.
With the increase in gesture-based games, there is also an increase potential for video games to help identify and regulate emotions:
Numerous studies have shown that movements or postures generate cues the mind can use to figure out how it feels, a phenomenon dubbed the physical-feedback effect. [Gesture-based games like Kinect] and Wii games might also create emotions between people through “emotional contagion,” where the brain can make us feel what we see, hear, read or think others experience. (http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2010/11/wii-emotion/)
Social awareness is being able to take the perspective of and empathize with others; recognizing and appreciating individual and group similarities and differences; recognizing and using family, school, and community resources (http://casel.org/why-it-matters/what-is-sel/skills-competencies/). To be socially aware is to be able to see the world through another person’s eyes, to be empathetic. In her Psychology Today article, How Videogames Can Promote Empathy, Susan Krauss Whitbourne proposes that video games with a pro-social theme can promote compassion and altruism among the players.
Dr. Mathew Chow, a psychiatrist who studies gaming and behavior, discusses the development of pro-social behavior via gaming in an NBC interview:
Video games have evolved into a shared experience. No longer are people playing these games alone in their parents’ basement. People expect to be able to play online. People join online communities populated by tens of thousands of individuals around the world. They participate in pro-social behaviors such as cooperative play, trading, negotiating, forming alliances, and creating rules of conduct.
You need to be able to get along with a diverse community in order to succeed in online play. Antisocial people are often marginalized and even banned from popular communities. If you told me that a child was participating in an activity where she was cooperating with tens of thousands of people across the globe to accomplish a shared objective, I would probably label that as pro-social. People playing video games are doing this right now. (http://www.nbcnews.com/technology/ingame/worried-about-your-childs-gaming-psychiatrists-say-play-them-1C7660207)
Relationship skills is considered establishing and maintaining healthy and rewarding relationships based on cooperation; resisting inappropriate social pressure; preventing, managing, and resolving interpersonal conflict; seeking help when needed (http://casel.org/why-it-matters/what-is-sel/skills-competencies/).
As Cheryl K. Olson notes video games may promote social skills through actions such as sharing tips with one another, guiding one another to websites for cheat codes, and engaging in online team endeavors and tasks through games such as Minecraft and World and Warcraft.
Responsible decision-making is making decisions based on consideration of ethical standards, safety concerns, appropriate social norms, respect for others, and likely consequences of various actions; applying decision-making skills to academic and social situations; contributing to the well-being of one’s school and community (http://casel.org/why-it-matters/what-is-sel/skills-competencies/).
Video games, by their very nature, overtly teach gamers decision-making and problem-solving skills.
Problem-solving is a central theme to many video games, and kids of all ages are taught to recognize patterns and strategize in order to win. For example, Nintendo’s “The Legend of Zelda” series includes many puzzles and complex levels that challenge players. When Link gains an item, he must then use it to advance to what were previously inaccessible areas of the game. Many of the puzzles in each game also employ these items. Obstacles are often put in the way of achieving a goal in “Zelda,” which is arguably similar to many situations kids face in real life, like working hard to learn a difficult mathematical concept in order to succeed on a test at school.
Games like “Portal 2” keep the mind sharp and alert through hours of unique, mind-bending puzzle solving. This game emphasizes the importance of navigating a new environment carefully and recognizing and utilizing the materials available in a game. These problem-solving video games teach kids the importance of patience and perseverance by forcing them to think cognitively when trying to master a challenge. By working hard and choosing not to give up, kids achieve an “a-ha!” moment, where they realize the solution to a problem and feel smart for doing so. In this way, games like “Portal 2” not only help stimulate a child’s mind, they also boost confidence. (http://tlc.howstuffworks.com/family/life-skills-video-games-can-teach-kids1.htm)
. . . and video games have the potential to elicit ethical and moral decision-making choices.
Video games are a great way to walk in someone else’s shoes, if only digitally. Depending on the game, you can do good deeds for the love of humanity or the love of money. You can swing a sword for freedom or for oppression. According to Dr. Andrew Weaver, your game choices are more obvious than you’d think. When it comes to moral decision-making, how you play your game is how you live your life–and you’re playing morally.
For their paper, “Mirrored Morality: An Exploration of Moral Choice in Video Games,” Dr. Weaver and his fellow researcher Nicky Lewis had 75 gamers (40 men, 35 women, ages 18 to 24) play Fallout 3, a game that starts with relatively little game play and multiple character-building decisions. These gamers also took the Moral Foundations Questionnaire (you can take the self-scorable test, here) to evaluate their psychological foundations of morality, such as whether they value loyalty to a group or whether they respect authority. From this, Weaver determined that players used their own moral foundation to make their choices in-game. The key finding was players largely made moral decisions just as they would in real life, that is, they were doing the right thing. Even when given the opportunity to be violent, they were choosing non-violent acts. http://www.forbes.com/sites/carolpinchefsky/2012/11/28/you-and-your-videogame-avatar-are-more-moral-than-you-realize/
A recent Stanford experiment provided evidence that video games can be designed to encourage and elicit altuistic behavior. During the experiment test subjects were given Superman-like flight in a virtual reality simulator which in turn made them more likely to exhibit altruistic behavior in real life. Although this is a beginning of a series of experiments, the researchers found that:
While several studies have shown that playing violent video games can encourage aggressive behavior, the new research suggests that games could be designed to train people to be more empathetic in the real world. It’s very clear that if you design games that are violent, peoples’ aggressive behavior increases. If we can identify the mechanism that encourages empathy, then perhaps we can design technology and video games that people will enjoy and that will successfully promote altruistic behavior in the real world.
Using games in the classroom is more and more becoming an acceptable and accepted instructional practice. The benefits of games, when used strategically, should not be overlooked in increasing and enhancing the learners’ social and emotional competencies.
Benedetti, W. (2012). Worried about your child’s gaming? Psychiatrists say ‘play with them’ NBC News. Retrieved from http://www.nbcnews.com/technology/ingame/worried-about-your-childs-gaming-psychiatrists-say-play-them-1C7660207
Bowen, H. (2011). Can Videogames Make You Cry? Retrieved from http://www.bowenresearch.com/studies.php?id=3.
CASEL. (n.d.) SEL skills and competencies. Retrieved from http://casel.org/why-it-matters/what-is-sel/skills-competencies/.
Choi, C. (2010). How Wii and Kinect Hack Into Your Emotions. Wired Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2010/11/wii-emotion/.
Kilgore, N. (n.d.) What life skills can video games teach kids? TLC Family. Retrieved from http://tlc.howstuffworks.com/family/life-skills-video-games-can-teach-kids1.htm.
Krauss Whitbourne, S. (2011). How Videogames Can Promote Empathy. Psychology Today. Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/fulfillment-any-age/201109/how-videogames-can-promote-empathy.
McGonigal, J. (2012). How Might Video Games Be Good for Us? Big Questions Online. Retrieved from https://www.bigquestionsonline.com/content/how-might-video-games-be-good-us.
Pinchefsky, C. (2012). You and Your Videogame Avatar Are More Moral Than You Realize. Forbes. Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/carolpinchefsky/2012/11/28/you-and-your-videogame-avatar-are-more-moral-than-you-realize/.