A Video Game that Teaches Empathy and Strengthens Neural Connectivity

August 14, 2018

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

A space-exploring robot crashes on a distant planet in an experimental video game developed specifically to teach empathy. (Image courtesy of Games+Learning+Society/Gear Learning at UW-Madison)

This fantastical scenario is the premise of a video game developed for middle schoolers by Informatics Professors Kurt Squire and Constance Steinkuehler in collaboration with Gear Learning researchers from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the game, “Crystals of Kaydor,” helped the team study whether video games can boost kids’ empathy and how learning such skills could change neural connections in the brain.

Results published this month in “npj Science of Learning” (part of the Nature Partner Journals series) reveal for the first time that, in as few as two weeks, kids who played a video game designed to train empathy showed greater connectivity in brain networks related to empathy and perspective taking. Some also showed altered neural networks commonly linked to emotion regulation, a crucial skill that kids in this age group are beginning to develop, the study authors say.

“A lot of work went into designing a game where understanding emotions was the core mechanic,” says Squire. “Likewise, getting the characters, quest, story and art to coalesce around this idea was exciting.”

On average, youth between the ages of 8 and 18 years rack up more than 70 minutes of video gameplay daily, according to data from the Kaiser Family Foundation. This spike in gameplay during adolescence coincides with an explosion in brain growth as well as a time when kids are susceptible to first encounters with depression, anxiety and bullying. The team wanted to learn whether there were ways to use video games as a vehicle for positive emotional development during this critical period.

Researchers randomly assigned 150 middle schoolers to two groups. One played “Crystals of Kaydor” and the other played a commercially available and entertaining control game called “Bastion” that does not target empathy.

In the “Crystals of Kaydor” game, kids interacted with aliens on the distant planet and learned to identify the intensity of emotions they witnessed on their human-like faces, such as anger, fear, happiness, surprise, disgust and sadness (see a video of the game here). The researchers measured how accurate the kids were in identifying the emotions of the characters in the game. The activity was also intended to help the kids practice and learn empathy.

In “Crystals of Kaydor,” as players interact with the aliens, they and must learn to identify emotions such as anger, fear, happiness, surprise, disgust and sadness. (Image courtesy of Games+Learning+Society/Gear Learning at UW-Madison)

The kids who played “Bastion” partook in a storyline where players collected materials needed to complete a larger mission, but tasks were not designed to teach or measure empathy. Researchers also used the game because of its immersive graphics and third-person perspective.

Researchers obtained functional magnetic resonance imaging scans in the laboratory from both groups before and after two weeks of gameplay, looking at connections among areas of the brain, including those associated with empathy and emotion regulation. Participants in the study also completed tests during the brain scans that measured how accurately they empathized with others.

The researchers found stronger connectivity in empathy-related brain networks after kids played “Crystals of Kaydor” compared to “Bastion.” Moreover, “Crystals” players who showed strengthened neural connectivity in key brain networks for emotion regulation also improved their score on the empathy test. Kids who did not show increased neural connectivity in the brain did not improve on the test of empathic accuracy.

Teaching empathy skills in such an accessible way may benefit populations who find these skills challenging, including individuals on the autism spectrum. Currently, the game is only being used for research purposes but has helped inform other games being submitted to the FDA for clinical applications.

“A next round of this research will investigate if unobtrusive wearable technologies might better help youth monitor and manage their attention and emotional responses to situations,” says Squire, who is continuing to study the topic at UCI’s Connected Learning Lab with funding from the National Science Foundation. “We are excited about these technologies, but also mindful that they need to be designed right so that they are used effectively and empower youth.”


Marianne Spoon and Shani Murray