Enlightened Gaming: Can Electronic Games Teach People Skills?

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March 24, 2015

Bullying. Narcissism. Short attention spans. More and more, technology is getting the blame for raising a generation of anti-social children.

But can technology, especially electronic games, also help children develop better people skills?

Jessica Berlinski and Jeremy Richman think so. Berklinski, the chief impact officer for Personalized Learning Games, and Richman, founder of The Avielle Foundation, joined GreatSchools Executive Editor Carol Lloyd for a recent Goolge+ Hangout, where they discussed how games can be used to boost a child’s emotional smarts, rather than hinder it.

People are often surprised to hear that Richman supports the gaming industry. Richman lost his 6-year-old daughter in the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in December 2012. Since then, he and his wife, both scientists, started The Avielle Foundation, which funds research into understanding the brain and what leads to violent behavior.

Games can engage and motivate children in a powerful way, Richman said, driving them to keep trying even if they fail over and over again. It can also provide a safe place for children to experiment and try on different roles and make both good and bad choices, learning the consequences in the process.

Certainly, he’s not advocating for violent media such as Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto. But he believes that if parents speak up and leverage their collective buying power, they can steer the $6.1 billion gaming industry into making better products.

“We represent a huge value to the gaming industry,” he said. “If we say we would rather this than that, they’ll make it for us. And they’ll make it fun and they’ll make it entertaining. They’ll make something that your kid will want to play.”

He also believes that parents should not rely on games to “babysit” their children. Instead, games can be an opportunity for parents to play with their kids.

“There is nothing that can compensate for face time in the real world,” he said. “The key is to interact with the child the whole time they’re engaged.”

While too much technology and violent media can indeed influence children negatively, there is also research that has shown that certain games can lead to better behavior, said Berlinski. Zoo U, for instance, is an online game that teaches elementary school children social and emotional skills such as empathy, cooperation and impulse control. A study found that parents saw a marked change in their children’s behavior after the kids played the game.

Berlinski suggested that parents turn to resources such as Common Sense Media for recommendations and reviews of age-appropriate apps, games and other media for children. Understood.org is also a new resource to help parents find tools for children with autism and other learning disabilities.

“Kids are digital natives,” Berlinski said in an interview. “It’s important that we leverage technology for good.”

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