Educators Share How Video Games Can Help Kids Build SEL Skills

Social-Emotional Learning

Educators Share How Video Games Can Help Kids Build SEL Skills

By Tina Nazerian     Jan 22, 2019

Educators Share How Video Games Can Help Kids Build SEL Skills

This article is part of the guide: Game-Based Learning: Preparing Students for The Future.

Paul Darvasi is teaching his 12th graders that if there’s something about themselves they don’t like, they have the power to change it.

To do so, he’s using a video game called “What Remains of Edith Finch,” projecting it on a screen while students take turns playing. In the game, players get to know the main character, Edith, as she returns to her empty family home to figure out what happened to her relatives. Darvasi, who teaches at Royal St. George’s College, a private all-boys school in Toronto, thinks video games like this one can help kids build certain social-emotional learning (SEL) skills.

This year, Darvasi wants his students to use “Edith Finch” to explore identity, a topic that has a lot to do with SEL, according to Melissa Schlinger, vice president of practice and programs at CASEL, a research and policy organization devoted to SEL. “Your self awareness—how you know and understand yourself, your cultural identity and how that drives your understanding of yourself and others is key,” explains Schlinger in an email to EdSurge.

Darvasi doesn’t want students to just play the video game and call it a day. He’s also designed a range of activities that students will complete alongside the game. He wants students to start out thinking about identity in general, and how it can change situationally or throughout a person’s life.

As part of the unit, students create memes to show how various people in their lives see them. They make short videos where they connect their private and public identities. And they build social media profiles and write journal entries for a character in the game to highlight the dichotomy between how people present themselves publicly versus how they really are. To cap it off, students must curate an online museum exhibit about themselves and their identity.

Darvasi believes video games can play an important role in helping kids develop SEL competencies. And he’s not alone. Matthew Farber is an assistant professor at the University of Northern Colorado’s School of Teacher Education who researches the intersection of teacher education, learning technologies and game-based learning. He thinks educators shouldn't ignore video games if they want students to be media-literate, because they are the “storytelling medium of the 21st century.”

Farber and Darvasi codesigned the curriculum around “What Remains of Edith Finch,” which Darvasi is piloting in his classroom this year. A free, finalized version of the curriculum will be published by iThrive Games, a nonprofit focused on video games to support social-emotional development in teenagers, in 2019.

In addition to identity, Farber thinks gaming can help build other SEL skills, such as empathy. “Empathy involves imagination and episodic memory,” he says. “You have to project yourself on somebody else, on a character. And in a game, that’s what you do.”

Some games, he notes, particularly ones that have players experience a story as opposed to scoring points, are better at evoking empathy than others. He also thinks teachers should consider what type of empathy they want students to learn—cultural empathy is different, from, say, historical empathy.

Video games are good for teaching kids problem-solving and ethical decision-making as well, Farber says. Players understand that their in-game actions can affect the outcome in various ways, depending on the particular game (though in some games, such as “That Dragon, Cancer,” no matter what the player does, the final outcome is the same).

Like Darvasi, Farber doesn’t think teachers should just hand kids a game and have them answer test questions about it. Video games, he says, are a powerful form of media, and there are lots of classroom conversations to be had, both before and after playing them.

“I feel like there’s this general sense that all games are transactional,” Farber says. “You do this, and you get three stars and the buzzer goes off and you get points. And of course, games are nuanced. We don’t talk about film like that. We don’t talk about books like that. There’s documentary film. There are Pixar movies. There are romantic comedies.”

Some experts have expressed concern about how video games affect children. According to the Washington Post, the World Health Organization has recognized “gaming disorder”—characterized as a lasting addiction to video games—as a condition. Yet, not all experts agree that “game addiction” should be pathologized.

In an email to EdSurge, Leonard Jason, a professor of psychology at DePaul University, writes that addictions often involve increased tolerance for the drug or activity, and withdrawal symptoms when that drug or activity is taken away.

“For that reason, some feel this is not an addiction,” Jason writes. “But I think it can be called an addiction, to the extent that other conditions are met, such as spending an inordinate amount of time on that activity that then had detrimental consequences for other activities.”

Farber, however, notes that his colleagues who are psychologists say that problematic behavior is not the same as addiction. He thinks people can form emotional connections with games, and other forms of media that keep them engaged. “Are murder mystery novels addictive because they keep readers intentionally in suspense, not revealing who did it until the end?”

To advocates like Farber, games are an important form of storytelling, and not teaching them would be like excluding documentary film from classrooms and “then wondering why youth fail to understand how documentaries sway people’s opinions.”

There’s “a sense of urgency in our digital world to include games” in curriculum, he says. Yet teachers should be mindful of how they do so. Like other materials students might encounter in school, video games can touch on heavy subjects, such as death and divorce. For that reason, Darvasi also thinks teachers need to be careful about how they contextualize a game and frame discussions.

“When you're delving into identity and asking students to reveal an element about their journey, their ongoing journey and identity development, you're touching on things like race, gender, how you identify,” Darvasi says. “Those could lead you to discussions that may make certain students uncomfortable, or might in some ways make them feel like they’re being asked to reveal more than what they’re prepared to reveal.”

To mitigate that, Darvasi has worked with a school psychologist to create boundaries in advance of classroom discussions. The psychologist’s fundamental objectives, he explains, are to get students to be respectful, and to meet with them if they want. She visited the first class that focused on “Edith Finch” and identity this year.

“It’s valuable to enlist professionals from the realm to help support teachers navigate emotions,” Darvasi explains. “Schools are very emotional places that don’t invite emotion, and that is a big problem.”

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