Beyond Strategy and Winning, How Games Teach Kids Empathy

| February 9, 2012 | 7 Comments
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By Annie Murphy Paul

Until I had children, I couldn’t be bothered with playing games. Couldn’t stand poker, pinochle or gin rummy. Bored out of my mind by Sorry! and Stratego. Never understood the appeal of chess, checkers or backgammon.

But once I had kids, games took on a new appeal. Apart from entertaining my kids on rainy afternoons, I saw how many different skills games helped to develop. Card games like Uno and Go Fish helped my sons learn to recognize colors and numbers. Board games like Candyland and Chutes and Ladders reinforced their burgeoning conception of a linear number line. And word games like Scrabble and Boggle, which we’re just beginning to try out, promise to expand their vocabularies and enhance their understanding of word stems and endings.

But the biggest benefits of playing games, I’ve come to see, are social. The same kid who responds to the question, “What did you do at school today?” with an impassive “Nothing,” suddenly grows loquacious once there’s a pair of dice or a pack of playing cards between the two of you. Games teach children how to take turns, lose stoically and win graciously (well, most of the time). And there’s another skill that game-playing promotes, one I hadn’t thought about until I read a study published last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: Games push players to try to understand the minds of the other participants. Is she bluffing? Is he

clueless, or just playing dumb? Can everyone tell that I’m planning to go out in a blaze of glory on the next round?

The study, conducted by a group of researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, used functional magnetic resonance imaging to show that different brain regions are active when individuals play a game against other people and when they play against themselves.

“When players compete against each other in a game, they try to make a mental model of the other person’s intentions, what they’re going to do and how they’re going to play, so they can play strategically against them,” explains one of the study’s authors Kyle Mathewson, who worked alongside lead author Lusha Zhu

This “mental model” of other people’s thoughts and feelings, also known as theory of mind, is crucial for the development of empathy, perspective-taking, and social reciprocity—all the skills that allow us to get along productively with others.

OK, so in this case we’re trying to understand the other person so that we can completely crush them in Battleship. But the ability to adopt another person’s point of view is an aptitude we should want to foster at every opportunity, in every setting. Cultivating children’s theory of mind is a game that everybody wins.

[Update: The current version of the article reflects the correct name of the lead author and university that conducted the study.]

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  • Kevin Ballestrini

    Annie, there are some great points here. Games have an unbelievable power to take on the mindset of another (and a whole lot more) through the power of play. This is exactly one of the things that we’ve set out to accomplish with our practomimetic learning model used in Operation LAPIS (see: http://blogs.kqed.org/mindshift/2011/11/can-an-online-game-crack-the-code-to-language-learning/ ).

    If you are interested, here is a quick write-up that I posted towards the end of last year regarding the compassion and concern that my students displayed at a pivotal moment in the game/course: http://kevinbal.blogspot.com/2011/06/text-based-compassion.html

  • Silver Dh

    It seems to me that there is a huge gap between thinking about a next move that may be made in a game and empathy for a specific individual or group. In the first case it is quite abstract–after all we can try to anticipate a move made by a chess computer where there is no empathy, merely a cold logic–whereas an empathic response involves us in feeling what another person’s experience may be. There are thousands of people playing war games trying to anticipate others’ actions so that they can destroy them. Empathy? I think not.

  • Hatch Early Learning

    Thank you for posting about the importance of games in teaching
    empathy. As a teacher, teacher educator, evaluator, and early learning
    researcher, I have witnessed firsthand how games encourage the growth of social
    and emotional skills. As Peter Salovey and John
    Mayer reported in their 1990 study, “Emotional
    Intelligence,” these skills can also be referred to as Emotional
    Intelligence (EI). People with high EI scores combine
    feeling, thinking and decision-making functions; use emotions to help solve
    problems; and live a more effective life.  

     

    As you wrote, the social dynamic of games promotes
    collaboration, helps children to develop empathy, and to value the needs of
    others. Social and emotional development is as important in the classroom as
    intellectual development. Children must learn to manage both cognitive and
    emotional skills to be successful in life. In a recent blog
    post, “Can I Add If I’m Mad?” I wrote about a similar topic. I would love
    to hear your thoughts.

     

    Dr. Dale McManis

    Research
    Director, Hatch, Inc.  

  • Hatch Early Childhood

    Thank you for posting about the importance of games in teaching
    empathy. As a teacher, teacher educator, evaluator, and early learning
    researcher, I have witnessed firsthand how games encourage the growth of social
    and emotional skills. As Peter Salovey and John
    Mayer reported in their 1990 study, “Emotional
    Intelligence,” these skills can also be referred to as Emotional Intelligence
    (EI). People with high EI scores combine
    feeling, thinking and decision-making functions; use emotions to help solve
    problems; and live a more effective life.  

     

    As you wrote, the social dynamic of games promotes
    collaboration, helps children to develop empathy, and to value the needs of
    others. Social and emotional development is as important in the classroom as
    intellectual development. Children must learn to manage both cognitive and
    emotional skills to be successful in life. If you would like to read a recent blog post, “Can I Add If
    I’m Mad?” that I wrote about a similar topic, I would love to hear your thoughts. http://blog.hatchearlychildhood.com/author/dale/

     

    Dr. Dale McManis

    Research Director, Hatch, Inc.

  • Hatch Early Childhood

    Thank you for posting about the importance of games in teaching
    empathy. As a teacher, teacher educator, evaluator, and early learning
    researcher, I have witnessed firsthand how games encourage the growth of social
    and emotional skills. As Peter Salovey and John
    Mayer reported in their 1990 study, “Emotional
    Intelligence,” these skills can also be referred to as Emotional Intelligence
    (EI). People with high EI scores combine
    feeling, thinking and decision-making functions; use emotions to help solve
    problems; and live a more effective life. As you wrote, the social
    dynamic of games promotes collaboration, helps children to develop empathy, and
    to value the needs of others. Social and emotional development is as important
    in the classroom as intellectual development. Children must learn to manage
    both cognitive and emotional skills to be successful in life. If you would like to
    read a recent blog post, “Can I Add If
    I’m Mad?” that I wrote about a similar topic, I would love to hear your thoughts. http://blog.hatchearlychildhood.com/author/dale/

    Dr. Dale McManis

    Research Director, Hatch, Inc.

  • SYeager

    Thank you for posting about the importance of games in teaching empathy. As a teacher, teacher educator, evaluator, and early learning researcher, I have witnessed firsthand how games encourage the growth of social and emotional skills. As Peter Salovey and John Mayer reported in their 1990 study, “Emotional Intelligence,” these skills can also be referred to as Emotional Intelligence (EI). People with high EI scores combine feeling, thinking and decision-making functions; use emotions to help solve problems; and live a more effective life. As you wrote, the social dynamic of games promotes collaboration, helps children to develop empathy, and to value the needs of others. Social and emotional development is as important in the classroom as intellectual development.
    Children must learn to manage both cognitive and emotional skills to be successful in life. If you would like to read a recent blog post, “Can I Add If I’m Mad?” that I wrote about a similar topic, I would love to hear your thoughts: http://blog.hatchearlychildhood.com/author/dale/
    Dr. Dale McManis
    Research Director, Hatch, Inc.

  • Carmen

    My children and I played, and still do, all those games. The results are there for anyone to see.
    What I can add is that I used to invite their boyfriends (I have 3 daughters and a boy) and got to know them by playing. Were they good, were they gracious losers, intelligent, cheaters, etc. Great information came from all those hours of fun.