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How Educational Video Games Can Help Foster Social and Emotional Learning

Previously, we’ve written about how game-based learning is proven to develop 21st century skills, help engage struggling learners, and – when supplemented with a mix of educator-led activities and reflections – improve learning outcomes. But can educational video games help foster social and emotional learning (SEL) among young learners?

According to a research study conducted by Getting Smart, the answer appears to be a resounding ‘yes!”

For those unfamiliar with the term, social and emotional learning refers to an enhanced focus on building skills and competencies that will help students be successful in school, work, and life beyond the classroom. SEL is not a single program or teaching method – rather, it involves coordinated efforts across classrooms, schools, and districts to promote key skills such as problem-solving, critical thinking, communication, collaboration, negotiation, delegation and empathy. A tall order, indeed – and one that remains a critical factor when it comes to adequately preparing today’s students for the workforce of tomorrow.

The benefits of social and emotional learning are well-documented – some even argue that the future of education depends on it. But how does game-based learning fit into the SEL equation?

To help answer this, let’s first examine Getting Smart’s gaming and SEL study which highlights the experiences of several K12 educators who use Minecraft as a vehicle to boost social and emotional learning outcomes among their students. In the report, Rody Boonchouy, Senior Director of Innovation and Strategic Partnerships at the Buck Institute for Education, shares his perspective on how cooperative gaming can foster collaboration and teamwork among students:

“It isn’t a secret that games are popular and engage students. They’re able to fail forward in a risk-free environment. When playing Minecraft, students must have a level of coordination and cooperation in order to accomplish shared objectives. They’re negotiating with one another, strategizing about resources and next moves, and delegating responsibilities. It’s really quite remarkable to see.”

Video: Minecraft: Education Edition (YouTube)

Other surveyed educators – namely Renton Prep Christian School’s Executive Director Dr. Michelle Zimmerman – echo Rody’s sentiments, sharing their observations on how video games bolster students’ notion of teamwork not only inside games like Minecraft, but seemingly in non-game contexts as well:

“Games that allow a collaborative or cooperative mode provide the opportunity for an increased sense of belonging through relatedness inside of a game environment. When learning design is built into a classroom setting with games that already intrinsically motivate students, that relatedness can extend and transfer outside of the game as students discuss and interact with each other in person as well as in the game environment.”

Multiplayer game-based learning experiences like Minecraft serve as excellent platforms allowing students to hone in on their communication and collaboration skillsets – though we would be remiss to overlook the many possibilities for SEL offered via single player learning experiences.

In a recently published article on Edutopia titled Teaching Empathy with Video Games, game-based learning scholar and friend of Filament Matthew D. Farber, Ed.D. examines how digital games can be harnessed to help young learners reflect upon, develop, and enrich their awareness of both their own and their peers’ emotions. Drawing on his own scholarship co-authored with Dr. Karen Schrier, Dr. Farber illustrates how the agency afforded to players in games like That Dragon, Cancer and myPeekaville allow players to “become” in-game characters, gain new and unfamiliar perspectives, and ultimately drive empathetic thinking.

To help illustrate this idea, let’s take a closer look at one of our recent releases: Breaking Boundaries in Science, our VR celebration of some of history’s most famous scientists. In the game, players explore virtual re-creations of the real-life labs and workstations of Marie Curie, Jane Goodall, and Grace Hopper. Through gameplay, players gain an intimate knowledge of each woman’s lives and achievements by interacting with artifacts and fully voice-acted vignettes steeped in historical context.

Video: Breaking Boundaries in Science | Launch Trailer (YouTube)

By bending the rules of time and space, Breaking Boundaries immerses learners in the workspaces and stories of these iconic women, ultimately helping to promote empathy and shared understanding as players explore their complex and relatable life stories. For instance, upon picking up a framed photograph on Grace Hopper’s desk, it is revealed to the player that Hopper’s father had both of his legs medically amputated when Grace was still a child. A kind businessman who lived to be 74 years old, Hopper’s father used his personal hardships to encourage his children to overcome their own obstacles – a fact that likely inspired Hopper’s own work ethic and passion for mathematics and computing.

Breaking Boundaries in Science is one of a many high-quality learning games that can help spark empathy-building via perspective-taking – for those interested in exploring more titles, here’s a great list to help you get started.

Today, cultivating social and emotional learning remains a top focus among classrooms, schools, and districts alike. Research has shown that students exposed to SEL practices exhibit an increased ability to understand and relate to the perspectives of others, more positive social behaviors and relationships with both other students and adults, and develop increasingly positive attitudes towards themselves, others, and tasks – skills which will undoubtedly prove essential when navigating their future careers. While there exist no shortage of ways to foster and develop SEL, game-based learning remains one of the most impactful ways to engage learners young and old.

Do you have an idea for a playful social and emotional learning experience? Let’s get in touch – we’d love to hear your ideas. 🎮❤️


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