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Social-Emotional Learning with Video Games for K-12 Learners

Social and emotional learning (SEL) is a crucial focus in education today, aiming to equip students with the skills necessary for success in school, work, and life. While game-based learning has already proven effective in developing 21st-century skills, engaging struggling learners, and improving learning outcomes, can educational video games also contribute to SEL among K-12 students? 

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Before we answer that question, take a moment to follow us on Facebook and Twitter for more insights on game-based learning! There’s all sorts of wisdom below (and mentions of some incredible video games) so be sure to bookmark this post so you can return to it again easily. With that, let’s explore social and emotional learning with video games!

Empathy, Problem-Solving, and Ethical Decision-Making

One of the many powers of video games is their ability to transport players into captivating narratives that touch upon complex emotions and personal growth. By assuming the roles of characters facing challenges, students develop self-awareness and empathy. Games prompt students to reflect on their own and others’ emotions, fostering a deeper understanding of human experiences. Through interactive gameplay, students gain new perspectives, driving empathetic thinking and forging meaningful connections with others.

In an article for EdSurge, educators Matthew Farber and Paul Darvasi underscore the power of video games in cultivating empathy, problem-solving, and ethical decision-making skills. For example, Darvasi uses the game What Remains of Edith Finch in his classroom, incorporating activities that encourage students to reflect on their identity and create digital projects related to the game’s themes.

Farber asserts that video games are “the storytelling medium of the 21st century.” By leveraging games like What Remains of Edith Finch, educators can provide students with an engaging narrative experience that allows for deep introspection. The game’s emphasis on non-verbal communication and symbolism prompts students to reflect on their own identities and how they perceive the world.

Video games offer a valuable platform for developing empathy and perspective-taking skills, essential components of social and emotional learning. Many games feature rich narratives that explore diverse perspectives, allowing players to step into the shoes of different characters and experience their challenges and emotions. By engaging with these narratives, students can gain a deeper understanding of others’ experiences, promoting tolerance and inclusivity.

Creating Spaces for Identity Exploration, Emotions, Failure, and Guided Discussions

Video games provide a risk-free space for students to practice emotional regulation and develop resilience. Many games present challenges and obstacles that require perseverance, problem-solving, and adaptability. Students must learn to manage frustration, control impulsive reactions, and persist in the face of failure. By experiencing setbacks within the context of a game, students can develop a growth mindset and acquire strategies for overcoming challenges, transferring these skills to real-life situations.

Though games themselves are wonderful vehicles for social-emotional learning, teachers have a vital role to play in SEL, too. In the same article mentioned above, both Farber and Darvasi acknowledge the need for sensitivity and professional support when discussing potentially sensitive topics related to identity. They stress the importance of creating a safe and respectful environment for students to navigate emotions and express themselves effectively. Darvasi stresses the significance of validating students’ feelings and creating a respectful environment

By pairing video games with classroom discussions and reflective activities, teachers can facilitate meaningful conversations about identity, relationships, love, self-awareness, and more. It is crucial for educators to frame these discussions appropriately, considering the potential sensitivity of certain topics and ensuring that students feel comfortable expressing themselves.

Books + Video Games = A Perfect Combination for Meaningful SEL

In a different article for Edutopia, Farber explores the potential of pairing video games with books to enhance students’ educational experiences. By combining games and books, students can build background knowledge, improve reading comprehension, develop critical-thinking skills, and cultivate social and emotional competencies.

Farber provides examples of game and book pairings that explore diverse narratives. For instance, the game Alba: A Wildlife Adventure, which revolves around ethical decision-making, can be paired with Carl Hiassen’s book Hoot

Similarly, the game Never Alone, based on an Iñupiat Alaska Native folktale, can be paired with Paula Ikuutaq Rumbolt’s The Legend of Lightning and Thunder.

Farber also highlights the game Lost Words: Beyond the Page as an example of high-quality storytelling. This game intertwines a tale of grief and a hero’s journey adventure, offering opportunities for pairing with books like Ali Benjamin’s The Thing About Jellyfish, which also explores themes of grief and quest.

To facilitate class discussions and analysis, Farber suggests playing game vignettes in short sessions and assigning different students to play each day. This approach allows for literature circles, where students lead discussions comparing the novel and the game. He recommends using graphic and semantic organizers, such as spiderwebs, to compare and contrast characters, emotions, and situations. Teachers can also incorporate journaling into the lesson to reflect on the actions of characters in both the game and the book.

By combining video games and books, educators can create dynamic learning experiences that include both the page and the screen for a multidimensional look into social and emotional learning concepts.

Nurturing Coping Skills and Addressing Grief

Since adults aren’t the only ones who experience complex feelings, it’s important to meet K-12 learners where they are, engaging them with mediums familiar and interesting to them to help them understand and explore intricate emotions. Recognizing the prevalence of unresolved grief among teenagers, this iThrive Games blog post, authored by guest writer and English Language Arts Teacher Lauren Geschel, emphasizes the importance of normalizing big emotions and providing tools to navigate them. Video games, such as Florence, offer a platform for students to engage with emotional themes like grief and loss. 

The narrative-driven gameplay of Florence enables students to explore their own emotional journeys and develop coping skills. By integrating games like “Florence” into the curriculum, educators can help students understand and process their emotions within a supportive environment.

Assessing Mental Well-being

Narrative games aren’t the only option for schools seeking to look out for the emotional well-being of their students! For example, the Healthy Minds Measures App that we created with our client, Healthy Minds Innovations, is a smartphone app consisting of three minigames designed to evaluate the emotional well-being of high school students from the ages of 14 to 18. The games assess attention regulation, attitudes toward strangers, and a sense of relatedness. 

Integrating video games into K-12 education offers schools a unique opportunity to enhance social and emotional learning. By harnessing the power of emotional storytelling and leveraging the immersive nature of video games, educators can foster self-awareness, empathy, problem-solving, and more social-emotional skills in students. By embracing video games as an educational tool, teachers can equip K-12 learners with the emotional intelligence necessary to thrive in the modern world!

Feeling inspired? So are we! If you’re interested in creating your own game-based solution for SEL or mental wellbeing, hi, we’re Filament Games, an educational game developer who can help make your dreams a reality. Let’s talk about your project! 

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