Researchers at the University of Wisconsin (UW)-Madison have developed a new video game specifically designed to boost empathy in kids.

The game, called “Crystals of Kaydor,” features a space-exploring robot who ends up crashing on a distant planet. In order to gather the pieces of its damaged spaceship, it needs to build emotional rapport with the local inhabitants. As part of the mission, the players need to identify a variety of emotions in the alien residents’ human-like expressions.

In a new study, the team put the game to the test with a group of middle school players. The researchers wanted to see whether the game could actually boost kids’ empathy skills. They also looked at the teens’ brain scans (before and two weeks after playing the game) to determine whether learning such skills can change neural connections in the brain.

The findings, published in npj Science of Learning, reveal for the first time that, in just two weeks, kids who played the video game showed greater connectivity in brain networks related to empathy and perspective taking. Some of the participants also showed altered neural networks commonly linked to emotion regulation, a crucial skill that this age group is beginning to develop, the study authors say.

“The realization that these skills are actually trainable with video games is important because they are predictors of emotional well-being and health throughout life, and can be practiced anytime  — with or without video games,” said Tammi Kral, a UW-Madison graduate student in psychology who led the research at the Center for Healthy Minds.

Dr. Richard Davidson, director of the center and a professor of psychology and psychiatry at UW-Madison, said empathy is the first step in a sequence that can lead to prosocial behavior, such as helping others in need.

“If we can’t empathize with another’s difficulty or problem, the motivation for helping will not arise,” Davidson says. “Our long-term aspiration for this work is that video games may be harnessed for good and if the gaming industry and consumers took this message to heart, they could potentially create video games that change the brain in ways that support virtuous qualities rather than destructive qualities.”

It is estimated that young people aged 8 to 18 play more than 70 minutes of video games each day, on average, according to data from the Kaiser Family Foundation. This spike in gameplay during adolescence coincides with an explosion in brain growth as well as a time when kids are susceptible to first encounters with depression, anxiety and bullying.

Through the study, the researchers wanted to see whether there were ways to use video games as a vehicle for positive emotional development during this critical period.

The researchers randomly assigned 150 middle schoolers to one of two groups. The first group played the empathy video game Crystals of Kaydor, while the second group played a commercially available and entertaining control game called “Bastion” that does not target empathy.

In Crystals of Kaydor, the young players interacted with aliens on a distant planet and learned to identify the intensity of emotions they witnessed on their human-like faces, such as anger, fear, happiness, surprise, disgust and sadness.

The researchers measured how accurate the players were in identifying the emotions of the characters in the game. The activity was also intended to help the kids practice and learn empathy.

In the game Bastion, the players were guided through a storyline in which they collected materials needed to build a machine to save their village, but tasks were not designed to teach or measure empathy. Researchers used the game because of its immersive graphics and third-person perspective.

The researchers also examined functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans taken in the laboratory in both groups before and after two weeks of gameplay. They looked at connections among different areas of the brain, including those associated with empathy and emotion regulation. The kids in the study also completed tests during the brain scans that measured how well they could empathize with others.

The findings reveal stronger connectivity in empathy-related brain networks after the middle schoolers played Crystals of Kaydor compared to Bastion. In addition, Crystals players who showed strengthened neural connectivity in key brain networks for emotion regulation also improved their score on the empathy test. Those who did not show increased neural connectivity in the brain did not improve on the test of empathic accuracy.

“The fact that not all children showed changes in the brain and corresponding improvements in empathic accuracy underscores the well-known adage that one size does not fit all,” Davidson said. “One of the key challenges for future research is to determine which children benefit most from this type of training and why.”

Teaching empathy skills in such an accessible way may benefit populations who find these skills challenging, including individuals on the autism spectrum, Davidson added.

Although the game Crystals of Kaydor is not available to the public, it has been used to inform similar games currently seeking approval.

Source: University of Wisconsin-Madison