Beneficial Video Games

The American comedian Demetri Martin said, “I’d like to play a video game where you help the people who were shot in all the other games. It’d be called ‘Really Busy Hospital’.”

Until recently, there was little interest in the creation of pro-social non-violent video games in which the characters interact and help each other instead of killing each other. Things are about to change.

For the last two years, under the inspiration of the science advisor to President Obama, a group of researchers including psychologists, educators, and neuroscientists have been meeting in Washington to consider how best to use the craze for video games for constructive purposes.

At one of these meetings, Richard Davidson, the neuroscientist who is also the director of laboratories, imagery, and affective sciences at the University of Wisconsin, challenged manufacturers “to design games to cultivate compassion and kindness rather than games that promote aggression and violence.“

Davidson has partnered with Kurt Squire, a professor at the Universtiy of Wisconsin in Madison and director of the Games Learning Society Initiative. Their project, to develop and rigorously test two educational games designed to help secondary school students cultivate their social and emotional skills*, was awarded a grant of $ 1.4 million by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The team is developing two kinds of games. One is to cultivate attention and the other one cultivates empathy, kindness, and pro-social behavior. Davidson says that attention is a building block for learning : “If you can learn to focus your attention more skillfully and concentrate it will have ripple effects on all kinds of learning.”

The second game will focus on empathy, altruism, compassion, and pro-social cooperation. Davidson believes that empathy is a core part of emotional intelligence, ““Empathy” he said, “is actually a better predictor of life success than cognitive intelligence.”

If these games are designed in attractive ways, they will have a positive impact on the players. Saleem and Greitemeyer, among others, have clearly shown that pro-social video games reduce the general level of hostility and malicious feelings towards others, while simultaneously increasing positive emotions, in the short and the long term.**

* Bavelier, D., & Davidson, R. J. (2013). "Brain training: Games to do you good". Nature, 494(7438), 425–426.

** Saleem, M., Anderson, C. A., & Gentile, D. A. (2012). "Effects of prosocial, neutral, and violent video games on college students’ affect". Aggressive Behavior, 38(4), 263–271?; Greitemeyer, T., Osswald, S., & Brauer, M. (2010). "Playing prosocial video games increases empathy and decreases schadenfreude". Emotion, 10(6), 796–802.