Using video games to teach preschool children empathy

IEU journalist Emily Campbell explores the findings of a recent study which found a specially designed video game helped preschool-aged children to experience and develop empathy.

Video games and their effect on children’s growth and development is a polarising topic, which has been subject to much debate in recent years as our world relies increasingly on digital technology.

Critics of video games are concerned the impact of increased screen time on young children can inhibit their social-emotional development, lead to increased aggression and promote anti-social behaviour.

However, the research team in a promising new study believe this is not necessarily the case, arguing “the solution is embedded in the problem when hybrid learning design blends real-life social interpersonal interactions with digital representations”.

The Empathy World: a game to cultivate empathic perception

The Empathy World was designed and created by Ling Wu, an early childhood education teacher and Research Fellow at Monash University, along with colleagues Dr Minkang Kin and Professor Lina Markauskaite from The University of Sydney.

With a keen interest in child development and young children’s social-emotional learning, specifically empathy, Ling decided to pursue this project as part of her PhD studies.

The trio of researchers used a bold and somewhat paradoxical approach to see how they could use technology to address the very issues technology is said to worsen.

Using theory-informed design principles backed by extensive research, the group created The Empathy World, a tablet game which aims to promote empathic perception in preschool-aged children, which the researchers describe as “an essential building block for the ability to see, sense and understand the internal states of other humans” (Wu, Kim & Markauskaite, 2020).

As part of the study, 12 preschool students played The Empathy World regularly during their time at preschool over a period of three months.

The results are very promising, with the researchers finding that children who played The Empathy World were better able to pay attention to other people’s feelings and direct selective attention towards making appropriate decisions by selecting empathy worthy social cues with increased efficiency.

The research team found a positive relation between playing the game and enhanced empathic perception, supported by a brain imaging study which showed enhanced empathic sensitivity to harmful social interactions and increased attention to others’ feelings based on teachers’ observations.

Playing the game

During play Ling said children were exposed to a variety of interactive social scenarios referred to as ‘stories,’ with progressively more complex emotions and contexts for each story.

“Each scene in a story presents questions that prompt players to perceive social cues, perceive and understand emotions and perceive and analyse other perspectives in the context and engage in social-causal reasoning,” Ling said.

“For example, early in the game there is a scene in a sand pit with two babies playing together, where baby A is throwing a shovel at baby B and baby B is crying.

“The child playing can contextualise the story, seeing that sadness occurred when the baby was hurt, then extend their learning to understand it’s unkind to hurt others because the baby who was injured now feels sad,” Ling said.

“This allows for another level of association because the children have at some point experienced sadness in their own life so they recognise it’s not a pleasant thing to experience,” Ling said.

The scenes and emotions in the game reflect familiar situations, settings and encounters young children are likely to have experienced themselves or been exposed to in their everyday lives at preschool and at home.

There is a balanced combination of positive and negative emotions used throughout the game, like happy, sad, angry and scared in the earlier stages, before increasingly complex emotions are introduced in later stages such as pride, frustration and disappointment.

“We embedded more and older characters in more nuanced social situations in the more difficult scenes, inviting children to perceive other people’s emotional states and understand their perspective,” the researchers wrote.

Deliberately distracting stimuli and images such as toys and brightly coloured food are present in the different scenes; however, the researchers observed that over time, children playing became better and more efficient at ignoring these interruptions, filtering out irrelevant distractions and demonstrating greater concern for emotions that warranted empathy.

Another interesting aspect of the game design is the inclusion of audio-visual feedback to enhance the educational value.

When children act on certain stimuli by touching or clicking the target item (the most empathetically valuable cue or appropriate answer), the selection is celebrated through positive, encouraging audio feedback, green lights and the awarding of stars.

If the child selects the distraction stimuli or an irrelevant cue, for example clicking on a toy rather than a frustrated parent, the audio-visual feedback will trigger a feedback scene with orange colour and a voice which gently prompts the child to try again and look for something else.

Importance of teaching empathy

Ling explained that in a very general sense, early learning is a golden period for a child’s development, particularly for social-emotional learning.

“Empathy is just as important for young children to learn about as language, literacy and numeracy,” Ling said.

It is widely recognised that empathy plays a key role in interpersonal and emotional understanding, (Mafessona & Lachmann, 2019) motivates pro-social efforts and encourages generosity and caring behaviour (Devety, Bartal, Uzefovsky & Knafo-Noam, 2016).

Furthermore, empathy functions as a regulative factor which can prevent emotional problems including aggression (Davis, 2018), depression and anxiety (Levy, Goldstein & Feldman, 2019).

“Our findings show the younger or early stage of empathy development is not so much about behaviour, for example ‘you see this, do that,’ but rather ‘empathic perception’,” Ling said.

“When adults talk about needing to be empathetic and show our empathy, we are very much referring to it at a behavioural level, whereas for young children, it’s the noticing, the seeing, the ‘empathic perception’ which they need to learn.

“It’s not that young children aren’t empathetic; they need to learn to notice and recognise something that is empathetically-valuable.

“If they have difficulties in noticing it’s not because they’re not empathetic or not being thoughtful, it’s simply that they didn’t notice empathetically-valuable cues, or they didn’t register it in their own world.

“How they learn that is very valuable because once they’ve learnt to pick up the cues then the appropriate behaviour follows,” she said.

Repetition essential

Traditional approaches to teaching preschoolers about empathy include programs like ‘spin off sessions’ where children are taken on excursions to farms so they can learn to practise being gentle, kind and caring toward animals.

However, Ling says these methods are not always practical for young children to learn about empathy, and that to recall in the long-term what they have learnt during that session and repeat it in everyday life can be difficult given how young children’s brains work.

“Their attention, memory and way of learning works very differently to adults, meaning that like learning the alphabet, phonics, language and numbers, long-term repetition is key,” she said.

This is one reason The Empathy World was designed in a longitudinal way, where exposure to stimuli is continuous over a longer period, rather than a one-off session.

“What the game is trying to achieve is to provide repetition in a contextualised way so while context of the story or scene changes, the learning mechanism is maintained and stable,” Ling said.

“In the study, the children settled into this almost habit-like process where they expected to see stories and to learn subtly different things from each story, filtering out irrelevant distractions.

“They’re making associations in their little brains to assign meaning to different situations and social interactions.

“They’re not simply being taught ‘this face means happy, this face means sad,’ which is important to a degree.

“Being able to recognise and label an emotion is important, but to do so in a contextualised environment teaches association and enhances their empathy development in a more holistic way,” Ling said.

Future plans

Given the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns experienced globally, the findings of this study are particularly significant and emerge at a time when children are engaged in extra screen time and have their typical in-person social interactions limited.

The research team say while the current game is designed for and was used in formal educational settings, it has the potential for use in informal learning environments, such as within families.

“We are very encouraged by the positive results at a brain level and feedback from the preschool teachers involved in the study,” Ling said.

“They really see the potential given how easy it is to implement tablet games, such as during indoor play time, when staff can sit with children and join in play to prompt rich conversations with the children.”

Now based at the Monash University Action Lab, Ling and her team are working hard to refine The Empathy World and eventually release it as an open-source material accessible to teachers and families.

“This will immerse children in emotionally-laden conversations with their teachers and other adults, to further enhance their empathetic development,” Ling said.

“Not every parent is equipped with the knowledge to engage in emotional education or empathy parenting and they need a little bit of support to start a conversation or brainstorm ideas of an activity,” she said.

Ling hopes the design, technology, education, science and academic communities continue to unite and solve problems in a collaborative way.

“Having children’s learning and development at heart is essential to tackle these issues together using our established wealth of knowledge and a bit of creativity,” Ling said.

“We really hope to create impact early on to set children up for a healthier future and bring them benefit throughout their development.”

To read the study and learn more about The Empathy World visit