Can video games change your brain? UW research suggests games can build empathy

Can video games change your brain? UW research suggests games can build empathy
"Crystals of Kaydor"Gear LearningCenter for Healthy Minds

New research from the University of Wisconsin-Madison shows video games may have the power to help children develop empathy and socially beneficial behaviors such as generosity.

At Gear Learning, the mission is to improve lives, and the studio does so by creating worlds.

“So far, we haven’t had a failure yet, or a content area we couldn’t design,” director Mike Beal said.

Gear Learning is a game development studio that is part of the Wisconsin Institute for Education Research at UW-Madison.

“We now know you can absolutely have fun while learning,” Beal said.

Developers design video game worlds exploring concepts ranging from immunotherapy to implicit bias.

The game “At Play in the Cosmos” takes players to space, where they can learn astronomy and physics. It’s designed for college students, but younger children are picking it up, too.

“You could learn about stuff by using games, by not just having fun but learning,” 10-year-old Brady Castree said.

“My hope is that education (in the future) looks very different than it does today,” Beal said.

Beal heads a team hoping to design the future of education.

“Designing a game is hard. Designing a game people like is even harder,” he said. “Designing a game to teach something is even harder yet.”

About six years ago, a unique challenge came from psychology and psychiatry professor Richard Davidson, who leads UW-Madison’s Center for Healthy Minds.

“It’s been the most challenging game space I’ve ever experienced,” Beal said.

“This was a very ambitious study,” Davidson said.

Davidson wants to build empathy and generous behavior in children, so he looked at what’s already grabbing their attention: video games.

“This trend is certainly not going to go away, and so rather than trying to beat them, we wish to join them,” he said.

In 2012, Beal and developers got to work, collaborating with experts to build “Crystals of Kaydor” from the ground up.

“It’s a monumental undertaking,” Beal said.

In the game, the player is a robot sent to a planet hundreds of light-years away.

“Right off the bat, you encounter an alien,” he said. “It’s crying, sad.”

Developers built a system where they could control every muscle on the alien’s face, so players could pick up the nonverbal cues of emotion.

“Everything you see in the game is 99.9 percent accurate to what a human face would be,” Beal said.

The players advance by understanding the plantlike aliens’ emotions and helping them. The game’s goal is to improve the aliens’ lives, while bettering the player’s life, too.

“There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that these kinds of social and emotional skills at this age in life are better predictors of longtime adult success in life than grades, IQ and standardized test scores all put together,” Davidson said.

A study looking into the effects of the game found that, after two weeks, some middle schoolers who played “Crystals of Kaydor” instead of a control game showed greater connectivity in brain areas related to empathy. These students showed the biggest improvements on an empathy behavior test, as well.

“That’s interesting, because it suggests that there were elements of the game that were responsible for producing those changes,” Davidson said.

Davidson said games like this could potentially help children with autism who have difficulty reading emotion.

He’s hoping to work with a game manufacturer to further develop the game and get it on the market.

“Only in the last decade, and certainly, working with Richie, did we realize games could have a higher purpose, which is pretty wonderful,” Beal said.

It’s fuel for Beal and his team to not just design video game worlds, but to build a better future.

“I can honestly tell you, because of my experiences here, I’m much more in tune with how people are feeling around me,” Beal said. “If even a handful of people can benefit from this game, it’s been a success.”