Video Games and SEL

Guest Blog by Noelle Hobbs, content support by Katelyn S. Herrygers 

With Video Game Day on September 12th this year, it’s a good time to explore how video games can potentially make learning more interactive and build important skills in social-emotional learning (SEL). Rather than dismissing video gaming as negative, we can tap what kids feel passionate about—video gaming—to connect them to others and community.

Video games often get a bad rap. It is common for people to make connections between violent behavior and game play, or isolation and a lack of social skills. However, more research is needed to prove these sorts of correlations. Regardless of how you currently view video games, with some creative listening and educational insights they can be made to connect, solve problems, teach empathy and perseverance, and give students the opportunity to share their passion in a constructive way.

Connecting to SEL

While some parents may be concerned about video games in the classroom, teachers like Mr. McGivern, who is in his 16th year of teaching, are able to leverage students’ interests in video games to “hear what they are interested in, to tap into their interests in a positive way and help them make good choices when they are not in the classroom.” By introducing video games in an educational context, teachers can steer students to games that will enhance their skills, as opposed to games that may be inappropriate.

SEL is the process through which children--and adults--acquire and apply knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions (casel, 2017). 

Teachers of all disciplines can initiate classroom discussions that center on real-world issues and teach students to ask questions, sift through facts, propose solutions, and take action to make the world a better place. 

The goal of Learning to Give is to help students align knowledge and skills with their innate caring and generosity. This student-centered experiential approach deepens motivation to learn and give through purpose, mastery, and autonomy. 

Many people view playing video games as a strictly individual activity, which it can be, but with the right approach it can also be a great collaboration tool. Multiplayer game-based learning experiences allow students to use communication and collaboration to reach a certain goal. Additionally, “games that allow a collaborative or cooperative mode provide the opportunity for an increased sense of belonging through relatedness inside of a game environment.” When game creation is in effect, students can work together to create games, or if working individually, they can bounce around ideas with others or have friends provide feedback through playing the game.

Empathy in Video Game Play

Playing video games socially with others can boost a child’s soft skills, such as empathy, which can help students with career readiness. Students may also gain the SEL skill of perspective-taking through playing with their on-screen character. There are also video games with the main purpose of overcoming challenges and managing emotions, which is practicing SEL skills in a real-time, virtual setting.  Video games that have a purpose of overcoming challenges may help students manage their emotions by practicing in a virtual—and in some ways, risk free—setting.

For instance, with the help of  the video game “What Remains of Edith Finch,” Paul Darvasi teaches his 12th graders about identity and how it can change situationally or throughout a person’s life. He designed a range of activities that students complete alongside the game to build skills. Before Darvasi began implementing video games as a tool for teaching SEL he made sure to work with a school psychologist to create boundaries in advance of classroom discussions. “It’s valuable to enlist professionals from the realm to help support teachers and navigate emotions,” said Darvasi.

Not only are there ways to build SEL, but video games can also help in academics. To enhance the impact of game time, several popular video games like Minecraft now offer an educational edition, which have applications in geography, history, engineering, and physics. Video games may offer content far more constructive than violent or trivial games that first come to mind for many. There are several text-based games that function to expand creativity, like a “choose your own adventure” that allows students to work on their reading skills in an interactive format, for example. 

Building Games

Using video game elements in the classroom can go beyond having students physically play games. Gamification is the use of game design and mechanics to enhance non-game contexts by increasing participation, engagement, loyalty, and competition.

Not only will playing games help youth to develop and work on important skills, but building games also helps. For instance, students can use a book they are reading to develop unique characters with their own stories in a game. Students may write stories they are interested in by crafting storylines and then develop a game that follows their story. 

After students find a cause they care about, they can create a game that educates and/or allows others to experience the issue or the impact of that issue.

Game creation can also be used to bring awareness to an issue youth care about. Games like Whisper of a Rose tackle the hardships of bullying. And, Recycle City, teaches students what they can do to help the environment. 

Games and Gaming Platforms

  • Twine - “Twine is an open-source tool for telling interactive, nonlinear stories.” This platform allows for interactive fiction and can include stories with a “choose your own adventure” organization.
  • StoriumEdu - “A collaborative writing game for students of all ages that builds lasting confidence and skill.” An asset of this game is the digital “story cards” that represent different aspects of storytelling and character development, which serve as writing prompts for youth.
  • Civilization - Players try to create successful pre-Bronze Age civilizations, as well as build the Egyptian pyramids, the Great Wall of China and other wonders of the world. Check out these other educational games that John Miller, a 7th-grade history teacher, has used in their classroom!
  • Way - This two-player game includes all visual communication, with no words exchanged. The game challenges players to collaborate to succeed at a common goals to those goals.

Additional Resources

  • iThrive Games Foundation - “Works to benefit teens at the intersection of game development, education, and mental health.  We strive to foster mental wellness and enhance empathy, creative thinking, problem-solving, and other social and emotional skills using games.”
  • Games for Change -  “Games for Change empowers game creators and social innovators to drive real-world change using games that help people to learn, improve their communities, and contribute to make the world a better place.”
  • How Minecraft Supports Social and Emotional Learning in K–12 Education - A research report which includes an overview of social and emotional learning (SEL) and how Minecraft connects to those goals.