Educational games to train middle schoolers' attention, empathy

May 22, 2012 By Jill Sakai, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Two years ago, at a meeting on science and education, Richard Davidson challenged video game manufacturers to develop games that emphasize kindness and compassion instead of violence and aggression.

With a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the University of Wisconsin-Madison professor is now answering his own call. With Kurt Squire, an associate professor in the School of Education and director of the Games Learning Society Initiative, Davidson received a $1.39 million grant this spring to design and rigorously test two educational games to help eighth graders develop beneficial social and emotional skills — empathy, cooperation, mental focus, and self-regulation.

"By the time they reach the eighth grade, virtually every middle-class child in the Western world is playing smartphone apps, video games, computer games," says Davidson, the William James and Vilas Research Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at UW-Madison. "Our hope is that we can use some of that time for constructive purposes and take advantage of the natural inclination of children of that age to want to spend time with this kind of technology."

The project grew from the intersection of Davidson's research on the brain bases of emotion, Squire's expertise in educational game design, and the Gates Foundation's interest in preparing U.S. students for college readiness-possessing the skills and knowledge to go on to post-secondary education without the need for remediation.

"Skills of mindfulness and are very important for college readiness," Davidson explains. "Mindfulness, because it cultivates the capacity to regulate attention, which is the building block for all kinds of learning; and kindness, because the ability to cooperate is important for everything that has to do with success in life, team-building, leadership, and so forth."

He adds that social, emotional, and interpersonal factors influence how students use and apply their cognitive abilities.

Building on research from the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at UW-Madison's Waisman Center, the initial stage of the project will focus on designing prototypes of two games. The first game will focus on improving attention and mental focus, likely through breath awareness.

"Breathing has two important characteristics. One is that it's very boring, so if you're able to attend to that, you can attend to most other things," Davidson says. "The second is that we're always breathing as long as we're alive, and so it's an internal cue that we can learn to come back to. This is something a child can carry with him or her all the time."

The second game will focus on social behaviors such as kindness, , and altruism. One approach may be to help students detect and interpret emotions in others by reading non-verbal cues such as facial expressions, tone of voice, and body posture.

"We'll use insights gleaned from our neuroscience research to design the games and will look at changes in the brain during the performance of these games to see how the brain is actually affected by them," says Davidson. "Direct feedback from monitoring the brain while students are playing the games will help us iteratively adjust the game design as this work goes forward."

Their analyses will include neural imaging and behavioral testing before, during, and after students play the games, as well as looking at general academic performance.

The results will help the researchers determine how the games impact students and whether are a useful medium for teaching these behaviors and skills, as well as evaluate whether certain groups of kids benefit more than others.

"Our hope is that we can begin to address these questions with the use of digital games in a way that can be very easily scaled and, if we are successful, to potentially reach an extraordinarily large number of youth," says Davidson.

Explore further: Changing brains for the better; article documents benefits of multiple practices

Related Stories

Changing brains for the better; article documents benefits of multiple practices

April 18, 2012
(Medical Xpress) -- Practices like physical exercise, certain forms of psychological counseling and meditation can all change brains for the better, and these changes can be measured with the tools of modern neuroscience, ...

Noted researcher addresses multiple dimensions of video game effects in new journal article

May 10, 2011
Douglas Gentile is painfully aware of how research on the effects of video games on kids is often oversimplified to say that games are either "good" or "bad." The associate professor of psychology at Iowa State University ...

Video game playing tied to creativity

November 2, 2011
Both boys and girls who play video games tend to be more creative, regardless of whether the games are violent or nonviolent, according to new research by Michigan State University scholars.

Recommended for you

People with prosthetic arms less affected by common illusion

January 22, 2018
People with prosthetic arms or hands do not experience the "size-weight illusion" as strongly as other people, new research shows.

Study of learning and memory problems in OCD helps young people unlock potential at school

January 22, 2018
Adolescents with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) have widespread learning and memory problems, according to research published today. The findings have already been used to assist adolescents with OCD obtain the help ...

Intensive behavior therapy no better than conventional support in treating teenagers with antisocial behavior

January 19, 2018
Research led by UCL has found that intensive and costly multisystemic therapy is no better than conventional therapy in treating teenagers with moderate to severe antisocial behaviour.

Babies' babbling betters brains, language

January 18, 2018
Babies are adept at getting what they need - including an education. New research shows that babies organize mothers' verbal responses, which promotes more effective language instruction, and infant babbling is the key.

College branding makes beer more salient to underage students

January 18, 2018
In recent years, major beer companies have tried to capitalize on the salience of students' university affiliations, unveiling marketing campaigns and products—such as "fan cans," store displays, and billboard ads—that ...

Inherited IQ can increase in early childhood

January 18, 2018
When it comes to intelligence, environment and education matter – more than we think.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.