Video Game Creators Are Using Apps To Teach Empathy : All Tech Considered Trip Hawkins founded Electronic Arts, the company behind the Madden NFL video game. His latest venture is heading in a very different direction: using the advances in gaming technology to teach children emotional intelligence.
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Video Game Creators Are Using Apps To Teach Empathy

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Video Game Creators Are Using Apps To Teach Empathy

Video Game Creators Are Using Apps To Teach Empathy

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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If you're around teens or 'tweens, you already know this. They don't talk on the phone, they text. In fact, kids are growing up immersed in so much technology that many people worry they're losing the ability to communicate and solve problems directly with one another. Researchers have documented declines in empathy.

But as NPR's Steve Henn reports, Silicon Valley thinks it has a solution - another video game.

STEVE HENN, BYLINE: More than 30 years ago, Trip Hawkins left Apple Computer and founded Electronic Arts. You know, the company behind EA Sports.


S. HENN: But the man who helped make Madden Football into a cultural icon, whose former company encourages gamers to spend hundreds of millions of hours pretending to play sports instead of actually playing them - that guy has a new vision for games. Trip Hawkins wants to teach.

TRIP HAWKINS: Yes, absolutely. In fact, we're trying to figure out how to use a business model, like what I did previously with EA Sports.

S. HENN: Basically, Hawkins brings game designers together with experts in a field. In the case of sports it was athletes and statisticians. Now, Hawkins is bringing counselors into the mix. He wants to give those counselors a lot of information about what kids are actually doing in the games they play. Analyzing data and how people play has become a huge part of the gaming industry.

HAWKINS: It's incredibly important and it's one of these things where in the past where you couldn't do it at all because the customers was playing a game in the basement on a machine that's not hooked up to the Internet. Once you bring the Internet into the equation, you get these metrics on every little twist and turn. And then it's much, much easier to figure out what your problem is and how to improve the product.

S. HENN: For game designers, data analysis has become an incredibly powerful tool.

HAWKINS: And it makes perfect sense to apply that same methodology to other new markets, where there are big opportunities, like education.

S. HENN: Or social development. Hawkins thinks a well-designed video game could teach kids empathy; could help them learn to listen to each other and control negative emotions. Hawkins believes a gadget could teach children basic skills that will help them get along better with each other and adults out in the real world.


S. HENN: Catherine Steiner-Adair is a clinical psychologist at Harvard and author of "The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age."

STEINER-ADAIR: Nothing - no new app, no new game - can replace the old truth, I think, that children thrive and families thrive in the context of healthy real-life relationships.

S. HENN: Nonetheless, Trip Hawkins has formed a company, gathered experts in social development and learning together. And now they're creating a new game called "If."


S. HENN: The game is not finished yet, but this week, I got a chance to play a beta version with my own kids.

ELLA HENN: It actually is called "If?"

S. HENN: It is called "If,"

E. HENN: Oh, really? I didn't know that.

FAYE HENN: Wait. Who gets to play first? Can I please play first?

S. HENN: In the game, players visit an imaginary town called Greenberry.


JESSICA BERLINSKI: Greenberry, right now, is a world in which there are cats and there are dogs and they don't get along well.

S. HENN: Jessica Berlinski helped design and write the game's story.

BERLINSKI: So they don't get along in Greenberry, and part of the challenge is figuring out why and then working to heal that.

S. HENN: Berlinski is the chief learning officer and co-founder of If You Can, the company making this game.

BERLINSKI: We want to build kids that not only navigate academic challenges and failures but interpersonal ones. And the messaging that kids get in real life and certainly in schools is not that failure is OK. But in game environments, 80 percent of the time gamers are failing, yet they're completely motivated to keep going.


BERLINSKI: So something is going on there that is very positive. And we need to capitalize on that.

S. HENN: As kids progress through Berlinski's game they begin to rebuild the village of Greenberry. And kind of like Pokemon, they collect magical creatures who enhance their power.


E. HENN: That's Kibble.

F. HENN: Kibble is so cute...

S. HENN: But as my kids played, they made a mistake and one of these creatures, a sprite named Kibble, seemed to die.


S. HENN: And then this game did something totally different. It helped my kids work through that virtual loss. And clinical psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair says when played in moderation, a game like this might not be so bad.

STEINER-ADAIR: I am cautious but I am guardedly optimistic that there could be some kind of computer game that could strengthen children's social and emotional intelligence.

S. HENN: But building a kind of virtual counseling session into a video game is a tough trick. And as Trip Hawkins admits, no one is going to play if the game is not fun.

Steve Henn, NPR News, Silicon Valley.

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