Once upon a time, video games got a bad rap. Gaming was seen as a shallow medium that might provide some mindless entertainment – but nothing more. In recent years, this view has changed drastically. Video games are now understood as rich, valuable artistic creations that loop in the full range of human emotion and cognition.
This is especially true in one key area: social-emotional learning for kids. As part of a broader movement around social-emotional learning (SEL), video games have emerged as a powerful way to nurture positive emotional development in children (particularly around ages 9 to 12). Video games are powerful sandboxes in which kids can experiment with the behaviours and actions that teach social-emotional learning skills.
What exactly is SEL? How do games encourage their development? And how are we at BFP crafting creations that drive SEL skills? Read on to find out.
The Power of Social-Emotional Learning (SEL)
Social-emotional learning (SEL) was a concept created in 1994. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) defines social-emotional learning for kids, as well as adults, like so:
“Social and emotional learning (SEL) is an integral part of education and human development. SEL is the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.”
Amongst young people, SEL is aimed to promote positive development by encouraging traits such as self-control, self-awareness, and interpersonal skills that are vital for school, work, and life in general.
Big Fat Phoenix: Games Built on Social-Emotional Learning for Kids
Here at BFP, we design and build games that are inspired by, and align closely to, the CASEL framework. All of our games help children flex their cognitive muscles around responsible decision-making and self-awareness. There are no right or wrong answers in our games; just learnings. From here, we zoom in on three key areas of emotional life: Kindness, Ethicality, and Perspective-Taking.
Take two of our games as examples: Pandemic Panic and School Saver. Here’s one of the decisions that kids have to make in Pandemic Panic.
Here we see a scene where children are encouraged to engage in a very topical form of perspective-taking. To consider this situation effectively, the player has to consider perspectives other than their own. How would religious people feel about this issue? How would secular people feel about it? Where should the law draw the line? By considering this scenario, the player will develop the ability to look beyond their own point of view.
This scenario pushes children to develop their ethicality, and consider right and wrong. Is the deception here wrong? Or should the business be left to its own devices? To decide how this decision will impact overall morale, the player has to consider all the implications of their decision.
Here is another complex ethicality scenario from our game School Saver. The player is tasked with improving their school. With that goal in mind, what is the right route here? Would a ban be too punitive? Or is it necessary and fair in order to help the kids who are missing out on books? Again, there are no right or wrong answers. There are only opportunities to learn. These challenges around shared belongings are always fertile ground in driving social emotional learning for kids.
Here we see a game scene that drives the kindling of kindness, generosity, and concern for others. The player is encouraged to consider: What is the kind course of action here? To let the Academicore be as demanding as they like? Or is the kinder thing to be accommodating to people with smaller vocabularies?
In Pandemic Panic, this is another kindness-themed scene. Initially, the player might think that people having the government pay for their holidays sounds unreasonable. But perhaps, in such difficult times, this is actually the kind of public policy?
Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) in Video Games
So why do we promote social-emotional learning for kids in our games?
Even before the concept of SEL was invented, popular brands succeeded by invoking this healthy approach to the education of children. Consider Lego and Sesame Street; hugely popular with children, and naturally enacted and provided SEL activities for kids. These brands endured across generations – bringing parents and kids together by creating delightful and valuable experiences for both. This same dynamic is now happening with video games.
Here’s the powerful thing: Video games naturally model many of the behaviours that SEL frameworks seek to nurture.
A study on the positive effects of video games by the American Psychological Association (APA) discovered video games may boost a child’s learning, problem-solving skills, health, and social skills – all traits and skills that are related to the SEL model. Moreover, narrative-based educational activities with SEL-based video games have been proven to teach basic ethical virtues to young children, and promote character education.
Today, we already see many popular games whose features are reminiscent of SEL frameworks. Animal Crossing allows players to empathise with quirky characters, and teaches them to manage and make decisions about their resources in a way that reflects their goals. Banner Saga allows kids to step into the shoes of a Viking leader, understand their challenges, and realize the power of decision-making. In Fire Emblem: Three Houses, children learn to practice social skills by listening to other characters, understanding their strengths, weaknesses, likes and dislikes, and forging bonds by working together.
These games are just a few examples of how video games can be a powerful source of SEL activities for kids, by teaching them to develop critical-thinking and decision-making skills.
Children Want Social-Emotional Learning Games
Video games have gone beyond merely entertaining children. Today, they hold a lot of potential to teach new forms of thought and behavior in children. Video games were vital to social-emotional learning in the classroom, even before the pandemic. Moving forward, social-emotional learning games will become increasingly central to teaching children the life skills they need to thrive – in the classroom, and beyond.
By allowing children to explore their social-emotional learning skills, games can play a key role in how children grow into emotionally mature individuals ready to navigate the world. At BFP, our games are scientifically designed by expert learning designers with SEL frameworks aligned to CASEL. Our social-emotional learning games come with reports that provide interesting insights into the child’s social-emotional growth , and prompts for activities and conversations to help parents connect with their children.
Play one of our games today!