Researchers have found that an experimental video game on middle schoolers may improve an understanding of helping others in need, as it boosts connectivity in brain networks related to empathy and perspective taking.
The findings, published in the journal npj Science of Learning, suggests that some showed altered neural networks commonly linked to emotion regulation — a crucial skill that this age group is beginning to develop.
According to the researchers, from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the US, empathy is the first step in a sequence that can lead to prosocial behavior, such as helping others in need.
“Our long-term aspiration for this work is that video games may be harnessed for good and if the gaming industry and consumers took this message to heart, they could potentially create video games that can change the brain in a ways that support virtuous qualities rather than destructive qualities,” said lead author Richard Davidson, Professor at the varsity.
For the study, the team randomly assigned 150 middle schoolers into two groups to measured how accurate the players were in identifying the emotions of the characters in the experimental game.
One played the experimental game, called “Crystals of Kaydor” — which was created for research purposes and intended to teach empathy. The second group played a commercially available and entertaining control game called “Bastion” that does not target empathy.
In “Crystals of Kaydor”, kids interacted with the aliens on the distant planet and learned to identify the intensity of emotions they witnessed on their humanlike faces, such as anger, fear, happiness, surprise, disgust and sadness.
Those who played “Bastion” partook in a storyline where they collected materials needed to build a machine to save their village, but tasks were not designed to teach or measure empathy. The team used the game because of its immersive graphics and third-person perspective.
The team obtained functional magnetic resonance imaging scans in the laboratory from both groups before and after two weeks of gameplay, looking at connections among areas of the brain, including those associated with empathy and emotion regulation.
The researchers found stronger connectivity in empathy-related brain networks after the middle schoolers played “Crystals of Kaydor” compared to “Bastion”.