Empathy is a skill that can be learned, new research shows. The research team at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is helping middle schoolers develop it in the most entertaining way possible — with a video game.

Crystals of Kaydor.

Crystals of Kaydor, the Adventures of…. Lettucehead..?
Image credits Center for Healthy Minds / University of Wisconsin-Madison.

On a distant planet, one space-braving robot explorer is forced to crash-land his spaceship. Bits and pieces scatter everywhere, and our intrepid explorer is now stranded. Needless to say, it’s not his best day. Luckily for the bot, however, the planet is inhabited. The locals don’t speak his language, but the robot can gather the pieces needed to fix his ship by building emotional rapport with them.

The robot is played by the middle schoolers, and the whole scenario is a video game — one that can help kids become more empathetic, according to researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW) that study how learning empathy changes the brain.

The game of empathy

“The realization that these skills are actually trainable with video games is important because they are predictors of emotional well-being and health throughout life, and can be practiced anytime — with or without video games,” says co-author Tammi Kral.

The game, named Crystals of Kaydor, was created by the team for this study and it is designed to teach empathy.

The team worked with 150 middle schoolers in two groups. One played Crystals of Kaydor, while the second group played a commercially available game called Bastion. I can attest that this latter is quite an enjoyable adventure game, but it does not target empathy in any way.

Kids rake an average of over 70 minutes of gameplay each day, the team notes. This time tends to increase during adolescence, which coincides with a period of rapid brain development. Teenagers are also highly susceptible to developing feelings of anxiety and depression during this stage of their lives, and they’re also likely to run into bullies. The team’s plan was to see if their game could help them develop emotional finesse during this often confusing period of the children’s lives.

In the game, kids have to interact with the crashlanded alien. However, players can’t understand the character’s language, and must learn to identify the emotions he’s feeling as well as their intensities from his expression — luckily, the alien exhibits the same range of emotions as a human being, and they’re accompanied by humanlike facial expressions. The game is intended to help the kids practice and develop empathy. The researchers measured how accurate the players were in identifying the emotions of the characters in the game.

Neural connectivity changes.

Training-related increases in neural connectivity after Crystals relative to Bastion. Significant group-wide connectivity changes in red, significant differences per individual participants in blue.
Image credits Tammi A. Kral et al., 2018, npj Science of Learning.

By contrast, kids who played Bastion embarked 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. Researchers used the game because of its immersive graphics and third-person perspective.

According to Richard Davidson, director of the Center for Healthy Minds and paper co-author, empathy is the foundation of prosocial behavior, and as such, an important skill for our children to develop.

“If we can’t empathize with another’s difficulty or problem, the motivation for helping will not arise,” says Davidson.

“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 change the brain in ways that support virtuous qualities rather than destructive qualities.”

Did it work?

The team took functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans from both groups before and after the gaming phase of the study. Both groups played for two weeks. After the two weeks, the team compared the connections between different areas of the brain, focusing on those associated with empathy and emotion regulation. Participants also completed tests during the brain scans that measured how accurately they empathized with others.

Crystals of Kaydor.

Several screenshots depicting the player-controlled robot, the emotion recognition mechanics — which include selecting an emotion and its intensity — and other game mechanics.

After the two weeks of play, kids in the first group showed greater connectivity in brain networks associated with empathy and perspective thinking, the team reports. Some among them exhibited changes in neural networks linked with emotion regulation as well. The team says this last skill is crucial and begins developing around this age — and their game can help promote healthy development.

Kids that played Bastion also showed more robust neural connectivity in brain areas that underpin empathy — however, the effect was much less pronounced than that seen in the Crystals of Kaydor group. They further report that kids in the first group who showed increase connectivity in brain areas related to emotion regulation also scored better on the empathy test after the two week period.

Kids who did not show increased neural connectivity in the brain did not improve on the test of empathic accuracy.

“The fact that not all children showed changes in the brain and corresponding improvements in empathic accuracy underscores the well-known adage that one size does not fit all,” says Davidson.

“One of the key challenges for future research is to determine which children benefit most from this type of training and why.”

Davidson adds that simply teaching empathy skills to groups that have trouble with them, including individuals on the autism spectrum, may be an accessible way to improve their quality of life.

The game is currently only being used for research purposes and is not available to the public, but it has helped inform other games that are currently being submitted to the FDA for clinical applications. The research was funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The paper “Neural correlates of video game empathy training in adolescents: a randomized trial” has been published in the journal npj Science of Learning.