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Gaming SEL

Games as Transformational to Social and Emotional Learning

Matthew Farber

Games enable children to practice emotions in spaces that are free from actualized consequences. With thoughtful guidance, games can help children manage emotions, perspective-take, demonstrate empathic concern, and exhibit prosocial behaviors.

Emerging research suggests that these competencies—also known as social and emotional learning (SEL) skills—are, in fact, teachable. In Gaming SEL: Games as Transformational to Social and Emotional Learning, Matthew Farber investigates the rich opportunities games have in supporting SEL skill development. Experts from the fields of education, game development, and SEL—including folks from CASEL, the Fred Rogers Center, Greater Good in Education, iThrive Games, Minecraft Education, and UNESCO MGIEP—share advice.

Games themselves cannot be responsible for children’s learning. Having a supportive educator or caregiver guiding experiences can be crucial. This book also includes recommendations for embedding games in classrooms in ways that support meaningful SEL skill development. Regardless of your experience, content area, or grade level, this book is for you!

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I tap “New Game” to begin. In beautiful watercolors, a woman in a red cape appears on my smartphone’s screen. She suddenly collapses, then tumbles from the sky. Emotional orchestral music plays.

When she lands, her cape turns black. Her head tilts downward. I drag on the screen to pull her to move forward, but she walks slowly. The screen becomes foggy. She falls to her knees and weeps.

The gameplay is a two-dimensional puzzle-platformer, like Super Mario Bros. but darker in mood and tone. There are no pipes to climb into nor mushrooms to jump on. Instead, I traverse geometric objects scattered in a bleak, barren, and inhospitable landscape (see Figure 1).

Figure 1.Screenshot from GRIS. Source: Nomada Studio. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

I am playing GRIS, an award-winning game with no dialogue; the entire story is visual. The game’s levels, color palette, and obstacles function as symbolic metaphors for the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance (Kübler-Ross, 1969).

At one point, wind pushes my avatar backward. The only way to proceed is not to fight the gust but to hide from it. I swipe down on my screen to shelter-in-place. When I do, my character’s dress turns into some sort of shield. Hunkering down in GRIS represents my character’s bargaining with waves of sadness. The only way my avatar can reach acceptance is to continue moving. I am confident...

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