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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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Chapter Three How Games Give Players “The Feels”


There is a kind of magic in watching children play Candy Land. A classic board game set on a winding path through the Peppermint Forest, the goal is to be the first player to reach King Kandy’s Castle. The instructions are straightforward: Flip a card and move your token to the next space that matches that card’s color.

During play, children learn the basics of turn-taking, self-regulation, impulsivity control, and goal-setting. The lack of written text and ease of rules means that parental supervision is often unnecessary. Some young players construct stories set in the game’s toothsome world.

Although youngsters may revel in the colorful gameboard, Candy Land can be tedious for older kids and parents. Moving along a track by matching colors can be maddingly monotonous. Further, Candy Land lacks a leveled increase of challenge—it is as easy to play at the Lagoon of Lord Licorice as it is at Princess Frostine’s Ice Palace.

Most games challenge players continually. Strategy games like Chess become more difficult as players move pieces. Super Mario Bros. adds more enemies through game levels. A Theory of Fun for Game Design author Raph Koster was one of the first to identify how level design in games happens to align with the zone of proximal development (Koster, 2005/2014). The zone of proximal development describes where learning is “matched in some manner to the child’s developmental ←59 | 60→ level” (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 85). Koster (2005/2014) also wrote that fun...

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