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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 Four Empathy Games


Upon release, the text-based poverty simulator SPENT received lots of accolades, including an award at the 2014 Games for Change Festival and praise on CNN and ABC News. As facts about homelessness float across the screen, players select where to spend their limited monthly funds. Should you buy health insurance from your employer, and if so, which plan? Do you splurge on things like ice cream or save money for shoes or childcare? What happens if you can’t pay the minimum balance on a credit card?

Developed by brand awareness agency McKinney, SPENT was positioned as a shining example of how a video game could inspire empathy. Over the years, it has been played by millions of people and helped raise more than $70,000 for the Urban Ministries of Durham homeless shelter in North Carolina (Farber & Schrier, 2017; McKinney, 2011; Roussos, 2015).

Yale University researchers Roussos and Dovidio (2016) decided to test whether playing SPENT was actually making players empathetic. Their findings were surprisingly contrary: players who did not hold meritocratic beliefs began blaming the poor for not pulling themselves out of their situations. The choice-driven gameplay in SPENT implicitly messaged to some that poverty was the result of bad decision-making, regardless of outside systemic factors (Roussos & Dovidio, 2016). ←83 | 84→

Let’s compare SPENT to another text-based game, Depression Quest. From Zoë Quinn, Depression Quest is based on her experience living with depression and social anxiety disorder. Unlike SPENT, which presents...

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