A screenshot from Viva Pinata
Stories & Ideas

Tue 01 Oct 2019

The art of caring: teaching empathy through videogames

Education Internet culture Videogames
Colleen Stieler-Hunt

Colleen Stieler-Hunt

Educator, game designer and researcher

Teaching students to cultivate empathy by caring for fictional and real worlds

In uncertain times it's important for young people to cultivate empathy by caring for self, caring for others and caring for their world. Educator, game designer and researcher Dr Colleen Stieler-Hunt describes how some innovative teachers have used videogames in the classroom to develop these crucial skills. 

Caring for their world

In some games, rather than following linear or structured gameplay, the player roams a virtual world, exploring and caring for its environment. Through my research, I've met teachers who are putting these games to use in the classroom. 

One teacher I interviewed had introduced the game Endless Ocean to their year 7 class. Endless Ocean puts players in the role of a scuba diver encountering a vast array of common and rare sea life. The teacher used Endless Ocean as a tool to help students learn more about marine life and cultivate positive attitudes towards conservation. Scuba diving in Endless Ocean makes players feel a sense of awe and wonder at the beauty of the underwater environment. Students also gave a presentation about a marine creature of their choice, which encouraged them to play the game at a deeper level than for entertainment alone.

Another videogame, Viva Piñata, drops players in a fictitious garden inhabited by “piñatas” (fantasy creatures that resemble real life animals). Players restore the garden, and in doing so, attract more piñatas. Students playing Viva Piñata could participate in, and observe, ecological systems in the game world. However, the teachers took this one step further and extended the gameplay to develop students’ understandings of, and attitudes towards, their real-life environment. The teachers related these lessons to real world ecology; for example, students developed a plan for their local waterway. One student even said that playing Viva Piñata made her spend more time outside caring for her pets. 

Caring for others

Videogames have the potential to cultivate respect. Teachers often mentioned that games helped to create a sense of belonging between classmates when games were played in groups.

As one high school English teacher observed: “all of a sudden, the pay-outs would stop, the sarcasm would stop, and they'd be focussed on that [the game] … the kids actually started to get along and learn better group skills through gaming”. 

The teacher who used Endless Ocean in the classroom had students play the game in small groups (named “diving” groups), where students would take on different roles such as navigator and diver. This shared experience built a strong connection between students. The teacher gave an example of the emotional impact on the class: “… so then we get up there and there's like some sort of mystery and curse been broken and it was finding a way through the ruins and when this group got back to the boat and, you know, the white dolphin had come. [The students exclaimed,] ‘We've got it! We've got it!’ Everything [else in the classroom] stopped!”.

Caring for self

According to the Digital Australia 2020 report, 69% of children play games; and on average, children play games for 100 minutes a day. Teachers that use educational games in the classroom show that they value the knowledge and experience students gain from playing games. It also helps students to think critically about games. Many of the teachers I interviewed used critical reflection as a tool to make the most of the learning opportunities presented in the games. For Viva Piñata, students kept a reflective journal where they discussed their in-game decisions. A P-1 classroom used the game Wii Fit in small groups. Students made reflective checklists of what parts of their bodies were exercised during the game. Playing the game in small groups also required some “waiting-in-line” time, which helped students practice their manners. After the gameplay session, they also reflected on how well they used their manners during the session. The teachers said that they noticed an increase in manners as a result.

Games are a form of media that provide players with rich experiences that feel meaningful. Teachers can use games to help students learn to care for their world, others and themselves. Whilst the choice of game is important, equally as important is how the teacher integrates the game into the curriculum. As always, great learning is facilitated by great teachers. It is my hope that enriching games, like those described above, will take their place in more classrooms as an invaluable tool for student learning.