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Can a Video Game Teach Compassion and Grit?

Teaching kids social and emotional skills needs to be fun. This video game could help.

While studying at Harvard, an academic once told Trip Hawkins to "stop wasting his time monkeying around with games."

This wasn't the first time a person of authority told the video game creator to quit doing what he cared about. Luckily, "I had grit and I didn’t let them discourage me," said Hawkins.

From Harvard, Hawkins went on to work alongside Steve Jobs at Apple in 1978 as the director of strategy and marketing. After four years there, he started Electronic Arts, the company behind the insanely successful game series, Madden NFL.

Because of his innovative work as the leader of Electronic Arts and the mobile game company Digital Chocolate, Hawkins is now known as one of the industry's most influential entrepreneurs—and he doesn't plan on stopping anytime soon.

Currently, he is knee-deep in a new project that merges the worlds of gaming and education. Through his education technology startup If You Can, he and a stellar group of researchers and gamers have created IF, an iPad game that educates kids ages 7-11 on social and emotional learning (SEL).

The game does so in the fictional world of Greenberry, an abandoned town where dogs and cats don’t get along. Part of the player’s task is to understand why this is the case and how they can heal the relationships. By bringing dogs and cats together, they can also begin to rebuild their community.

While playing the game, kids learn how to understand and manage their emotions. The hope is they will gain the skills needed to be empathetic, compassionate, collaborative, responsible, and persistent in the face of frustration.

Janice Toben, M.Ed., a co-founder of the Institute for SEL and one of the key experts helping to develop IF, explained why these skills are essential. "If we are living and breathing, we need social and emotional learning. It provides us with insights and tools for interacting wisely with each other and for learning to love ourselves."

"Anything collaborative or creative," she adds, "has social and emotional learning at its core. So if we're going to be involved in making the world a better place, we have to start with our SEL skills."

Of course, this is a game after all so Hawkins wanted to make sure kids don't "taste the spinach." It has to be fun and kids shouldn't know they are learning SEL skills, he said.

This type of game may seem like a big leap for Hawkins, but as it turns out, social and emotional learning has been something he's felt passionate about for quite some time.

His four children all attended the Nueva School, a forward-thinking K-12 school in northern California that specializes in SEL. There, he witnessed firsthand its positive impact. He also got the opportunity to meet Janice Toben who led the school’s social and emotional learning program for 27 years and is now working on IF….

"Without question," Hawkins said, "SEL was the most intriguing, the most valuable, and the most necessary piece of curriculum they had. I wish I got to go to school there and that more schools would offer this curriculum."

The benefits of this type of teaching were evident in his kids' behavior and have been well-documented in programs countrywide.

For example, a school district in Fairmont, Illinois that now uses a social and emotional approach has reduced disciplinary infractions by nearly 47 percent in just one year, while at the same time increasing state standardized test scores by 7.4 percent in math and 6.8 percent in reading.

And although the number of schools offering social and emotional learning is increasing, it isn't happening quite fast enough. This is why Hawkins has put all of his energy into creating the game.

"You need to meet people where they're at," he said. "In the modern world, if you want to get kids to learn what you want them to learn, you should probably try to meet them in a game because that’s where children are bringing their attention and their motivation."

In fact, 91 percent of kids (approximately 64 million) ages 2-17 are gaming in the U.S., according to the Kids and Gaming 2011 report from the NPD Group.

The IF… experience isn't just about game play either. There are real life transfers that are taking place with each click.

At intervals in the game, characters encourage kids to stop playing and try out the skills and strategies they have been modeling. Examples include breathing exercises to calm down and "real-life" win-win strategies to resolve conflicts that may take place at school or at home.

Jessica Berlinski, the co-founder and chief learning officer of If You Can, explains how skills learned in the game can transfer to real life.

"Let's imagine that two children are arguing over who is going to play Legos first. Jaden wants to build a farm. Emma wants to build an airport. We typically might think about solving this argument by saying, 'Jaden you get them first, Emma you second.'"

A win-win strategy that incorporates SEL skills might have the two talking together to figure out how they can both build what they want and do so 'right now.' In this example, Jaden and Emma decided to work together to build a farm-a-port.

Parents are also able to get involved through the parenting app that goes along with the game. It allows them to see what their kids are learning in real time and how to reinforce that learning at home.

Some of the information the app may share includes how their child is learning 'good listening' skills through the game. They can check in to see how their kids are doing with making eye contact and nodding in understanding, for example.

This was an important piece of the game for Hawkins and the team of SEL experts.

Social and emotional learning, according to Toben, is so much about human connection, interaction, intuition, sensitivity as well as direct response. When she first talked to Hawkins about the game, she said she even thought, "How could this be a genuinely teachable moment for children?"

As Hawkins told her his ideas about the characters, how they would have dilemmas and choices in the moment and direct interaction, she became excited about the possibilities.

"The reality," she said, "is that iPhones and computers are part of children's lives and when they do interact with them, it needs to be something of quality."

When SEL skills are valued and practiced, Toben said, "they transform communities from places of hurtful and inauthentic communication to places where compassion and honesty thrive."

And perhaps IF… is just the game to propel our children in this world-changing direction.

A free version of IF… will be released for the iPad in February. In April it will be available at the App store for $4.99. If you're in Los Angeles, join IF You Can's chief learning officer, Jessica Berlinski on Wednesday, January 29th at the HUB LA for the Imagination Foundation's first Imagination Salon of the year! The evening's topic: 'What 'IF...' A Video Game Could Teach Kids Empathy?' Click here for more details and to RSVP.

Jenny Inglee is the Imagination Curator at the Imagination Foundation—a nonprofit thats mission is to find, foster, and fund creativity and entrepreneurship in kids around the world.

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