Learning Empathy

There’s an app for that.

Last September, comedian Louis CK had one of his usual brilliant rants on the Conan O’Brien show. He was talking about why he thinks kids having cell phones is a bad idea, and why he told his own daughter she can’t have a phone:

“I think these things are toxic, especially for kids...they don’t look at people when they talk to them, and they don’t build empathy. You know, kids are mean, and it’s ‘cause they’re trying it out. They look at a kid, and they go, ‘you’re fat’ and then they see the kid’s face scrunch up and they go ‘oh, that doesn't feel good to make a person do that.’ But when they write ‘you’re fat,’ then they just go ‘mmm, that was fun, I like that!’”

It was funny and sad, and all too true.

It raises a good question: When generations grow up socializing digitally, does their ability to learn empathy suffer?



One of the video game industry’s most successful innovators and entrepreneurs thinks he might have an answer that puts those “toxic” mobile devices to good use. Not necessarily THE answer, but certainly a step in the right direction.

Trip Hawkins, the man who 30 years ago founded Electronic Arts, the company behind EA Sports and The Sims, is making a new bet in the world of games: he believes that well-designed games can teach kids empathy.

By gathering up social development and learning experts, and analyzing how kids play and learn, he believes that games can be powerful tools to apply to education and social development. He believes they can teach kids how to listen to each other and control negative emotions -- basic skills that can help children get along with each other and adults. He believes they can teach emotional intelligence, and has raised $10 million creating a company and series of applications that puts money where his heart is.

The company is called If We Can and its first product, called IF, is now available in the App Store. In the game, players explore the town of Greenberry, where they make choices that teach them how to interact with other characters and consider the consequences of their actions in a fun and positive environment. 

The games are built around a Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) curriculum that’s designed to help kids deal with difficult emotions, persevere through challenges (such as bullying), make healthy decisions and show compassion and empathy.

And it’s not just kids behaving badly that Hawkins is concerned about. In a recent interview with Forbes magazine, Hawkins talked about how those life skills seem to be lacking in today’s adults, and that's why he is focused on games that are designed to teach kids 6–12. "I’d like to quote Frederick Douglass who said, 'It is easier to build strong children than repair broken men'," Hawkins says. While adults need these skills too, we thought it made sense to start with children. 

Why games? The messaging that kids get in schools and life is that failure is bad, and should be prevented and avoided as much as possible. But in game environments, gamers fail, and fail often. But finally succeeding where they’ve failed before is exactly what makes the experience worthwhile and engaging. No failure = no fun. It’s a powerful, positive and proven way to learn and achieve goals, and education and healthcare are two industries that are starting to catch on.

No app is a replacement for real life and will replace the learning from real relationships. But an app or game that provides a safe and fun environment to learn and improve life skills through trial and error can be an effective piece of the puzzle in improving the emotional intelligence and empathy of an inevitably digitally addicted generation.

At a time when a wave of “secret” apps make it easier than ever to be anonymously cruel, it’s inspiring to see game and app developers believing they can tap into the power of play to make the world a better place, starting with teaching kids to be better people and eventually, better adults. 

1 comment about "Learning Empathy".
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  1. Katie Robinette from Healthy Minds Canada, March 29, 2014 at 10:06 a.m.

    Great article! I work at Healthy Minds Canada, a national non-profit charitable organization that raised funds for education, research and awareness in mental health and addictions.

    A key, but obvious, finding from HMC’s work in hosting pan-Canada Youth Summits over the past five years, where results have clearly shown that young people are very eager to talk about and learn about mental health issues, was that young people have smart phones, use them constantly (sorry CK Lewis - this is not likely to change!), and love games! So we decided to create something that can combine a teen’s passive coping skills – such as tuning out and playing video games – with active coping skills which include learning strategies that help actively process the physical and emotional stress that is part of life.

    To that end, Healthy Minds Canada is working to develop a fun, challenging multi-platform 2D game designed to teach bullying prevention and coping strategies in which the user encounters specific challenges to solve. Conceived to help the 9-16 age group, HMC’s aim is to provide a safe, on-line tool to nurture a process of thinking about experiences that helps the user explore, learn, build resilience, and become a responsible, compassionate citizen in their off-line lives.

    We are currently raising funds to develop our prototype. Check out the campaign at

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