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Games and Social Emotional Learning (SEL) competencies

Matthew Farber

Matthew Farber teaches social studies at Valleyview Middle School, in Denville, New Jersey. He is also an adjunct instructor for the New Jersey City University (NJCU) Educational Technology Department. Mr. Farber holds a Master's Degree in Educational Technology from NJCU, where he is currently is pursuing a Doctorate in Educational Technology Leadership. He is also on the board of directors for the New Jersey Council for the Social Studies (NJCSS). He also blogs regularly for Edutopia. His book, Gamify Your Classroom: A Field Guide to Game-Based Learning, is out now via Peter Lang Publishing.

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Children in school grow emotionally, as well as physically and intellectually. A child’s ability to understand his or her own individual emotional growth is formally known as Social Emotional Learning (SEL). The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) defines this competency as “the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.”

"Games also use ‘social mechanics’ to encourage player interactions — one must be aware of the consequences of the decisions he or she makes."

CASEL lists Five Competencies of SEL:

  1. Self-awareness 
  2. Self-management 
  3. Social awareness 
  4. Relationship skills 
  5. Responsible decision making

The entire above list can apply to playing games of all sorts, from sports to board games to video games. The mechanics (the actions one takes to play, like jumping, guessing, bluffing, or trading) create a system in which SEL can flourish. Games also use ‘social mechanics’ to encourage player interactions — one must be aware of the consequences of the decisions he or she makes. This is because games put players in authentic, situated environments. Moving a pawn across a board or racing a virtual car puts the participant in a cause and effect loop. Playing a game can promote SEL competencies. For more information, read through this research study.

Games and SEL Competencies

Edutopia blogger Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D. is a foremost expert on SEL competencies in the classroom. She has written extensively on its importance when educating growing minds. In 2013, she wrote an informative post on games and SEL entitled Video Games and Social Emotional Learning. In it, she cited examples of how different games address the Five Competencies of SEL. Gerstein’s research included findings from psychological studies about decision making in games. Most games are, in fact, social and provide opportunities to refine SEL competencies (when a badge system and leaderboard are considered, then even single-player video games can be deemed as social!).

Games have built-in feedback mechanisms that reward responsible decision-making, while penalizing ‘wrong’ moves. When a player breaks a rule, like hitting a turtle shell in Super Mario Brothers, there is a clear penalty—you lose a life. Even board games have setback penalties. Monopoly has the famous ‘Go to Jail’ punishment; Chutes and Ladders (sometimes sold as Snakes and Ladders) has the chute (or snake), sending the player back a few spaces on the game’s board. In fact, the idiom “back to square one” may be traced to setback penalties.

"When a player breaks a rule, like hitting a turtle shell in Super Mario Brothers, there is a clear penalty—you lose a life. Even board games have setback penalties."

Tabletop games require interactions among players. Some games are competitive, like the classic Risk, while others are cooperative, like Pandemic: The Board Game and Forbidden Island. SEL is especially prevalent in cooperative games because every player either wins or loses together. The cooperative nature of some games can be justification enough to play them in school!

Like board games, video games too promote SEL competencies. Even when seemingly alone, when a child is on a mobile device in the car or at a restaurant, it does not necessarily mean that they are not being social. Games have social features, like shared leaderboards, in which player high scores are published. Many digital games feature non-playable characters (NPCs) that virtually interact with players. This can be seen as practice to making proper choices in social settings. Examples include the Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us, and the soon-to-be-released Game of Thrones. While meaningful, however, Telltale Games’ content is not always ‘school appropriate’. Nonetheless, each provides an example of how players work with a menu of answer choices and gets rewarded for making empathetic decisions. A more ‘school-friendly’, choice-driven option is the Mission US series. For more, check out the game-like stories on the interactive fiction, authoring tool, Inklewriter.

If You Can

Electronic Arts co-founder Trip Hawkins is so passionate about SEL that he created a game about it. In 2014 he launched If You Can, a website designed to teach emotional intelligence, along with the role-playing iPad game, If… (the title was inspired by a poem from Rudyard Kipling). In the game, children explore virtual worlds, while making responsible decisions. Helping other NPCs in the game triggers rewards. The support website features a teacher dashboard, as well as a syllabus. For more about the game, check out this video:

SEL Strategies

Edutopia, the George Lucas Educational Foundation, has a helpful webpage with SEL resources. For example, the Mount Desert School, in Maine (USA), is shown as a model in its ‘Schools That Work’ series. More SEL support can be found from the Institute for Social Emotional Learning. BrainPOP also offers resources on the topic, as it relates to digital media. There is even an “official” Twitter hashtag for the competency: #SEL

Have you used games to develop SEL qualities? Let us know in the comments.

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