A video game designed to boost empathy in children may lead to greater connectivity in brain networks related to prosocial behaviour, scientists say.
A study, published in the journal NPJ Science of Learning, shows that, in just two weeks, middle schoolers who played such a video game showed greater connectivity in brain networks related to empathy and perspective.
Some also showed altered neural networks commonly linked to emotion regulation, a crucial skill that this age group is beginning to develop, researchers said.
"The realisation that these skills are actually trainable with video games is important because they are predictors of emotional well-being and health throughout life, and can be practiced anytime - with or without video games," said Tammi Kral, a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin Madison in the US.
Empathy is the first step in a sequence that can lead to prosocial behaviour, such as helping others in need.
On average, youth between the ages of eight and 18 rack up more than 70 minutes of video gameplay daily, according to data from the US-based Kaiser Family Foundation.
This spike in gameplay during adolescence coincides with an explosion in brain growth as well as a time when kids are susceptible to first encounters with depression, anxiety and bullying.
The team wanted to learn whether there were ways to use video games as a vehicle for positive emotional development during this critical period.
Researchers randomly assigned 150 middle schoolers to two groups.
One played the experimental game, called "Crystals of Kaydor," which was created for research purposes and intended to teach empathy.
The second group played a commercially available and entertaining control game called "Bastion" that does not target empathy.
In Crystals of Kaydor, kids interacted with the aliens on the distant planet and learned to identify the intensity of emotions they witnessed on their human-like faces, such as anger, fear, happiness, surprise, disgust and sadness.
The researchers measured how accurate the players were in identifying the emotions of the characters in the game.
The activity was also intended to help the kids practice and learn empathy.
Those who played Bastion partook in a storyline where they collected materials needed to build a machine to save their village, but tasks were not designed to teach or measure empathy.
Researchers used the game because of its immersive graphics and third-person perspective.
The team obtained functional magnetic resonance imaging scans in the laboratory from both groups before and after two weeks of gameplay, looking at connections among areas of the brain, including those associated with empathy and emotion regulation.
Participants in the study also completed tests during the brain scans that measured how accurately they empathised with others.
The researchers found stronger connectivity in empathy-related brain networks after the middle schoolers played Crystals of Kaydor compared to Bastion.
Moreover, Crystals players who showed strengthened neural connectivity in key brain networks for emotion regulation also improved their score on the empathy test.
Kids who did not show increased neural connectivity in the brain did not improve on the test of empathic accuracy.