New video games will make children kinder and better behaved

As a veteran school counsellor in the US, Gregg Graves has seen kids bully their peers for all kinds of reasons, from being too short to wearing the wrong brand of boots. Such targeted ridicule, studies show, can have lasting effects. Bullied children are more likely to get anxious or depressed and even drop out of school. So when clinical psychologist Melissa DeRosier asked if Graves would like to try Zoo U, a computer game she created to teach kids empathy and co-operation, he was intrigued.

He decided to test-drive the game with his 125 nine to 10-year-old students at North Forest Pines Elementary in Raleigh, North Carolina. They took to the cartoon scenes of hallway chats and playground four-square right away, he says. "When kids started taking the headsets off, they were saying, 'Can we do that again?'" For years, there has been a widespread perception that video games are inherently bad for children. Screen time is bad time, the thinking goes, leading kids to become poor students, unhealthy and antisocial.

Today, though, it's becoming clear that's not the whole story. Even violent video games are starting to be recognised as potentially edifying in some respects. One recent study finds that they boost kids' cognitive and social skills. Imagine the impact if games with a positive bent could go one better. The non-profit Games for Change has been funding promising socially conscious games for years; this spring, the organisation began a high-profile event as part of New York City's Tribeca Film Festival, with a "Games for Learning" summit co-sponsored by the US Department of Education.

MindLight, developed by the Netherlands' GainPlay Studio, has been praised for its immersive experience that helps kids overcome fears and anxieties. Zoo U was released last November by 3C Institute, a social-skills researcher based in Durham, North Carolina, and nearby spin-off company Personalized Learning Games handles distribution. And If, a game designed to build empathy and relationship skills from Electronic Arts founder Trip Hawkins, launched its first "chapter" in early 2014; other chapters came later in the year.

Proponents of gaming for change say practising positive behaviour in a game setting pays real-life dividends. New research backs them up: a 2014 Psychological Science study, for example, reported that when kids play video games that encourage co-operative behaviour, they show more caring and empathy in the real world. Another study at the UK's University of Sussex found kids who took part in a co-operation-centred game were more likely to help a person who'd dropped something and intervene if they saw someone being harassed. And earlier this year, children in Germany who played story-based video games in a Freiburg University study improved in understanding others' emotions – a skill that researchers believe could be useful to kids on the autism spectrum.

Using video games to teach social skills makes sense given how the brain works. Social and behavioural theories posit that outside reinforcement and repetition drive learning, and video games provide ample opportunities for both. "You do a behaviour, you either get rewarded or punished," says Iowa State University psychologist Douglas Gentile, a co-author of the Psychological Science study. "We're training ways of perceiving and thinking about the world."

Graves was impressed with how quickly the game supplied him with a wealth of information on all 125 students' social acumen. "I was able to sit down with [the teachers] and explain what it revealed about social skills that kids were struggling with."