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Can video games teach us to be better people?

At school, I learned about crop rotation, algebra and the Holy Ghost. But there was never a class on how to behave like a decent human being.

Perhaps the makers of curricula in 1970s England trusted in parents or the playground to teach children how to be fully emotional and social beings. Judging by the number of arseholes churned out by the system, then as now, they were sorely mistaken.

Social and emotional learning (SEL) is the idea that education can usefully teach people how to deal with one another, and how to navigate our complex human mazes.

I did not know words like empathy or rapport

When I left school I thought 'concord' was just a very fast airplane. I did not know words like 'empathy' or 'rapport' but I knew how to say, "fuck off pal," in a manner hinting at impending escalation. Mostly, this imbalance has served me poorly in life.

Although the notion of SEL is taking hold, the education system moves slowly. Parents are resistant to novelty, and to the idea that their offspring might be in need of emotional adjustment, before being launched into the world of thorny workplace politics, tricky intimate relationships and rage addicts.

And then there are video games. If we can learn to fly aircraft or control armies or dance via games, what is to stop us learning how to be a bit nicer to one another?

If game

Enter If..., a game from Electronics Arts' founder Trip Hawkins. It's a top-down iPad adventure that seems to borrow much of its visual and atmospheric sensibilities from Nintendo games like The Legend of Zelda, Pokemon and Animal Crossing.

The player controls an avatar which interacts with other people. Challenges are overcome and lessons are learned. The game is set in a small town where different factions of cats and dogs are natural rivals, while you seek to bring harmony and accord.

Hawkins became interested in SEL when his children attended a California school that was pioneering the notion. He decided to make a subscription-based series of games that seek to teach the same lessons that SEL academics are urging upon the wide education system.

"Nobody ever taught me this stuff, and my parents didn't know this stuff, and their parents didn't know this stuff either," he said. "I went through a whole lot of life where I wasn't even that consciously aware of what I was feeling or what was going on emotionally, which was affecting how I felt about myself and how I was expressing myself and what kind of results I got from interacting with people. I just had no awareness of it.

"In the past, we would be raised in a little tribe or village, and we'd spend every day with elders, learning how to be a citizen in a simple tribal model. In the urban, technology age, that's all gone. Schools have never taken on this kind of teaching because historically they were always preoccupied with reading, writing and arithmetic."

As well as founding EA, Hawkins is well known for the heroic 1990s console failure 3DO as well as mobile games outfit Digital Chocolate. He has been an advocate for games as entertainment and educational platforms for over 30 years. Now he wants games to teach youngsters how to be better humans.

The basic If game is free, with a $5-a-month subscription for further and more advanced episodes.

"SEL is a whole toolkit of skills that help you be mindful and aware, help you manage how you feel and how you show your emotions to others," he said. "They make you socially aware so you can understand what's going on with somebody else, enable you to build more positive relationships and make more healthy social decisions."

When he saw how his kids were learning valuable skills that he lacked, even though he was a successful business leader, he became fascinated by SEL's potential. "I began to realize that materialism doesn't make us happy, compassion makes us happy."

Sheryl Harmer is a social emotional learning strategist, not affiliated with Hawkins' game. She said that SEL is now becoming a valuable resource.

"The science is clear as to what an important role social and emotional learning plays in success, whether it's academic, professional or inter-personal success," she said. "Employers now are less interested in content knowledge and IQ than a person's ability to work with others, to be able to be self-aware and to regulate their own emotions so they can deal with others in the most appropriate way."

Employers are less interested in IQ than a person's ability to work with others

She said that a video game might go some way to teaching valuable skills, though it has limitations. "I'm a little old school. I don't think you can completely teach social skills outside the context of being in contact with other people. But I think it can be influenced by teaching aids like a video game. You can acquire a better understanding through a video game but you still need to take that information and that learning and apply it within a social setting."

Hawkins' company, If You Can, is inspired by the Rudyard Kipling poem, 'If,' in which the poet advises his child on how to be a complete person. Hawkins said that his game, and SEL in general, can help individuals be more effective, and can even change the world.

"My generation is not going to fix global warming," he added. "The only way we're going to be able to fix the world is to get kids to develop a different value system."

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