UNB students battle childhood anxiety with empathy game

A new-born Phoenix chick wakes up in a dark forest, full of scary shadows and animals, and can only rely on the help of a guide to stay alive.

Or so the player thinks as they start navigating their way through Guide, a video game created by three students at the University of New Brunswick.

But unlike other 2D platformers, Guide was designed to teach children empathy and help them deal with social anxieties, said developer Jade Yhap.

As the children progress in the game and their character becomes more empowered, they learn to interpret the world around them differently, and to question the leadership of their fearful and instinctual companion.

They may discover that the forest is not that scary after all, he said.

"We feel that games can really be an engaging and amazing way for kids to learn," said Yhap in an interview with CBC's Information Morning Fredericton earlier this week.

"This way we can introduce children to some new ideas."

Empathy games

So-called empathy games have taken off in recent years, putting the player into a position where they have to make decisions that evoke human emotions and force them to confront different outcomes, based on how they choose to go forward.

The games have become so popular that the United Nations has taken notice, commissioning a Toronto research to write a study on the topic, and now plans to commission two games of its own.

Yhap and his two co-developers, Rebecca Goodine and Elliot Coy, created Guide as part of a competition hosted by the University of Utah's Sorenson Centre for Discovery and Innovation.

The competition, which took place in 2016, encouraged students to design a game that engaged people to live healthier lives, said Yhap. The team won second place in the empathy category, and a US $2,500 price.

In early March, they also presented Guide at the Women Making Waves festival in Halifax, which focuses on the work of women in film and television.

Their next step is to reach out to schools to test the game on children, which they weren't able to do yet, said Yhap.

"It's at a very good place where we can get some data back and really see if kids are getting the message," he said.

Learning by doing

While Guide was first intended for teenagers, the team has since decided to aim it at children in Grade 4 to Grade 8.

Yhap said children go through a lot of transitions during that time in their life, many of them scary and anxiety inducing.

"You might not be able to understand what's happening, your friends might have changed," he said.

"There's a lot going on in those ages."

The game hopes to teach children to not only overcome social anxieties and the fear of the unknown, but also to consider how others feel, he said.

Instead of just telling them how to combat their fears, Guide teaches them about empathy and self-empowerment by slowly discovering the different characters in the game, and solving puzzles, he said.

"So the idea behind our game is that, yes, we have this basis of empathy and mindfulness and being aware of others," he said.

"But we have the message hidden behind the game, so that they can first just play … and then come to that moment, that eureka moment, where 'whoa, what, there's a lesson in here?"

He added that the eventually hopes to turn Guide into a profitable game, and perhaps even work on a sequel that lets parents or teachers co-play with the students.

"We like the idea of engaging and helping kids in a way they understand that might take a little bit of debriefing or a little bit of a discussion, but the idea that parents can have that discussion," said Yhap.