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Game-based Social Skills Assessments: Making the Play for Better Emotional Health

by Melissa DeRosier on July 20, 2014

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Gamification and Social Skills Development can Work Hand in Hand to Improve Emotional Well Being and Outcomes

Educators and parents are now seeing that games—long thought to be a waste of kids’ time—can be powerful learning tools.

Games show promise in improving students’ problem solving skills, learning motivation and engagement, and their test scores. They are also well-suited for assessments, as demonstrated in the 2010 National Education Technology Plan where U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called for more research about how “assessment technologies, such as simulations, collaborative environments, virtual worlds, games, and cognitive tutors, can be used to engage and motivate learners while assessing complex skills.”

Although games have been used mainly for learning and assessment in the core academic subjects, they hold significant promise for other areas, such as social skills.

Social-Skills-Assessment

Long-Term Effects of Positive Peer Relationships

Social skills assessments (SSA) identify children’s social skills strengths and deficits, enabling teachers, counselors, and other providers to address areas of weakness through social skills training. Through social skills training, children can learn to build positive relationships with their peers, which helps increase children’s grades, test scores, and self-esteem, as well as improve their physical and mental health.

In contrast, the effects of poor social skills are staggering. Children with poor social skills are more likely to:

  • Bully others or be bullied
  • Perform poorly academically
  • Have more absences from school
  • Drop out of school
  • Have lifelong mental and physical health issues
  • Become sexually promiscuous
  • Engage in criminal behavior
  • Commit suicide
  • Have unstable relationships

Limitations of Traditional Social Skills Assessments

Effective SSA do three things:

  1. Identify children who have social skill deficits and would benefit from social skills training.
  2. Monitor their progress throughout the training and decide if any changes should be made to better address the child’s needs.
  3. Determine if the child’s social skills improved at the end of the training, and if not, what the next steps should be.

Assessments during and after the training are important, since it may take months or longer for positive changes in children’s social skills to translate into improvements in peer relations, mental health, and academics.

SSA are only as good as the data they collect, and no traditional data collection method exists that provides high quality data and is time- and cost-effective.

For example, behavioral rating scales, the most popular data collection method, rely on self-report by children and observations by teachers. Behavioral rating scales are quick and cheap to administer and have low training requirements, which is beneficial for time-pressed teachers and money-strapped schools.

However, the data they provide is limited. The scales are not engaging to children, so children have low motivation to provide thoughtful, honest responses or to respond at all, which would affect the quality and accuracy of the data. Children may pick the answer that is most socially appropriate regardless if it reflects the child’s true behavior. Observer bias also plays a role as teachers may let their opinion of the child influence how they assess the child’s behavior, and children may behave differently when teachers are around compared to when they are with their peers, so the teacher would not be able to assess the child’s social skills accurately.

The Promise of Game-based Social Skills Assessments

This is where game-based SSA come in. Game-based SSA allow data collection that is time- and cost-efficient because teachers need minimal training to administer the assessments, and it can be administered to many children at once. And because games are capable of tracking changes in a child’s behavior over time, they can be used for progress monitoring and evaluation.

Game-based SSA are engaging to children, which helps make the data more reliable and accurate. They can also simulate common social situations, allowing a teacher to see how a child will react in a specific situation that the teacher may not have observed the child in, such as witnessing bullying or dealing with a peer who is upset.

Moreover, game-based SSA can incorporate “stealth assessment”—that is, the game collects data without the child realizing it. Children don’t change their behavior when they’re unaware they’re being assessed, making the data more accurate, and the child is focused on the situation, which provides a better approximation of how he or she would behave in a similar real-world situation.

Stealth assessment also uses information about children’s actual behaviors to manipulate facets of the game to assess children at different levels, responding to each child’s unique strengths and weaknesses and getting a better picture of the child’s social skills. Examples of stealth assessment include the number of times a particular object or character is clicked on, amount of time before a specific action is taken, and the order of actions during problem solving.

Game-based Social Skills Assessments Considerations and Best Practices

From our own research developing a game-based SSA, Zoo U, we’ve unlocked some important considerations and best practices in creating an effective game-based SSA.

First, it’s important to consult relevant research to decide which social skills to target and how to define them. A well-designed game-based SSA should rely heavily on subject matter experts—experts in child social development, education, child mental and behavioral health—to develop the content and scoring procedures that form the foundation of the virtual SSA environment.

Setting is important when designing a game-based SSA. We chose a virtual school-like world where children learn to be zookeepers. We selected this setting because it’s similar, but not identical, to a real school, so it allowed us to present virtual social situations analogous to common elementary school experiences. A setting too similar to real school life may have been boring for children, and some children may have actually experienced the social situations in real life, which would bias how they interacted with the software in ways we couldn’t know.

In SSA, skills are measured based on the child’s in-game choices and responses. Even though a section of the game may target specific social skills, each section should incorporate multiple skills, because in real life social interactions are complex and social skills are used concurrently. Response options should make the right answer difficult to figure out. For example, the game could present several options with all responses being more or less correct, with differing levels of appropriateness.

Game-based SSA should provide scenarios similar to real-life situations that children encounter, and like the real world, the choices that the child makes should influence how others in the scene respond and what subsequent options are available. Games can score the sequence itself, in addition to each individual menu choice.

The game should generate assessment reports based on the child’s choices, which tell the teacher how the child compares to his or her peers in the classroom and the country. A well-designed report can also inform teachers when a child may be gaming the system or not trying his or her best as indicated by clicking through dialogue without listening to it, clicking around too much, and picking answers at random.

While encouraged in popular entertainment games, these behaviors produce inaccurate data for assessing social skills. Game-based SSA should include accuracy checks to catch this behavior, generate warnings when this happens, and provide teachers with recommendations on how to proceed with the child. It is critical to design a game-based SSA so that the assessment and gameplay are not at odds with each other.

Choosing a Game for Assessment

Make sure that any game you employ for a SSA is based in solid research that demonstrates its validity and reliability. You must hold games to the same accuracy standards as any other SSA approach or you’ll be collecting data that undermines your social skills training goals. A cheaper or flashier game without this research base may look good, but if it results in a failed social skills training, you’ll have to implement another training to make up for it. You will then be spending more time and money than if you had opted for a research-based game from the start.

Related Posts (if the above topic is of interest, you might want to check these out):

Gamifying the Classroom with Minecraft – the Possibilities are Powerful and Endless!
10 Proactive Steps for Schools to Limit Student Issues With Social Media
Gaming Education: Are Parents, Teachers, and Schools Ready to Embrace Gaming as a Learning Tool?

About 

Melissa DeRosier, Ph.D., is the founder and CEO of 3C Institute, a research and development company that develops social-emotional learning products for children, adolescents, and parents for use in schools, clinics, and community agencies, and partners with outside organizations to develop customized web-based applications for their programs and research. The company’s products, including the recently-released book, Social Skills Assessment through Games: The New Best Practice, can be found at 3C Marketplace.

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