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From Shoot 'em Ups to Emotional Intelligence: Gaming Gets Kind

04/03/2016 09:45 | Updated 04 March 2016

I met Rosie Linder a fortnight ago. Like me, she is a middle aged mother with two children. Like me she wants to connect with her children.

"I wanted a fun way to talk about emotions with my daughters. If you just ask them, they are very resistant. They feel they are being put on the spot."

I laughed. "Yes," my 10 year old daughter tells me I am not allowed to ask her how her day was at school!"

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We shared a smile of understanding, both knowing that awkwardness our children feel. To them, it is like being put on stage and being asked to perform.

"So I looked for apps that could help develop emotional intelligence. Something we could play together. Although I could find ones for maths, languages, IQ, physical co-ordination and many others, there was nothing at all for developing emotional intelligence!"

"So I decided to create one," Rosie said with a twinkle in her eye.

"I'm not what the gaming world thinks of as a conventional games developer. But I'm really proud of what we've built."

I immediately warmed to Rosie. Anyone who knows me understands how deeply I care about people being able to express who they are, and build connections with others.

I founded the Outsider's Network to help people who feel different from the social norm find the creativity in their differences and connect empathetically with others who share the same struggles. It's a place you can belong, without feeling you have to change who you are to fit in.

So Rosie's story appealed on many levels. She may not have been typical for a games developer, but her unique perspective as a mum led her to a truly innovative project - one that in itself was designed to build empathy, belonging and creativity in a fun way.

Still, even if I liked Rosie as a person, could a game really achieve these lofty aims?

She leaned over the table and pressed the icon on her iPad marked Peppy Pals. A rural scene with a pony, a dog and a river appeared. I found myself smiling at how appealing it was. Cute, but not cutesy-pie, with warm bright colours and animal characters who were clearly friends, Peppy Pals offered a challenge. How could you persuade the dog, who was scared, to jump across the river?

The answers were all about encouragement from his friend the horse, and working together. The scene was not without (mild) peril, as the dog fell in the water, but is resolved with teamwork. I also laughed at the wit with which the game them revealed another simpler river crossing further downstream.

What a contrast to the games I grew up with! PacMan, Super Mario Brothers or Donkey Kong were all fast moving, rapid reaction games with creatures attacking each other. Then in my teens and twenties, race driving or shoot-em-ups, which seem to get ever more violent were all the rage (pun intended!)

All these games have their appeal, and I know I will never insulate my children from them totally - nor would it be appropriate for me to do so. They have to live in the real world, and learn to cope with it. On the other hand, as a parent I would prefer to promote understanding, empathy and connection, and the resilience to cope when they or others are sad, angry or feel thwarted.

How do I help my children deal with emotions that sometimes seem to overwhelm them? How can they learn to overcome fear or anxiety? How do I ask the right questions to help them learn not to hit out in rage or frustration, without also teaching them to bottle up their feelings?

My 6 year old son has a seemingly inborn tendency to turn any stick, tube or finger into a gun or sword! But he is also a loving, sensitive, gentle boy who has nightmares if he watches movies - even those aimed at his age group. My daughter is academic and logical. She can be spiky and self-righteous, but also generous, insightful and deeply wounded when she feels criticised.

Helping my kids build EQ, resilience and empathy is something I care about, and their school seems to agree. Resilience is one of their core values, and my daughter is taking part in a programme called Friends for Life. As part of her homework, she was asked to get everyone in the family to share something that made us happy. On another occasion, we took turns rolling dice, with the numbers corresponding to different emotions. We then shared details of what made us feel that emotion and how we dealt with it.

Simple exercises, perhaps, but positive psychology shows that they can be surprisingly effective. Research shows that EQ can be taught and practiced from as young as 2 years old. Mastering these social skills can help children stay out of trouble, increase their academic success, avoid peer group pressure and suffer less from depression.

But talking about feelings is not always easy. Rosie told me that a lot of parents say the same and so that's why they introduced Peppy Talks, a guide on how to practice emotions and empathy in every-day situations - while drawing, reading or playing charades.

I was half way persuaded, but would the kids actually go for it? There was only one way to find out.

My daughter played Peppy Pals Farm for a while, but wanted something a little more challenging. To be fair the app is not targeted at her age group. My younger child, aged 6, however, was entranced. When I asked him what he liked about it, he told me, "I liked it when they worked together" Bingo!

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Peppy Pals new app came out recently, Reggy's Playdate is another simple game where you can play with the little dog, care for him, or even annoy him and make him sad! I'm genuinely looking forward to sharing it with my son this weekend.

And with HRH the Duchess of Cambridge promoting her Young Minds Matter message as guest editor of the Huffington Post recently, perhaps the message that we all need to focus on the mental health of our kids can finally go mainstream. I hope so.

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