Empathy through Game Design

What if designing and playing games made every child more empathetic?

Photo of Grant Hosford
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Founding Story: Share a story about a key experience or spark that helps the network understand why this project got started or a story about how you became inspired about the potential for this project to succeed.

Two years ago I founded a learning game company called codeSpark because I couldn’t find any resources that would cover the "ABCs of computer science" for my first grader daughter. I was shocked to discover we weren't teaching young kids about computer science and that girls and minorities were largely excluded from computer science education for older kids. This was a problem I had to fix. My early research included the creation of a paper prototype to test my idea for teaching without words. Creating and designing games is essentially a “player first” exercise and I've come to appreciate how the process forces you to think deeply about what players need and want. Without empathy for the player a game wouldn’t be fun or interesting. In addition, the immersive quality of games can help the player understand difficult situations in a way that studying them can't. My experiences trying to find CS resources for my daughter and creating a game inspired me to launch a game design camp this summer for low-income girls of color ages 6 to 10 - The Foo-tastic Game Design Camp. We dream big and want to both close gaps in the study of computer science AND help a young generation think more carefully about what those around them need and want.

Which categories describe you? (the answer will not be public)

  • White (for example: German, Irish, English, Italian, Polish, French, Caucasian)



Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [State]

  • California

Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [City]


Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [State]

  • California

Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [City]

We launched our first game design camp in Pasadena, CA. We worked with local non-profit organization STEAM:CODERS to recruit girls of color who would be interested in learning about game design and computer science. We plan to package our game design camp materials (4 days of curriculum, offline activities, art and game design templates) and distribute it for free so other organizations can run their own camps all over the world.

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

Perceptions of computer science as “too technical” and “too male” have led to a huge gender gap. Women only make up 18% of computer science graduates in college, which is a 24% drop since 1984! Statistics for women of color are even worse, with black and Latina women earning just 5% of all CS degrees. In addition, an SEL study by Harvard’s Making Caring Common Project found that only 20% of kids considered having empathy and caring about others to be a top priority. Kids were more concerned about their individual happiness and success than that of their peers and community. This de-emphasis on nurturing and empathy skills puts kids at risk of bullying, harassment, and other negative behaviors. We aim to close the gap for girls of color in the study of computer science while also using games as a medium to developing empathy and empowerment.

To close the gender gap we are demystifying the study of computer science and building helping girls see themselves as "good with computers".  When kids are confident they are much more persistent in the face of difficult challenges.  They are also more likely to share their opinions and collaborate with others.  So confidence building is woven into everything we do, especially during the first two days of camp.  We also train instructors on confidence building tactics like praising a girl publicly for a small victory and making sure everyone has a chance to contribute to discussions.

Game design is a creative and empathy building exercise. Designers have to constantly think in terms of the player, who might be very different from themselves. This forces the designer to think about not what they believe would be fun in a game, but what lots of different players might want.

Our game The Foos makes it easy to build Super Mario style games but with girl characters as the hero.  Heroines include "Ninja Girl", "Astronaut Girl" and "Queen Candy".  And girls are NEVER being rescued in our game.  Girls aren't used to seeing themselves as heroes in games so this part of the design process in an empowering moment for them.

In addition, we take the girls through a "paper prototyping" phase where girls first build a game on paper and test it with others for feedback. The camp emphasizes the fact that game design is all about gathering feedback and making changes to a game in an iterative process. The girls go through this a few times with their peers - designing, testing, and refining their games just like they would if they were at a real game studio.

We specifically talk about how this same process could be used to design any game, including ones that focus on issues or stories from their neighborhoods, schools or family life.  We also share examples of games that have been designed by women that address a broad range of topics - everything from nurturing animated creatures to experiencing what life as a political refugee is like.

In early testing with our game design curriculum we've found that the girls make huge leaps forward in terms of their interest in computer science and their confidence in their own ability to create something meaningful with technology.   Anecdotally, their teachers have shared that this confidence seems to carry over to general class activities and discussions.  In the future we are going to commission a study to understand how long these increases in confidence persist.

Is your model focused on any of the following traditionally underserved communities?

  • Communities of color
  • Low-income communities
  • Other

Does your model work within any of the following sectors?

  • Community Development and Empowerment
  • Education

Year Founded


Project Stage

  • Start-Up (a pilot that has just started operating)

Example: Walk the network through a specific example of what happens when a person or group engages with your solution.

Kids get a 4 day camp focusing on the basics of game design that includes computer science and design concepts, game prototyping, iteration and review, giving and receiving feedback and user testing. By the end of the 4 days the girls have created 4 Mario-style games and also have a new understanding of the creative power of computer programming, the need for empathy in game design and the power games have to immerse players in complex problems. The will also have a new found confidence and interest in being a 'maker'.

Impact: What was the impact of your work last year? Please also describe the projected future impact for the coming years.

Our core product "The Foos" has reached 4 million kids in 172 countries over the last 20 months. This summer was the first time we ran our game design camp. We've grown quickly without a marketing budget by partnering with organizations like code.org, Code Club, Plan Ceibal in Uruguay, and Samsung. In addition, we've won many awards (Parents Choice Gold, Best Learning App - Kidscreen, Best App for Young Kids - KAPI and over 10 others) prompting Apple and Google to feature The Foos repeatedly in their respective app stores. We are very proud of the fact that ~50% of our players at any given time are girls and that thousands of teachers use The Foos in their classes. Their feedback that their kids got very excited about thinking from the player's perspective was the seed for this project. We plan to offer our camp content for free to organizations all over the world.

Organization Type

  • for-profit

Annual Budget

  • $10k - $50k

Financial Sustainability Plan: What is your solution’s plan to ensure financial sustainability?

Our camp is funded for the next two years. As we prove out the model and get data on our long term impact on the kids who participate we will do more fund raising.

Unique Value Proposition: How else is this problem being addressed? Are there other organizations working in the same field, and how does your project differ from these other approaches?

Games for Change and other organizations like it are also promoting the idea of using games to raise awareness around social issues. However, these organizations focus more on experiencing games rather than creating them. We are one of a very few to use game design as our core learning path.

Reflect on the Field and its Future: Stepping outside of your project, what do you see as the most important or promising shifts that can advance children’s wellbeing?

I'm most excited about the movements to incorporate more play into elementary school curriculums. Children learn naturally through play - we just need to remember that! Play also lets kids interact and collaborate with others, teaching essential skills like empathy and teamwork that they'll need throughout their lives.

Source: How did you hear about the Children’s Wellbeing Challenge? (the answer will not be public)

  • Changemakers.com

Program Design Clarity

Please see answer to "Walk the network..."

Community Leadership

We are obsessed with user testing and have prioritized collaboration with a wide variety of communities, teachers, parents, and kids. Our first testers for The Foos were a 1st grade class at Cleveland Elementary in Pasadena. We picked Cleveland because the student body is 92% minority and 88% are on free lunch. Over 50% of the kids we worked with had NEVER used a computer before. We knew if The Foos worked for them we were on to something!

Age of Children Impacted

  • 6 - 12

Spread Strategies

We are a small but mighty team who thinks globally. Just as The Foos has spread to 172 countries - our camp will spread globally through our network of partners. We know how to minimize localization issues and create turnkey solutions.

Reflect on how your work helps children to thrive. How are you cultivating children’s sense of self, belonging, and purpose through your model?

Confidence in the use of technology to solve complex problems is a crucial component to thriving in our modern, global and rapidly changing world. We are teaching logical thinking, grit, collaboration and iterative design. These are 21st century superpowers!

Leadership Story

Joe Shochet and I have been on lifelong journeys toward this moment. Joe helped developed one of the first learn to code tools (Alice 3D) as an undergrad at UVA. He has been a Lego Robotics coach for 7 years and created a rare all-girls team for his daughter. My daughters opened my eyes to how the deck is still stacked against girls. When she was 4 my youngest daughter told me she couldn't be a pilot because "pilots are boys." I introduced her to a female pilot and ran a Lean In Circle for two years. I also began mentoring several women entrepreneurs. We will close the gap in tech!

What awards or honors has the project received? (Optional)

American Association of School Librarians - Best App for Teaching & Learning (2016) KAPi Award - Best App or Product for Young Kids (2016) Kidscreen Awards - Best Learning App (2016) USA Today - Best Pick (2015) Parent’s Choice Award - Gold Medal (2015) ....and 11 others!

Organization's Twitter Handle

@playthefoos and @codesparkceo

Organization’s Facebook Page (URL)


Leader's LinkedIn Profile (URL)



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Such a nice story of a key experience which helps the network understand why this project got started or a story about how you became inspired about the potential for this project to succeed.


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