Empathy through Game Design

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

Photo of Grant Hosford
15 11

Written by

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)


Evaluation results

17 evaluations so far

1. Relevance: Does this project seem to help children (ages 0 to 12 years) develop a strong sense of self, belonging, and purpose?

5 - Yes, this is great! The project lays out a strong, compelling case for how its model nurtures children’s wellbeing. - 11.8%

4 - It seems like a good fit, and the model talks explicitly about children’s wellbeing. - 58.8%

3 - I think so. The project seems related to children’s wellbeing, but the logic is vague. - 17.6%

2 - Not sure. The project doesn’t have much to do with wellbeing, or it doesn’t give enough information. - 11.8%

1 - Nope, this project definitely doesn’t fit the challenge brief (e.g., It doesn’t help kids younger than 12, isn’t in the U.S., etc.) - 0%

2. Innovation: Does this project tackle children’s wellbeing from a new angle?

5 - I loved this! The project describes a novel model that addresses important cultural or systemic barriers. - 11.8%

4 - This is pretty cool. The project is addressing an important problem in a new or compelling way. - 47.1%

3 - I feel like there’s something there, but I want more details about what makes it distinctive. - 29.4%

2 - It’s a good project, but I’ve seen others like it before. - 11.8%

1 - It was confusing or hard to tell what it made it different. - 0%

3. Social Impact: What is this project’s potential for creating positive social impact?

5 - Lots of potential. This project is achieving impressive results, and it’s growing quickly. It could absolutely inspire changes in the ways we approach caring for kids nationally, across sectors (e.g. childcare, healthcare, education). - 31.3%

4 - Pretty good potential. This project demonstrates significant positive impact so far, and it could scale regionally or nationally one day and fundamentally change how a system operates (e.g. childcare, healthcare, education). - 31.3%

3 - Budding potential. This project is creating local impact, but it would take a few adjustments before it could scale. - 31.3%

2 - Some potential. This project demonstrates some initial positive impact, but it would require major changes before it could scale. - 0%

1 - Limited potential. This project has great intentions, but it looks like it does not include key drivers of a shift towards children’s wellbeing. - 6.3%

4. Overall, how do you feel about this idea?

5 - This idea rocked my world. It’s awesome! - 11.8%

4 - This idea seems really exciting. With a little more polishing, it’d be among my favorites. - 41.2%

3 - I think the idea is great, but it needs some work before it moves onto the next round. - 35.3%

2 - I liked it fine but preferred others. - 11.8%

1 - It didn’t make my heart beat faster. Needs significant revisions. - 0%

5. Offer some feedback. Where should this participant spend some time revising?

DEFINING THE PROBLEM. Make sure to articulate the root causes or main barriers of the social issue your project addresses. (Founding Story, Problem, Solution). - 100%

CLARITY OF MODEL. Make sure to mention (a.) the beneficiary, b) the main activities, and c) how those activities drive social impact. Keep it streamlined! - 83.3%

MARKETPLACE. Make sure to research other players in this space and articulate how this project is different. I didn’t get a complete sense of how this project compares to others. - 66.7%

IMPACT POTENTIAL. Make sure to use specific numbers to describe what your project has achieved so far! And consider how you might scale the model or its insights, through partnerships, trainings, or franchising. - 66.7%

WRITING STYLE. Try to stay concise and make it vivid. Avoid jargon. - 33.3%

Nothing stands out! I thought it was great. - 33.3%


Join the conversation:

Photo of Lauren

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.


Photo of Michael Auerbach

Easily one of my favorite projects of this challenge. STEAM is the way to go!

Photo of Grant Hosford

Thanks for the kind words Michael!

Photo of Natalie Christensen

Thanks for sharing your project! It's so exciting to see how the tech world can have a positive effect on the way a child thinks of herself. I particularly appreciate the NON-RESCUE based narratives of your games - yippee!
I have a couple questions that would help me understand your project more:
1. How many kids get to attend camp? How are they selected?
2. Can you describe, as you see it, how confidence building affects an overall sense of wellbeing?
3. Can you do the same for the empathy angle? (I agree that a strong sense of empathy for others adds to overall wellbeing of everyone on the planet, but can you walk me through that correlation with regard to your solution?)
Thanks so much for all of your work! Wonderful!

Photo of Grant Hosford

Thanks for the nice note!  

This first camp is a pilot program with two partners so we kept enrollment to 20 kids. It was the first time we were using our game design curriculum in a camp setting instead of a classroom. The goal is to build a "camp in a box" platform with curriculum, training videos, etc. so any club, team or other group who wants to follow the curriculum themselves could do so.  We anticipate holding camps for several hundred kids ourselves over the next 6-9 months.  Our partner STEAMcoders helps us find and register the kids.  STEAMcoders works with schools in the area that have a high % of minority and free lunch kids.  

Confidence building is a HUGE factor in our work.  In fact, from the very beginning of working on our app The Foos we make it a priority to build kids confidence during the first chapter of puzzles.  When kids are confident they are much more persistent when challenges get difficult.  They are also more likely to share their opinions and collaborate with others.  So confidence building is woven into everything we do, especially in 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 skills + empathy are a powerful combination.  Yes there is a broad benefit to logical problem solving and thinking from someone else's point of view but our goal is to give the girls confidence to take on problems in their own lives via games.  Game design is not easy however so our initial goals are to provide a foundational knowledge of the process of game design, build confidence in the idea of using technology as a tool and build interest in learning more about coding and game design.  We are helping them assemble a mental toolbox for future problem solving.

We've seen older kids tackle tough issues like neighborhood safety, low adult literacy rates and teen pregnancy via game design and the conversations enabled by the game format tend to be deeper than you would achieve in a simple class discussion.

I hope these notes help!

Photo of Karla Mitchell

This is a wonderful idea and thank you for being a changemaker.  One of the complex challenges that standout in communities of color is the need for children, girls and boys, to see leaders and teachers who look like them. I am curious as to how your project captures or addresses this sensitivity in communities of color - particularly since there are so few women, and women of color in gaming?

This is a very critical and important element of serving communities of color, I'm just wondering if it's something you have considered.

Photo of Grant Hosford

This is constantly on our mind.  We address this a few different ways.  First one of our advisors is Tracy Fullerton who runs the game design dept at USC and is an icon of serious game design.  Through Tracy we recruit top women interns for the camp, including women of color.  

We also have partnered with a local group called STEAMcoders (www.steamcoders.org), an organization dedicated to inspiring underrepresented and underserved students and families through the fundamentals of Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math (STEAM).  We get qualified female HS students of color to help with the camp too.

We also support WIGI (Women in Games International) and bring speakers from WIGI to the camp.
Thanks for the great question!

Photo of Jennell Riddick

What a wonderfully creative idea! I can see this project making great impact on both the self-esteem and intellect of the users. Thanks for your work'

Photo of Grant Hosford

Thank you Jennell!

Photo of Haley Biehl

I really enjoyed reading about this concept and visiting the website to learn about The Foos. I would be interested in hearing the results of the study regarding confidence, and perhaps a study of empathy would be warranted as well -- are the girls demonstrating increased empathy in social situations, problem-solving. etc.  

Photo of Grant Hosford

Anecdotally the girls are using more empathy, especially when we've been able to talk to parents about continue a dialogue about empathy at home.  However we are planning a formal study to go deeper with this and several other ideas.
Thanks for the note,

Photo of Margaret Fink

It would be great to view images or video of the app/game itself to show off the quality of the product.

Photo of Grant Hosford

Margaret - I just posted two helpful short videos in the comments...

Photo of Grant Hosford

Teaching overview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ni3_UISO-QA&feature=youtu.be
Game examples: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZCcv-vQUxkU&feature=youtu.be

Photo of Grant Hosford

I've received several requests for examples of what our game The Foos looks like.  Here are two great short videos.  One is an overview of how the game teaches computer science and game design.  The other shows a few actual games created by kids ages 5 - 12.
Teaching overview:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ni3_UISO-QA&feature=youtu.be 
Game examples:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZCcv-vQUxkU&feature=youtu.be