Research has shown that children’s caring for, or owning, a real pet animal is associated with higher levels of empathy and more positive attitudes toward the humane treatment of animals. However, studies that have examined whether a virtual pet animal would have similar associations are quite limited. With the growing popularity and sophistication of computer-based games such as Nintendogs, it becomes increasingly important to determine the socio-emotional effects of computer game play involving simulated characters. The primary purpose of this research study was to investigate whether caring for and playing with a virtual pet dog enhanced children’s development of empathy and humane attitudes. The study also investigated whether there were any effects related to gender, duration and type of play as well as whether children who reported greater companion bonds with their virtual pet dog had higher empathy and humane attitude scores. Findings from a quasi-experimental repeated measures design revealed that the empathy and humane attitude posttest scores of 51 children in Grades 4 and 5 increased significantly (p=.05) from their pretest scores, with female participants scoring higher on both pretest and post test, after playing and caring for a virtual pet dog for three weeks. Findings also revealed that children who had developed stronger bonds to their virtual pet tended to have higher empathy scores, and that duration of play and extent of care provided were positively correlated with humane attitude scores. Qualitative analysis of semi-structured interviews revealed that most children stated that they formed an emotional bond with their virtual pet dog, and that most regarded the virtual pet as a real pet with its own emotions, needs and interests instead of a videogame character. Qualitative data analysis also revealed that the duration and type of play with the virtual pet dog between female and male participants were quite similar. The research results suggest that playing and caring for a virtual pet dog can promote children’s empathic development and humane attitudes.
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