Researchers dig up video games' benefits

Simulation and role-playing shown to boost certain skills

February 11, 2007|By Howard Witt | Howard Witt,Chicago Tribune

HOUSTON -- Tired of badgering the kids to quit wasting time with those computer and video games and get started on homework? Here's a news flash for the 21st century: It turns out many of the games might be better than homework.

In a series of research projects as likely to thrill young people as they are to horrify their parents and teachers, academic experts across the country are unearthing educational benefits in the digital games that surveys show are now played by more than 80 percent of Americans ages 8 to 18.

At the top of the experts' lists are simulation and role-playing games, often played on the Internet alongside thousands of other participants, because of the vocabulary, reasoning and social skills they can boost. But even some of the most violent games, such as the notorious Grand Theft Auto, have valuable lessons to teach in the right circumstances, researchers are finding.

Some researchers even suggest supplanting much of the traditional back-to-basics K-12 curriculum with a new generation of game-based materials to capture the increasingly short attention spans of today's youth.

"Right now in American schools we spend most of the first six or seven years of math education teaching kids to do what a 99-cent calculator does," said David Williamson Shaffer, an education professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and author of a recent book, Video Games and the Future of Learning.

"We have this view that schooling is the natural and inevitable way to get kids ready for life in the world," said Shaffer, a leader in the field of digital learning. "But it shouldn't come as a surprise that when our economy has changed, when innovation and creativity are much more important than rote memorization, that the system needs some real updating to train kids how to use computer games to solve problems in the real world."

If that sounds like yet another New Age fad, destined for the scrap heap of once-trendy educational ideas alongside "new math," "open classrooms" and "whole language," consider this: The Chicago-based MacArthur Foundation - which gives out the half-million-dollar "genius grants" every year - is distributing $50 million to researchers to understand how digital technologies are changing the ways young people learn, play, socialize and exercise judgment.

"We realized that over 80 percent of American kids have game consoles at home, 90 percent of kids are online and 50 percent of them are producing things online, so we really need to understand what is going on here," said Constance Yowell, director of the MacArthur Foundation's digital research initiative.

Hard data are scant - most of the MacArthur-funded research projects are just getting under way - but there's no shortage of anecdotes testifying to the educational benefits of video and computer games and new multimedia tools. Simulation games in particular have been embraced by some educators, as well as many businesses and the U.S. military, as effective ways to introduce people to environments and situations that would otherwise be too expensive, dangerous or impossible to access.

Kurt Squire, another University of Wisconsin researcher, has been observing students as they play Civilization, a simulation game in which players build historically realistic civilizations and interact with them as they evolve.

"We've got middle-schoolers now who are going to their teachers and saying, `I've built this historical model of the American Revolution, which took about 40-50 hours - can I submit this with a paper about it?'" Squire said. "If you look at the crisis in American schools with low-achieving kids, many teachers would jump if there's a way to keep these kids engaged."

The computer games and tools being studied are generations removed from the static, linear educational software found inside many of the nation's schools - software that children quickly master and then discard as boring.

"There are a lot of terrible educational games out there, where you have to do something unfun, like solve five math problems, so you can do something fun, like play a game," said Ben Stokes, a games expert at the MacArthur Foundation.

Instead, the experts are interested in the educational benefits of commercially available games that were not expressly designed for school use.

Other researchers are studying what students learn when they join other players across the Internet in creating characters, or "avatars," in online fantasy or role-playing games, such as Second Life or World of Warcraft.

Squire studied middle-school youths as they played Grand Theft Auto, a game abhorred by many parents and educators because it is centered on killing, violence and racial stereotypes. He found that when the game was played in isolation from others, it had little educational merit - and that the kids "even got bored with the killing part of it," migrating to a part of the game that permits players to customize cars.

But when he used the game to spark a discussion among players, Squire discovered a benefit.

"What you could do is get white kids and black kids playing the game together and talking about their perceptions," he said. "We found they were all troubled by the stereotypes in the game."

The verdict on the potential benefits of computer and video games is not unanimous, however. Some critics worry about the racial and economic gaps in access to computers and the Internet: 60 percent of white households but 36 percent of black households, had Internet access at home in 2003, according to the Census Bureau.

Other experts believe that the benefits of digital games are hyped and could harm students' creativity and emotional development.

"The only thing we know for sure is that video games are effective at desensitizing people to extreme violence," said Edward Miller, a senior researcher at the Alliance for Childhood, a nonprofit child advocacy group.

Howard Witt writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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