Chicago Tribune (MCT)
North Kenwood/Oakland Middle
School students Robbie Hawkins
(from left), Diamon McKelvin
and R'Mani Haulcy work on video
games at an after school class in
Chicago, Illinois, February 7, 2007.
(Scott Strazzante/Chicago Tribune/MCT)
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 American young people aged 8-18.
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 some 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, "How Computer Games Help Children Learn."
"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 scrapheap of once-trendy educational ideas alongside "new math," "open classrooms" and "whole language," consider this: The prominent Chicago-based MacArthur Foundation — the people who give out those 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. "This is what kids are doing, so we need to know both the positive benefits and the unintended consequences."
Hard data is scant so far — 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 already 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 commonly found inside many of the nation's schools today — software that girls and boys quickly master and then discard as boring.
"There are a lot of terrible educational games out there, where you have to do something un-fun, 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 — simulation games like "Zoo Tycoon," in which elementary school-age children build virtual zoos by selecting animals, creating appropriate habitats, managing food budgets and even setting the prices of popcorn at the concession stands.
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," "There" or "World of Warcraft."
Still other experts are designing prototype educational games that immerse students in such professional roles as urban planners, journalists, medical ethicists and graphic designers.
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 instead to a part of the game that permits players to create highly customized 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 persistent racial and economic gaps in access to computers and the Internet: 60 percent of white households, but only 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 over-hyped and could actually 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 non-profit child advocacy group. "There is no evidence that video games are good at teaching problem-solving or collaboration or the other higher-order skills that these proponents are claiming."
GAMES EXPERTS LIKE
These are some of the video games most highly praised by researchers for their educational value:
—"The Political Machine"
—"A Force More Powerful"
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