CHICAGO Of all of the proposals aimed at
improving America's failing schools, there's one idea kids will
really like: More video games and fewer books.
At least a number of educators hope so, arguing that
children would get more excited about school and that video
games can present real-life problems to solve.
Nobody is talking about putting violent video games such as
"Doom" or "Mortal Kombat" into classrooms, particularly given
concerns they may encourage aggressive behavior.
Instead, educators such as Indiana University associate
professor Sasha Barab are developing alternative video games
that can teach as well as entertain.
In one game designed by Barab, the player assumes the role
of an investigator seeking to find out why fish are dying in a
Various theories are offered such as excessive logging or
farm fertilizers, and the players share data about water
quality and compare hypotheses. If they recommend kicking out
the loggers, the park may go bankrupt, giving students a
"I believe in digital media literacy. If we don't make
changes in the way we educate our children, they will be left
behind in world markets," said Barab, a former high school
teacher. "Right now, I'm not that optimistic about where
schools are headed."
Another backer of video games as educational tools is Katie
Salen. A game designer, Salen is working with a group called
New Visions for Public Schools to establish a school in New
York City for grades six through 12 that would integrate video
games into the entire curriculum.
"There's a lot of moral panic about addiction to games.
There's a negative public perception and we know we have to
deal with that. But teachers have been using games for years
and years," Salen said.
"We're looking at how games work and we want to think about
ways to redeliver information. It's quite unknown territory."
'THE WORLD IS NOT A VIDEO GAME'
The MacArthur Foundation is investing $50 million to
investigate whether video games promote learning, and last
month sponsored a panel discussion on the subject in Chicago.
"Kids don't just play games. The games inspire so they then
turn to books," said Connie Yowell, director of education at
the Chicago-based foundation. "There are bad games, but people
tend to blame the tools instead of learning about the tools."
To be sure, there are plenty of questions about the
educational value of video games, as compared with books and
Dr. Joshua Freedman, a neuropsychiatrist at the University
of California, Los Angeles, said video games are interactive
and can help with spatial concepts.
"But there's still a question about the value to the extent
that most of the world is not a video game. They're not getting
problems in real world situation," he said.
Video games engage children with continuous action, a
concept known as "enthrallment," that raises the threshold for
engagement, Freedman said.
"It's the equivalent of giving kids a lot of sweets and
then wondering why they don't want to eat regular food," he
Several studies have shown that video-game playing
corresponds to higher rates of attention deficit disorder (ADD)
among children and are associated with aggressive behavior.
Freedman noted, however that cause and effect are difficult to
"I wouldn't say that using more games in education
shouldn't be done, I'm just saying that it should be done with
our eyes open," he said.
One teen, Shelby Levin, a tenth grader with a 3.5 grade
point average at North Farmington High School in Farmington,
Michigan, acknowledges that he plays games mostly for fun.
A fan of sports games and violent games like Grand Theft
Auto, Levin, says: "I don't think you can learn more from
playing video games than from reading a book or doing an
But Levin, 16, also participates in the virtual world
online called Second Life, and says he does pick-up some
important skills from his time on it.
"In Second Life, I'm playing with kids from France, Italy
and Germany. We all come together and hang out online. You
learn about entrepreneurship because you have to hustle people
and make money," he said.
That's one reason some are advocating classroom time to be
teaching children how to build virtual worlds -- much like
archeologists, engineers, and others do -- and to play games
alongside others on the Web.
What's more, the trend toward administering more
standardized tests does not prepare children for a digital
future, said David Williamson Shaffer of the University of
Wisconsin-Madison, and author of "How Computer Games Help
"We've organized our schools using methods from the Middle
Ages," Shaffer said. "We should start to have a discussion
about what needs to be learned."
Barab marvels at the skills her son has mastered from video
games, but limits him to six hours a week, fearing addiction.
"My 6-year-old, Julian, can step into a video game and a
world of rules and figure them out. He's not scared of the
unknown or scared of failing. I think that's something valuable
that video games provide. But, I want him to experience much
more, and relationships outside of games," Barab added.