Game Boy, XBox, PlayStation and your personal computer – All offer electronic stimulus in the form of video games. Is it all bad?
Last year, 7-year-old Matthew Gall got his heart’s desire – a Game Boy and a Harry Potter game. His mom, Lisa, struggled with the decision. “I had every worry in the book – that he’d spend too much time playing, that games were too violent.” But soon she found that the games he loved had some unintended – and positive – consequences. Her son had struggled with figuring out words in books – but the text-heavy Harry Potter game motivated him to learn to read.
Electronic games get blamed for a lot of things – from making our kids aggressive to making them fat. But is it possible they can also help kids read sooner, be more creative or think more critically? Can playing video games actually give kids an edge?
“Absolutely,” says James Gee, Ph.D. He thinks we should start looking at games in a whole new way – as learning tools. In his new book, What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy (Palgrave Macmillan), Gee examines the learning potential behind several popular games. As a father and professor, he became intrigued by the games his 6-year-old son was playing on the computer. While watching him play, he realized that the games weren’t only fun. “They seemed to be really good for his cognitive growth,” he says.
Gee’s research involved him playing the games for hours, then applying learning theory to the game process. He found that video games could be a great way to learn skills. Kids experience “just in time” consequences for their actions and are motivated to learn words that would normally be over their heads, he says. One example would be a child reading and memorizing the characteristics of the 300-plus Pokemon monsters. Gee says through using the interaction and relevance of a game, kids are exposed to classic mythology, math concepts, history and biology in a fun way.
Gee sees video games as being the next generation of true active learning.
“It’s proven that sitting back and absorbing information passively – such as listening to a teacher lecture or watching TV – is the least effective way to learn something,” says Gee. Since video games require a child to make decisions and act on information, in some cases, they can offer a more powerful learning experience than books, he says. “A book was written by someone else. In video games, you become the character, and your decisions make the game different.”
Less Than Enthusiastic
Other educators and parents are not so enthusiastic. Linda Weyerts, a fifth grade teacher, prefers her students use their whole bodies to learn things and in the real world. “Learning something on a two-dimensional screen is counterproductive,” says Weyerts. “It’s a metaphor of life, not a real world or real time experience.”
She also worries about children spending so much time developing skills that aren’t applicable to the real world. “Children may be proficient at game playing, but they can’t tie their own shoes or fix a flat bike tire,” she says.
Many parents share the same reservations. Kia LaBracke, mom to two boys ages 3 and 6, wants to limit her family’s exposure to video gaming. She doesn’t want her sons getting so involved in games that they lose interest in reading, playing outside or interacting with friends. And she thinks that screen-based media is too influential in our lives already.
“I know families where their main form of being together is clustered around a screen,” she says.
Still, more and more families are adding games to their family’s activities. In a 2003 survey by the Electronic Software Association, two-thirds of parents planned to purchase at least one video game.
Though Gee sees merit in playing video games, he cautions parents that games are no substitute for active parenting.
“Unfortunately, parents use games as an electronic babysitter,” says Gee. He advocates sitting next to your child and actively participating in playing the games with him. Even if parents feel that they lack hand-eye coordination, he says “you can watch your child. You can ask how he might do things differently.” Parents can talk strategy and consequences with their children, and make game time a way to get to know their child better.
“What kids are capable of is pretty advanced,” says Gee. “Many parents have no idea what they’re up to. We found kids designing new levels and scenarios for games, creating websites and playing with friends all over the globe.”
Be Choosy When Buying
If you’ve decided that there is merit – or at least no harm – in playing video games, the next decision you’ll have to make is what games are best. Decide carefully; game machines and the games themselves are expensive. A Sony PlayStation 2 will run you just under $200, with games that cost a minimum of $29. You’ll also want to consider that your child will be spending a lot of time with them. Games can take 30 to 100 hours to play all the way through – more time than a season of soccer or a semester of science.
It’s also worth the time to examine what exactly your kids will be learning from these games. Are they solving a mystery (good) or being rewarded for random destruction (bad)? Are there negative racial stereotypes or offensive depictions of women?
For the 6 and younger set, start with EC-rated (early childhood) games. Most of these games have an educational slant and reinforce basic skills like letter and number recognition. Many are based on characters from educational television programs –”Freddy Fish,” “Clifford,” “Sesame Street” and “Reader Rabbit” are a few popular titles.
Jane Healy, author of Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children’s Minds – For Better and Worse (Simon and Schuster), encourages parents to look for titles that encourage “discovery learning” rather than basic skill drills or rewarding “random clicking.” And make sure that screen time doesn’t take away from quality lap time, reading, talking and drawing in the real world, she says.
Once you move into E-rated games (for Everyone; suitable for ages 6 and older), the content is much less clear-cut. For example, Nintendo’s “Spider-Man” is an E-rated game that contains bloodless violence like fighting, kicking, hostage-taking and killing the bad guys. Not really appropriate fare for your 6-year-old. Gee recommends Nintendo’s “Animal Crossing,” a nonviolent game full of literacy tasks in which players must choose a house and pay a mortgage.
The next level up is “T” for Teen, rated for ages 13 and older. Here’s where you might get into violence, unsuitable language and sexual themes. A T-rated title for PlayStation 2, “TimeSplitters,” features a storyline that allows you to use uzis to decapitate your enemies, some of whom are scantily dressed women. A better choice for teens might be the personal-computer-based “Rise of Nations,” a complex military strategy game that allows kids to use the traits of great civilizations to conquer the world.
Other ratings you might see are “M” for Mature – think R-rated movie, geared for the over-17 crowd – and AO for adults only, not for children of any age.
You can also check the lower right hand corner of the game’s box for “descriptors.” These descriptors outline the game’s vices so you can see if the game fits with your family’s values. These will note a variety of information from “alcohol reference” to “animated blood” to “gambling.”
Another thing to consider is the type of game you’re choosing. Look for games that encourage strategy, puzzle solving or role playing rather than just pointing and shooting.
There are some great video games out there for families to enjoy. But remember, if you want a game you can play with your kids that’s inexpensive, portable, encourages critical thinking and really makes kids smarter, there’s nothing wrong with a good old-fashioned game of chess.
Christy Lui is a freelance writer and mom to two boys who really, really want a PlayStation.
If you are thinking about buying video games for your kids, game ratings help, but may not provide all the information you need. Check out these websites:
Also, check out the magazine Children’s Software Review at your local library.
GOOD BETS FOR GOOD GAMES
James Gee, Ph.D., professor of education and author of What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy (Palgrave Macmillan), recommends the following great video games to play with your kids (shhh – don’t tell them they’re learning something, too!).
“Pajama Sam” (EC) – computer
“Freddy Fish” (EC) – computer
“SpyFox” (EC) – computer
“Animal Crossing” (E) – Nintendo GameCube
“The Legend of Zelda, the Wind Waker” (E) – Nintendo GameCube
“Pikmin” (E) – Nintendo GameCube
“Pokemon” (E) – Game Boy Advance
SimCity 4 (E) – computer
Age of Mythology (T) computer