November 15, 2004

ARTICLES: The latest in learning: video games

The latest in learning: video games

Seattle's Clearwater School is by no means conventional Â? it rarely has teacher-led classes, instead giving students control over their own learning.

But even the most free-thinking parents raise their eyebrows at one feature of the Lake City private academy: the video-game console. Kids can play fight games such as "Super Smash Bros. Melee," in which gangs of cartoon characters pummel one another. Or use computers to pose online as urban crimefighters in "City of Heroes," or as questing adventurers in "World of WarCraft."

Video games are not a break from school. They're an integral part of it.

"Our view is that video games are another tool for learning problem solving and critical thinking," says Stephanie Sarantos, a school co-founder and Ph.D. in educational psychology. "People may find this outrageous, but in a lot of ways video games are an intellectual activity."

Yes, some people will find it outrageous. Even more so because it might be true.

Surprisingly, some social scientists are finding that all this glassy-eyed finger twitching can be good for kids.

In a new book Â? "Got Game: How the Gamer Generation is Reshaping Business Forever" Â? California sociologist John Beck interviewed 2,500 young professionals, many weaned on video games. He found regular gamers were more creative, optimistic and even socially active than nongamers.

When they enter a virtual world, gamers routinely engage in activities any parent should covet: experimentation, risk-taking, strategizing, play-acting, sometimes meeting people around the globe.

"Within a game you are encouraged to go anywhere and try everything," Beck said. "If you fail, you just try again. In that sense it's really a dream learning environment."

Many parents Â? myself included Â? still worry that the games are too confining. How could they ever compare to, say, staging your own drama?

But some of the newer games are mind-expanding. In an online role-playing game called "Second Life," players actually construct the game world Â? its physical spaces, social orders, politics Â? as they play.

Beck also pooh-poohs the violence in many games, noting that youth crime rates have plummeted in the past decade as game use has soared.

Now, I don't see the benefit of kids playing "Super Smash Bros. Melee" in school, nor do I understand why many games are based on violence. But the medium is so interactive and powerful it ought to be incorporated into schools and workplaces. Why fight it? Let's face it Â? this is a classic generation gap. People my age and older are prejudiced Â? we see games as time-wasters at best, society-destroyers at worst.

I turned a corner on this with an honest reckoning of my own supposedly idyllic youth, which, it turns out, was heavy on pinball, BB-gun fights and "Hogan's Heroes" reruns.

Compared to that, even "Super Smash Bros. Melee" seems like time well spent.

Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Friday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or


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