Reading, Writing and Video Gaming

The door closes with a squeak and a creak. Oh, no! Is it locked? Let's check ... No, thank God, you can open it ... So now, another go at getting to the ladder. Maybe through this narrow hallway? ... No, it's a dead end.

Fifteen children between the ages of 9 and 11 are staring at the computer screen, mesmerized, as the adventure game Myst III: Exile is played. In the middle of the group sits Tim Rylands, the most popular teacher at the small elementary school Chew Magna, in the village of the same name near the English city of Bristol. Once more he manuevers his cordless mouse to guide the cursor along the dark walls of a hollow mountainside. Rylands then tells his students, "OK, now write down which way we should go to get to the ladder. What do you come across? What do you experience on your journey?" The only sound heard is the furious scribbling of pens.

Rylands has found a way to make writing fun for kids. Myst is a beautifully designed series of computer games set on a mysterious deserted island that can be endlessly navigated. According to Rylands, the visually rich landscape inspires his students' creativity.

He can back up that claim with data. An average of 75 percent of English children between the ages of 9 and 11 reach so-called "level four literacy levels" in reading and writing (including spelling, grammar, vocabulary, etc.). At Chew Magna, that percentage stood at 77 in 2000, rising to 93 four years later after Rylands began using computers to help teach writing. Boys in particular, who normally score lower in these areas, have made tremendous progress. One hundred percent reach level four, compared to 67 percent in 2000.


Nolan Bushnell wishes his children had a teacher like Tim Rylands. "The digital life in which kids live today is turned off at school. That leaves them with boredom and frustration. A man in front of a blackboard with a piece of chalk is just very boring."

Bushnell should know. He watched as his eight children became increasingly alienated in the U.S. educational system. He believes schools and teachers haven't sufficiently adjusted to changes in the world around them. Young people should not be memorizing facts or spending long hours on multiple-choice tests, says Bushnell, but learning to think, analyze, make connections. These are the talents that more than ever are rewarded in this new century, he says.

Bushnell also sees a solution for the educational system -- the very idea Tim Rylands is already putting into practice: using video and computer games to inspire learning. He's an expert in the field. Back in 1972, Nolan Bushnell founded Atari, the pioneering computer company. As the creator of classics like Pong -- remember the Ping-Pong game between two discs on opposite sides of the screen? -- Bushnell is generally recognized as "the father of the game industry."

And because he is also the father of a 12-year-old son who can distinguish between 200 different Pokémon characters ("If they were plant and animal species, he would be able to pass sophomore biology"), Bushnell now spreads the word about how video games can help kids learn. Games, he asserts, teach you creative problem solving. They teach you to formulate hypotheses ("First I have to get the key from the magician so I can open the door"), to test these hypotheses ("Game over") and revise them ("Oh, no, I have to drink my elixir to get to the magician!"). Games can even teach you the fundamental principles of scientific research.

Back at Chew Magna school, Tim Rylands believes his students are learning more than writing skills. "While going through a game, children listen and talk," he explains as the classroom empties. "They discuss. They explore. It's like going on a school trip, but this is a lot cheaper, and it saves on insurance premiums," he jokes.

Many people envision that the school of the future -- and Bushnell would love to open one himself --doesn't use books as its primary teaching materials, but video games.

In the words of another game developer, Marc Prensky, who wrote "Digital Game-Based Learning": "Because schools haven't adapted to the world their students know and live in, they simply get bored in the classroom. They tune out. You can get engagement, even among apathetic students, simply because games are constructed in a way so players want to finish the level. Games offer players the chance to make decisions, get feedback, level up and become heroes. That's how education should be organized. You learn more and more, you apply that knowledge, and you'll get a great job."


Computer games have already become part of the lesson plans in some schools. But these are usually simple games for elementary-school children. They use bright colors and amusing sounds to make math or spelling "fun." But these only take the edge off the age-old practice of rote learning. This is not the type of game-based education Bushnell and Prensky advocate. Teachers like Tim Rylands (who won a teaching award last year from BECTA, the British government's partner in the development and delivery of its internet-based learning strategy for schools, for his use of Myst) who have found ways to include exciting games in their teaching materials continue to be the exceptions. Some progressive secondary schools use SimCity (a simulation game in which you build cities) and Civilization (a strategy game that involves building a complete civilization).

But supporters of the video game industry -- a $28 billion business in which annual sales in the United States now outstrip the Hollywood box office -- see an opportunity to develop products tailored to schools. The number of games designed for educational or other purposes beyond play is a new, growing sector of the industry.

One example is a game recently developed by the United Nations called Food Force, in which young people learn about hunger issues by leading their own virtual food-aid campaign. It's now common in the corporate world to use computer and video games as part of refresher courses in numerous fields. And public health officials are exploring the possibilities of games that encourage good health. In "Got Game: How the Gamer Generation Is Reshaping Business Forever" (Harvard Business School Press, 2004), two organizational-development consultants explain that gamers are, in fact, ideal employees. They take more risks, react better to disappointments or mistakes, are open to the possibility that their plan may need to be adjusted, and strive for excellence and promotions. Surprisingly, they also work better in teams --perhaps because of their experience working toward the same goal with others when they are playing computer games.


Many other people, of course, line up on the other side of the issue and their arguments are well known: The only thing kids learn from computer games is how to stare at a screen for hours. They're not using their brains and imaginations, just a few tendons in their fingers to operate the joystick. A salient detail: Most gamers are under the age of 40, while most critics are older and have rarely played the games themselves.

Parents are concerned that video games will make their children violent or uncommunicative. They get a lot of backing from vote-seeking politicians who voice their disgust with the violence and sexism seen in games. The media tend to focus on extreme examples like Grand Theft Auto, in which the player is a criminal who must survive by breaking into cars, robbing people and running over hapless pedestrians, and gets bonus points for killing cops. While arguably justified in such cases, the fear surrounding video games makes it difficult to look at the reality. The fact is that both youth crime and violent crime in Western countries has fallen spectacularly over the past 10 years as video game popularity has risen. If video games inspire aggression, it is not reflected in the figures.

Moreover, the shooting games are not the most popular. Usually, only one or two violent titles rank among the top 10 best-selling games. The Progress & Freedom Foundation, a liberal think tank in Washington, calculated that over 80 percent of the most popular video and computer games of the past five years were rated "E" for everyone or "T" for "teen," i.e., they are not particularly violent.

There is also the concern that young people will become isolated by playing video games. But many games, particularly those played on the computer or the internet, are designed for teams. Kids' social lives have changed a lot since 20 years ago, when few households had computers. Kids relied more on reading (certainly an isolating pursuit), and gamers were often lonely outsiders. But today, gaming is a very normal activity for most young people. In fact, nowadays a kid who's never played Nintendo or PlayStation is considered odd and often can't relate to others about an important leisure activity.

What is hard to grasp for those who aren't familiar with video games -- people who grew up playing chess and Scrabble -- is that these new games invite creativity, promote problem-solving abilities and inspire perseverance. As Marc Prensky points out, it can take up to 100 hours to complete a video game: "This is not just biding time on a rainy day." Games stimulate the development of self-confidence and social contact with others. For people who have never experienced the sensation of reaching the final moment of the role-playing game Deus Ex (for which there are three possible endings!), these positive aspects are difficult to fathom -- just as it's hard to understand what's so great about golf if you have never played it.

The best-selling computer game ever, The Sims, which has sold 6 million copies worldwide, is a simulation game (hence, The Sims) that allows you to control the lives of virtual characters. The Sims must spend enough time on education, physical activities, hygiene, eating and sleeping or they get sick. Players learn that you need to work to buy things, that you can earn more money if you spend time on personal development and social contacts, and that you get depressed if your "pleasure meter" is empty. That's a far cry from a round of Parcheesi.


Games are interesting because they're difficult. That is the essential message the world of game culture offers to education: Learning is fun when it's intellectually stimulating. James Paul Gee, a professor of educational learning sciences at the University of Wisconsin as well as a fervent gamer and author of What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, explains it this way: "The game industry is selling products that are complex and hard to master, and take a lot of time to master. The fact that people are buying them contradicts the idea that everything should be fast and easy. In fact, a game that is too easy will get criticized in reviews and will not become a success. A game should be challenging, fair and deep. If it's not, it won't sell."

The insight that games are -- in Ryland's words -- "mind-expanding" rather than "mind-numbing" has not (yet) reached school curriculum developers. They continue to battle apathy among young people by trying to make teaching materials more fun and presenting them in bite-sized bits so they're easier to digest. It doesn't appear to be working. Kids are still bored in class. Teachers shake their heads, complain about the zap culture and the youth of today who can't keep their focus on anything, say that kids are quickly distracted and can't sit still. But if you put these bored kids in front of a PlayStation, they'll remain focused for hours. What happened to the short attention spans? Where's the apathy?

Video games support the great gift that young people possess to learn by themselves. Games call on their natural need to develop themselves, to feel masterful and competent. When they taste that thrill of possibility, it can bring feelings of pleasure and pride. Anyone who has played Legend of Zelda or Morrowind knows what it's like to complete the game at last after many lengthy periods of frustration. In this context, video games present a radically different vision of education: kids who are able to learn by themselves. Even when schools fail, students actively look for ways to learn. Experts don't need to impose an education program to tap into that innate need.


Making History is a good example of a computer game especially developed for education that fulfills young people's requirements for quality and challenging entertainment. The game is used to teach the history of World War II. Even before our meeting in Boston, Nick deKanter, co-founder and vice president of Muzzy Lane Software, throws out a challenge. "Does the game simplify history? Why don't you play first and ask me later?"

DeKanter is right. Making History: The Calm and the Storm sketches a simplified image of a particular moment in human history. During the game you take on the role of a head of state who leads his country on the basis of historical events and data. You have to make decisions (on spending, trading partners, military strategies and much more) as well as conduct negotiations with other government leaders. Military, diplomatic and economic advisers are built into the game and prompt you at crucial moments. The instruction booklet is 58 pages long.

David McDivitt, a history teacher at Oak Hill High School in the U.S. state of Indiana, uses the game. His research shows that the students who didn't read textbooks or attend classes but played and discussed Making History learned more about World War II than students in other classes. Moreover, answers to essay questions in the classes exclusively using the game were more reflective and better reasoned.

But what most struck McDivitt was that his students talked about the game outside the classroom. "There were conversations about game scenarios spilling out in the hallways, the lunch room and even after school," he notes, "with some kids coming in after 3 wanting another turn! Once I heard someone say: 'Hey, dude, you weren't supposed to invade my country, we had a defense agreement!' Extracurricular conversations about the politics of leadership are not something I typically see after reading a chapter of a textbook."

DeKanter agrees. "A textbook is much better than a video game at delivering names and dates," he explains. "But in today's world, data is available anywhere on the internet. What's more important now than learning names and data are the skills to analyze that data and to apply information to gain insight and make decisions. In the Information Age it's all about connecting the dots -- and games are, much more than books, extremely good at helping students learn this."

But he is also realistic. "People learn from other people, not from machines. That's why games should never be played in a vacuum, and they should never be used as a babysitter. A game needs to be introduced and evaluated. Have students write a paper on how they performed in the game and what they learned. I don't see games as a replacement for textbooks, but as a valuable enhancement."

Atari founder Nolan Bushnell disagrees. He would love to set up a private school at which children learn through games. Textbooks would not be used. "We don't need books," he says decidedly. "Sure, kids need to read, but not necessarily books. Books are obsolete." The restaurant chain he is currently developing as part of his new company uWink could be a good model for his school; there, small groups sit around tables playing stimulating games surrounded by walls onto which facts and data are projected.

But won't educational games always lose out to their commercial equivalents purely focused on entertainment? "That's not the competition here," Bushnell replies. "Educational games are competing against the boring teacher in the front of the class who is just not capable of engaging his students."


The resistance to games shows all the signs of a ritual conflict between generations. At one time, rock 'n' roll was thought to have a clearly negative influence: Parents, preachers and politicians thought it changed young people into -- according to one U.S. preacher -- "devil worshippers" who defied both the law and common decency. Further back, jazz and even the waltz were criticized as corrupting influences, as were novels, comic books and movies -- all said to dull the minds of young people. In retrospect, I think we can all agree those influences weren't so bad.

More to the point, we currently consider books a higher form of culture, but one of history's most eminent philosophers, Socrates, was a declared opponent of reading. Books would render people forgetful, he claimed. According to Plato's Phaedrus, Socrates believed you shouldn't even write down a speech because the written word always provides "one unvarying answer." This recently led the Economist to suggest that Socrates was criticizing books' lack of interactivity and that, if alive today, he might be a champion of video games.

It is evident that digital culture has society ever more firmly in its grasp. It is clear that computers and the internet are creating endless new opportunities. And it is inevitable that this powerful cultural influence won't stop at the classroom door. Standard classroom teaching, from which Tim Rylands' students momentarily escape when Myst is played, would appear to be better suited to a time when young people were being prepared to work in an economy based on factories and mass production. It doesn't take a lot of insight to recognize that the modern economy requires very different talents --talents that may not be fully developed using traditional textbooks. The advance of video games into classroom education, therefore, is not only unavoidable but also necessary.

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