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Commentary > Game Over
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Video games as teaching tools?
Junior's grades aren't up to snuff? Contact Prof. Lara Croft.
August 6, 2003: 10:53 AM EDT

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) For most adults, the three Rs of education are readin', 'riting and 'rithmatic. For today's kids, though, recreation, reflexes and RPGs might be more apropos.

That's the theory of University of Wisconsin education professor James Paul Gee, at least, who posits that the video games mesmerizing your child each afternoon are, in some ways, even more educational than time spent in the classroom.

For the past two years, Gee, who received his PhD from Stanford in 1975, has been studying the educational benefits of video games. In that time, he found that many of today's games encourage players to take an active role in creating both physically and creatively - the worlds they play in. They also intermix instruction and demonstration, telling you how to do something, then letting you try the technique firsthand, so it sinks in. These learning methods, he said, are much more effective than the memorize-and-regurgitate style found in most classrooms.

Prof. Croft's classes are always popular...  
Prof. Croft's classes are always popular...

"There was a push to put thinking principles in schools in the 1980s," Gee said. "Back in the 90s, though, we made a real return to 'skill and drill' and we lost this way of having people think in complex ways. ... Games recruit a deeper way of thinking."

Unfortunately for 1980s mall rats like myself, you can't retro-claim that all those quarters spent on Pac Man or Robotron were educational expenses. It's only in the last few years that games have taken on educational properties. So while you might not have gotten any smarter playing early Mario games, if you've got Microsoft's (MSFT: Research, Estimates) "Rise of Nations", "Age of Mythology" or "Morrowind" installed on your hard drive, you could be stimulating your cortex.

Even "Grand Theft Auto" has educational value. Granted, you assume the role of an anti-hero who has to make his living by engaging in crime, said Gee, but that lets involved players determine what sort of person they will be.

"Everybody plays that game differently," he said. "They're getting to explore identities, values and ideologies."

EVERYTHING I EVER NEEDED TO KNOW, I LEARNED IN VIDEO GAMES
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* Keep a close eye on your money – or it may vanish without warning. ("Wario World")
* Might does not always make right. ("Deus Ex")
* You can’t please everyone, no matter how hard you try. ("SimCity")
* Simple tools are often more effective than high tech solutions. (Half-Life)
* Despite what you may think, spending a lot of time with a pretty woman is no guarantee that you’re going to have fun. (Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness)
Got more? Fire me an email.

Granted, there are probably some people rolling their eyes at that statement. I love "GTA" as much as the next gamer, but I can't say the game has ever sparked any internal ideological debates as I play it. The game does force you to think, though. There are multiple solutions to the game's many challenges letting players think creatively, rather than being forced to follow a set path.

Critics of the game and the action genre in general have long maintained that the lessons video games teach are not ones we want people to learn. Gee acknowledges this, but said what people learn from a game often depends on how they approach it.

"The thing we've known about technology for 20 years is it's good in one context and bad in another," he said. "Children's TV is good for kids when there's an adult getting them to interact with it. If they're just passively taking it in with no thought, that's bad. It's the same with a computer and the same with a game."

Gee  
Gee

In his book "What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy", Gee delves into how modern video games teach players to think about complex worlds, where everything interacts with everything else. Those lessons, he said, are particularly valuable in social settings, such as the workplace.

As the industry grows and games become more expensive to develop, many developers and publishers are choosing a safer fiscal path and copying other successful titles. Gee points to the real-time strategy genre, which is approaching stagnation as games borrow elements from each other.

The threat, he said, is if games become too formulaic, they'll fall into the same trap that has captured so many other forms of pop culture. Rather than capturing the imagination and making neurons collide, they'll become nothing more than dumbed down distractions.

Gee, though, remains optimistic about the industry's future as an educational tool.

CONTINUING EDUCATION
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Read previous Game Over columns

"If you look at the best designers, they seem to be frustrated academics," he said. "They want to work out their theories in the gaming world. If they get driven out by mere technicians, this opportunity for [games] to be learning tools will be dead. ... I hope that doesn't happen. And I don't think the hardcore gamers will let that happen."  Top of page


Prof. Morris is also Director of Content Development for CNN/Money. His office hours are irregular, so click here to send him an email.




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Most stock quote data provided by BATS. Market indices are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer. Morningstar: © 2018 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Factset: FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2018. All rights reserved. Chicago Mercantile Association: Certain market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. Dow Jones: The Dow Jones branded indices are proprietary to and are calculated, distributed and marketed by DJI Opco, a subsidiary of S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC and have been licensed for use to S&P Opco, LLC and CNN. Standard & Poor's and S&P are registered trademarks of Standard & Poor's Financial Services LLC and Dow Jones is a registered trademark of Dow Jones Trademark Holdings LLC. All content of the Dow Jones branded indices © S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC 2018 and/or its affiliates.