Research published by University of Rochester neuroscientists C. Shawn Green and Daphne Bavelier has grabbed national attention for suggesting that playing “action” video and computer games has positive effects – enhancing student’s visual selective attention. But that finding is just one small part of a more important message that all parents and educators need to hear: video games are not the enemy, but the best opportunity we have to engage our kids in real learning.
Any observer knows that the attitude of today’s children to video and computer games is the very opposite of the attitude that most of them have toward school. The amount of time they spend playing computer and video games – estimated radar138
at 10,000 hours by the time they are twenty-one, often in multi-hour bursts – belies the “short attention span” criticism of educators. And while years ago the group attracted to video and computer games was almost entirely adolescent boys, it is now increasingly girls and all children of all ages and social groups. One would be hard-pressed today to find a kid in America who doesn’t play computer or video games of one sort or another.
The evidence is quickly mounting that our “Digital Native” children’s brains are changing to accommodate these new technologies with which they spend so much time. Not only are they better at spreading their attention over a wide range of events, as Green and Bavelier report, but they are better at parallel processing, taking in information more quickly (at “twitchspeed”), understanding multimedia, and collaborating over networks.
What attracts and “glues” kids to today’s video and computer games is neither the violence, or even the surface subject matter, but rather the learning the games provide. Kids, like and all humans, love to learn when it isn’t forced on them. Modern computer and video games provide learning opportunities every second, or fraction thereof.
On the surface, kids learn to do things – to fly airplanes, to drive fast cars, to be theme park operators, war fighters, civilization builders and veterinarians. But on deeper levels they learn infinitely more: to take in information from many sources and make decisions quickly; to deduce a game’s rules from playing rather than by being told; to create strategies for overcoming obstacles; to understand complex systems through experimentation. And, increasingly, they learn to collaborate with others. Many adults are not aware that games have long ago passed out of the single-player isolation shell imposed by lack of networking, and have gone back to being the social medium they have always been – on a worldwide scale. Massively Multiplayer games such as EverQuest now have hundreds of thousands of people playing simultaneously, collaborating nightly in clans and guilds.
Today’s game-playing kid enters the first grade able to do and understand so many complex things – from building, to flying, to reasoning – that the curriculum they are given feel like they are being handed depressants. And it gets worse as the students progress. Their “Digital Immigrant” teachers know so little about the digital world of their charges – from online gaming to exchanging, sharing, meeting, evaluating, coordinating, programming, searching, customizing and socializing, that it is often impossible for them to design learning in the language and speed their students need and relish, despite their best efforts.