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Businessweek Archives

Child's Play For The Millennium



Parents putting video games under the Christmas tree this year can take heart that their kids are actually learning something. A growing number of psychologists and educators praise the electronic toys for their ability to help prepare children for the Information Age jobs of the future. Not only do they foster technological literacy, they also promote a new kind of learning and thinking. But parents still should be wary: The culture of violence that prevails in video games, their sometimes addictive nature, and the cognitive and cultural losses that could result as time spent on video games displaces books, baseball, and ballet should caution parents to balance their children's activities.

Video games, especially those that operate in a 3-D environment, hone motor and spatial skills. By working in virtual worlds, children become comfortable with simulation, at ease with icons and graphics, and sensitive to dealing with rapidly changing situations. They also develop hypertext minds, leaping from one context to another, using nonlinear, parallel thinking as they solve problems and shoot the bad guys. That's a big plus in the information economy, where, increasingly, 3-D simulation and virtual reality are integral to training, design, and production (page 64).

Now, the caveats. The world may be changing, but the Information Age still requires people to do old-fashioned sequential thinking, the kind associated with reading a biography of Thomas Jefferson or playing Mozart's Jupiter Symphony from start to finish. The narrative story remains an essential part of communication, an important part of analysis and problem-solving. Leaping from point to point, skimming the surface, may be necessary in a virtual, hypertext world, but it is not sufficient in the real world.

Then there's the content problem. In some terrific, action-packed video games, no one gets killed. But the genre is dominated by mayhem and murder. Years of sociological studies have produced little evidence that violent video games lead to antisocial behavior. But this research is based on older games, which contain 2-D figures that are clearly not real. As 3-D graphics explode on PC screens, and new game systems from Sega Enterprises, Sony, and Nintendo pour into homes, the worry is that the line between fantasy and reality may blur and that children may come to see killing as without moral consequence and as causing no pain or anguish.

Video games enhance specific kinds of learning and thinking appropriate for the 21st-century economy, but they may not be teaching what is necessary for 21st-century society. If parents allow video games to reduce the time their kids spend reading, kicking a soccer ball, or playing the piano, they will be making a big mistake. But if they can shift their children's attention from Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and other moronic, violent TV cartoons to action-packed, nonlethal video games, such as Sega's Nights, there is a marvelous high-tech universe of learning to be gained. Merry Christmas.

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