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Educational Games Crank Up the Fun

Claude Robinson, a 32 year-old father of three, always reaches for educational games for his children, ages 6, 7, and 8. With titles like Reader Rabbit, Math Blaster, and Where in the World is Carmen San Diego?, Robinson hopes the kids get more value from their computer time, with games that provide lessons in reading, math, and geography, or feature interactive quizzes and puzzles that test their knowledge.

Recently, however, he has noticed his childrens' interest in these titles has begun to wane. "They see the stuff I play on my computer," -- first-person shooters like Battlefield II from Electronic Arts (ERTS), says Robinson -- "and want to play too.... As they get older, they demand more from an entertainment standpoint."

The trend goes beyond the Robinson family. Sales of popular console video-game titles are soaring, up from $3.4 billion in 2000 to more than $5.2 billion in 2004. While sales of PC games have declined from $4 billion to $3.8 billion during that time, revenues from "educational" computer games have plummeted, down to $152 million in 2004 from $495.8 million in 2000, according to the NPD Group.

COMPLEXITY LESSONS. Parents are left to wonder: Will Grand Theft Auto be the death knell of Reader Rabbit? And will their children's mental development suffer? Maybe not. As video games become a common part of childhood, educators and researchers are looking at the ways children play and think about "fun" titles. With many of today's most complex and sophisticated popular games, they say it's possible to help turn gameplay into an educational experience. And some developers are changing the way they create educational titles for older children.

The idea has been tossed around in the media a lot as of late: Books like Everything Bad Is Good for You (see BW, 6/6/05, "Thriving on Trash") make the argument that the complexity of today's video games can be intellectually stimulating, because they demand close attention from the user, along with quick decision-making and puzzle-solving skills. Plus, they teach prudent risk-taking.

Now researchers like Eric Klopfer, director of the Teacher Education Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, are starting to look seriously at the idea. "We're finding that [some titles] are really good environments for learning about history, problem-solving, or managing systems."

"BENEATH THE SURFACE." The best games, researchers say, are those in which the player controls and manages his or her own world -- whether a burgeoning metropolis in SimCity 4, a zoo in Zoo Tycoon, or a nation of people in Civilization III. These games require the player to negotiate many demands at once -- for instance, building a strong tax base, making citizens happy, and beautifying the city in SimCity 4 -- while understanding how many different inputs interact with each other and help or hinder those goals.

"So much is going on beneath the surface in [these games] that you just don't normally see" says Marc Prensky, a consultant, designer, and author of Digital Game-Based Learning (McGraw-Hill) and of the upcoming book, Don't Bother Me Mom, I'm Learning (Paragon Press).

The key to making these games truly educational is parental involvement, beyond the TV or computer screen. "The learning experience unfolds not by pushing buttons in front of a screen, but by interacting with other people in the class or with a parent," says Kopfler, whose research group has developed simulation games for use in classrooms. The games require a mentor who's familiar with the game, he says, to help explain the significance of its elements and help the child understand the impact of different decisions.

"NEW VOCABULARIES." For example, in one study reported in the August/September, 2005, issue of the education journal Innovate, University of Wisonsin-Madison professor Kurt Squire worked with a class of middle school students on the game Civilization III, in which you guide a nation from the Bronze Age into modern times.

The game itself doesn't follow actual world history, and it doesn't teach about specific events. But as a jumping-off point for classroom discussion and as a guide that teaches about the driving forces in history, Squire found it extremely useful. "These students developed new vocabularies, better understandings of geography, and more robust concepts of world history," Squire writes in the paper.

One element of Civilization III, for instance, requires nations to secure oil to make machinery and weapons, even if it isn't naturally occurring in their territory. "As one student summarized," Squire writes, "You can't separate geography from economics from politics."

ISLAND HOPPING. Educational game developers are taking note and coming up with ways to both make their products more fun while also incorporating them with outside-world activities. Platform Shoes Forum, a Rockland (Me.)-based nonprofit that has developed educational games for the Maine public school system, is working on X-Dream Challenge, a role-playing video game meant to teach healthy eating habits and encourage exercise.

In the game, the character travels to five islands that represent different food groups and exercise regimens. X-Dream Challenge is more similar to a regular arcade game than a lesson/quiz format, says Erin Reilly, executive director of the organization. "Quizzes are boring" says Reilly. "There has to be a way to engage the children."

In addition, the game will be connected to an external device to measure the child's heart rate and other metrics. By getting in better shape, the player scores more points. "You want to engage children with technology, and then incorporate it with an in-person component," says Reilly. That keeps the gaming in check, and keeps the child thinking actively about it. If executed correctly, even "fun" games can become a balanced part of the child's educational diet.

By Burt Helm in New York

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