Zap! Splat! Smarts?

Why video games may actually help your children learn

It was late October, and the lights had been dimmed in the Beckman conference center at the University of California at Irvine. The chief technology officer of Total Entertainment Network (TEN), which runs a popular game site on the Web, was demonstrating how a group of players in cyberspace could match wits in an animated shoot-'em-up called Quake.

Seated around the large projection screen were 62 computer-simulation experts from the Defense Dept., the entertainment industry, and Silicon Valley. TEN's David King was trying to explain the game and play it at the same time--and he was getting creamed. As embarrassment mounted, 13-year-old Fred Zyda, son of one of the meeting organizers, walked over and gently nudged King from the keyboard. He sized up King's online opponents, then methodically set about blowing them away.

In a few brisk keystrokes, the young Zyda offered vivid proof of something thousands of parents already understand: When it comes to using whiz-bang game technology, kids rule. As it happens, Fred Zyda's skills go far beyond games. He sometimes coaches students in video editing at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. When his sister's school got a gift of 30 Macintosh computers, it enlisted Fred to wire them up in a network and load all the software.

My own son Alec is 6, and so far nobody has asked him to set up a local-area network. But he loves games, and like most of his friends, he can boot up a Mac or a PC running Windows, load disks, select files, and print documents.

These children and millions like them get more than amusement from intensive electronic play: They acquire new ways of learning. They're honing special graphics and motor skills. They can process huge amounts of visual information in parallel. On a daily basis, they scope out new games, grasp the operating rules, navigate bewildering 3-D geographies, and jump through abstract mental hoops with concentration usually reserved for competitive test-taking.

Perhaps most important, the kids learn to embrace technological changes with equanimity. That's critical because, in 10 or 15 years, they will bring their attitudes and skills into a workplace filled with fast-changing technology. We can't predict exactly what their professional tools will look like, but they will be rich in graphical simulation and will be in a state of continual evolution. Good jobs will go to candidates who can respond with speed and flexibility. Kids who grow up with electronic games "develop coordination skills that let them navigate quickly in virtual worlds and carry out necessary tasks," says Sanjiv Patel, Motorola's manager of advanced manufacturing technology.

SPATIAL SKILLS. There is mounting evidence that early game-playing can sharpen young minds. In the early 1990s, Purdue University psychologist Lynn Okagaki and Peter Frensch at the University of Missouri found that playing the popular game Tetris helped adolescents learn to rotate objects mentally. Psychologist Patricia M. Greenfield at the University of California at Los Angeles and others showed that video games were more effective than word games in improving certain spatial skills.

In a large study involving 200 students in the U.S. and Italy, Greenfield found that video games informally prep children for learning about science and technology. "Mastery of the symbolic codes used in computer graphics becomes increasingly important as more and more science and technology comes to be done on computer screens, rather than in the material world," she wrote in a 1994 article in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology.

The culture of games can be pretty nasty. There's a lot of violence, and children sometimes behave like budding young junkies. High-priced games consume kids' spare time and parents' gift budgets--sometimes at the expense of playing with physical toys such as Legos. In addition, recent studies suggest that intensive game play actually redraws the brain's neural maps. While that may enhance some skills, no one has analyzed the psychological impact of persistent exposure to games' iconography of slaughter and destruction. "We know games can get you to focus and help you learn," says Peter Bardazzi, coordinator for New York University's Center for Advanced Digital Applications. "But we still don't know what else they do to you."

Glance at any game magazine, and you'll see what parents are up against. "Travel to exotic places, meet interesting creatures...and kill them," beckons an ad in the latest issue of GamePro magazine for a game called Disrupter. "It thinks, therefore it kills" says an ad for a game called MDK. "To poke? Or to bludgeon and disembowel" blares yet another, for Iron & Blood.

"BAD RAP." This, however, tells only one side of the story. Many researchers are finding things to like about these games. Children who play them are rewarded with increasingly difficult challenges. This is in stark contrast to the dread many children feel in school as their assignments grow more difficult. "Video games have actually gotten a bad rap," says Alan Pope, a researcher and clinical psychologist at the NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. "Games up the stakes as you go along, and you're happy about it. That's a positive thing."

Kids who absorb this technology early "think differently from the rest of us," adds William D. Winn, director of the Learning Center at the University of Washington's Human Interface Technology Laboratory, or HIT. "They develop hypertext minds. They leap around. It's as though their cognitive strategies were parallel, not sequential."

Does that mean games interfere with linear thinking or the ability to read a book? More research is needed. But some surveys show that games cut into TV time, not reading.

Game content needn't be violent to enthrall children. There's no blood or guts in the addictive new 3-D Mario game from Nintendo. Two top-sellers for rival systems--Sony's Crash Bandicoot and Sega's Nights--are action-packed but less violent than Bugs Bunny. The $1.2 billion universe of titles for PCs and Macs offers whole categories of games--from photo-realistic flight simulations to lookalikes of the blockbuster Myst--in which no one gets clobbered. Some educational software also makes good use of game formats.

While educators are often dismayed with video-game culture, many are entranced with the way games motivate children. Since the early 1980s, Seymour Papert, a founder of the Media Laboratory at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, tried to channel the enthusiasm children bring to games back into schools. "We see these games as fantastically powerful tools for education," says Papert's former student, Idit Harel, who is developing a Web site for children at her New York startup, MaMaMedia. "As soon as the first Nintendo machines showed up in 1985, the systems were all over the Media Lab."

Nintendo rewarded MIT's enthusiasm with a $3 million research grant in 1990. Papert's students, led by Harel, used the money to equip an inner-city school in Boston with a network of multimedia computers. Soon, they got several hundred children, ages 6 and up, programming and playing games in Logo, a children's programming language Papert developed in the early 1980s.

The kids quickly jumped from game play to serious intellectual engagement with computers, posting problems on the school intranet and helping each other find solutions. "Children who are deeply involved in games have thought more about strategies of learning than kids usually do," Papert says. "From the word go, they must take charge. They're on their own."

Some parents of gamers are quick to confirm Papert's ideas. When David Silverman was 4, in 1984, his father bought him an Atari 800 for about $1,000. "It was different from any other kind of game," recalls Jan Silverman, director of Internet business development for Hewlett-Packard Co. in Cupertino, Calif. "It was the only thing you could play with a 4-year-old and be at the same level."

David, now 16, spent the recent Thanksgiving holiday locked in marathon bouts of Command and Conquer, a PC war game, with his dad. Last summer, he interned at HP on the technical support team, installing and maintaining PCs. Enthralled with 3-D graphics, he has produced a complex, 20-second animation for one of his father's technical presentations and hopes to become a professional animator. "I owe a lot of this to the fact that David plays video and computer games," says Jan. "He never had any fear of computers. He likes to figure things out."

This could be a valuable edge when kids like David apply for jobs. Today, graphical 3-D simulation is indispensable for engineers who design airplanes, plan cities, or monitor call traffic for phone companies. Over the next 10 years, far more sophisticated simulations will permeate most types of work--including many traditionally blue-collar jobs.

Motorola Inc. offers a glimpse of what is coming. A pioneer in the use of training simulations, the company drills manufacturing workers on virtual production lines using virtual-reality (VR) tools before letting them operate complicated machinery. By the time they start working on real lines, their productivity matches that of longtime workers, says Motorola's Patel. Young workers 18 to 20 years old who grow up with games figure out VR environments faster than others, Patel says. In time, he predicts, "these tools for the virtual world will become common in the marketplace."

Visual simulations are already changing how brokers on Wall Street track portfolios, economic indicators, capital flows, and geopolitical risks. Graphical software will also transform how companies test and order key components. In the past year, thousands of companies have begun posting parts specifications on corporate intranets, which can be accessed by outside customers. Soon, with the help of new software tools such as virtual-reality modeling language (VRML), a manufacturer of ships, aircraft, or other large systems will be able to visit a supplier's Web site, download 3-D models of parts, rotate them in space, and incorporate them into full simulations of the final product to see how they work--before signing an order. "It's not prevalent yet, but it will be," says Warren Katz, cofounder and chief operating officer of MaK Technologies. The startup, based in Cambridge, Mass., sells military-developed software for sharing simulations over networks to companies such as Hughes Electronics, Boeing, and McDonnell Douglas. Not surprisingly, MaK also develops multiplayer war games for personal computers.

Children who grow up on sophisticated video and computer games intuitively understand simulation and 3-D graphics. Their brains, in a sense, are wired for it. But just as important, they understand the systems that produce the illusions--and know what to do when things aren't working. Each new wave of office technology--whether it's ultrafast network switches or new programming languages such as Java-- destabilizes the existing, fragile mix of systems in offices and factories. Kids raised on games can hack the changes. "People say every successive generation of computing will be easier," says analyst Brian Murphy of the Yankee Group Inc. "In reality, it all gets more difficult."

By the time 3-D simulations and modeling become widespread in the workplace, a generation of young job applicants will have grown up with it. Education researchers such as the HIT Lab's Winn in Seattle are now grooming the children. With research funds from U S West Inc., Winn and associates visit rural schools in a van stuffed with VR gear and teach children how to use computer graphics and simulation tools to assemble their own virtual worlds.

THERAPEUTIC, TOO. Last year, Winn and his colleagues taught children in the fourth to sixth grades at five elementary schools in the Seattle area to use computer-aided design software from Macromedia Inc. The assignment: Construct a virtual world of rocks, rivers, and clouds. Fill it with 3-D plants and animals, then make all the elements interact so that trees receive necessary sunlight, water, and nutrients. The lesson sinks in, says Winn, and kids learn to use fairly complex tools. "I was awed by their ability to draw objects in three dimensions," he says.

How big an impact can electronic play have on children? A large body of research shows that games can powerfully propel the mind toward specific goals. Doctors around the world--from the University of Wisconsin's Occupational Therapy Program to Moscow State University's Psychology Dept.--note that physical therapy patients try harder when exercises are presented as electronic games.

Research in learning pathology provides clues about how game play affects the brain. At Rutgers University, Paula Tallal uses game-like drills to treat language learning impairment (LLI), which arises when children can't sort out individual sounds in rapid speech. Tallal, a co-director of Rutgers' Center for Molecular & Behavioral Neuroscience in Newark, N.J., used computers to amplify and stretch sounds. Supported by a $2.3 million grant from the Charles A. Dana Foundation Inc., she and Michael A. Merzenich, a neuroscientist with the University of California at San Francisco, embedded the stretched acoustics in drills. As the kids become more adept, the software speeds up the sounds and lowers the volume.

Through thousands of repetitions, the drills seem to rewrite neural "maps" governing language processing in the children's brains so that they more closely resemble those of normal children. The key is motivation--getting the children to listen to thousands of repetitions. "I call it brain aerobics," says Tallal. "The kids think it's fun, even though it's extremely boring."

LLI afflicts as many as 8% of all children. But the real impact of this research could be much broader. Tallal and Merzenich recently started a company called Scientific Learning Corp. in San Francisco to explore applications in other modes of learning impairment. The work with LLI, says Merzenich, "is just an initial demonstration of the power of this kind of training."

In pioneering work with monkeys, Merzenich has shown that neural maps are extremely plastic--even in adult animals. Using tools such as magnetic resonance imaging, other scientists have unveiled distinctive features in the brains of violinists and other highly trained experts. Just as game-like procedures rewire neurons to improve rates of processing for LLI children, years of intensive manipulation of 3-D objects in games will alter the maps, Merzenich says. "Games, by their very nature, are designed to drive this type of adaptive change."

NASA psychologist Pope, whose main research deals with pilot alertness, is keen on video games as therapeutic tools. One promising area is attention deficit disorder (ADD), which in some cases can be ameliorated if the patients can train themselves to maintain brainwaves at certain frequencies. Often, however, this requires 40 to 50 training sessions, which is rough on children who have trouble concentrating. Video games, Pope believes, can provide the missing motivation. Working with a game startup, he hopes to develop treatments that marry biofeedback and video-game technology.

Sociologists working with children are taking advantage of game-style incentives. In the early 1990s, researchers at the New York State Dept. of Health used PC games to teach children in the fifth to eighth grades about AIDS. Hy Resnick, a professor at the University of Washington School of Social Work in Seattle, uses homegrown CD-ROM games to teach teenagers outcomes of antisocial behavior. "Kids need to develop impulse control. The lesson must be deep enough so they can tell their gangs `no, I won't shoot this guy."'

No group understands simulation better than the U.S. military, which pioneered or bankrolled most visualization technology used by industry. The Defense Dept. is indebted to game companies for refining hardware, slashing costs, and making simulation fun.

Commercial video-game systems are now good enough for the Armed Forces to use in battle training and contingency drills on ships, according to Commander Dennis McBride, the Navy's chief scientist for modeling and simulation. "We can organize training and learning systems in games that contain valid feedback and increase decision-making ability under stress," he says.

Game companies continue to learn from the military--especially in the area of multiplayer games on the Net. Using commercial techniques, game companies such as TEN and MPath Interactive can link up to 30 players at once. The military knows how to put more than 1,000 people in the same simulated war theater. That's one reason companies such as Walt Disney, Pixar, ILM, Intel, and Silicon Graphics all flocked to last October's Irvine conference on gaming, organized by the National Research Council on behalf of the Defense Dept.

SINKING FEELING. Some parents won't be thrilled to see the military trading tips with Disney and other children's software developers. If kids were only slaughtering cartoonish monsters, that wouldn't matter. But like everything else in cyberspace, bad taste is bounded only by the imagination. A 15-minute test-drive of Sega Enterprise Ltd.'s VirtuaCop game drove the point home one recent evening. My son, Alec, and his friends must have gunned down close to a hundred all-too-human-looking gangsters before I finally hit the switch. PC-based adventure games sometimes go even further. Players can pursue and kill other characters in elaborate role-playing games--all from a vivid first-person perspective.

The most hardened education expert gets a sinking feeling strolling through the game aisles at CompUSA Inc. "There's this constant chipping away at decency," grumbles James Oppenheim, technology editor of the Oppenheim Toy Portfolio, an independent guide to children's media. "What kind of future are we making?"

One that excludes females, it seems; hardly any of the roles are for girls. Rating systems, drawn up by manufacturers under pressure from parents, do exist. But they don't help much. "Take a look at Fast Attack from Sierra On-Line Inc.," says critic Oppenheim. "You play the commander of a nuclear attack sub. It's rated 6 and up."

Even game producers worry about escalating realism. Sony Computer Entertainment is reluctant to move its PlayStation games into virtual reality. "There's a point where you always want to maintain a line between fantasy and reality," says Kelly Flock, President of Sony Interactive Studios America.

As my son stands at the edge of these more violent and realistic games, I've been interrogating a lot of veteran gamers. What's all the killing about? I asked Justin D'Onofrio, a smart 16-year-old at Brooklyn Technical High School in New York, whose passion for gaming is matched by his knowledge of computers. "Don't worry," he says, "most players have no trouble distinguishing games from reality." I get the same answer from Adam Glasgall, the 11-year-old son of one of my colleagues at BUSINESS WEEK. "Game death has no reality," he says. "You come right back to life, and so does your opponent."

Sociologists, in fact, have been trying to find causal links between video games and violence since Nintendo first sneaked into American households in 1985. The consensus so far is that games don't prompt children to rip out the still-beating hearts of their playground enemies--though kids with problems may gravitate to gaming. With the leap to more realistic 3-D games, however, existing research seems inadequate. "All the old violence studies need to be redone," urges sociologist and video-game expert Akira Sakamoto at Ochanomizu Women's College in Tokyo.

I hope my son won't get sucked into the really ugly stuff. But I don't believe the solution is to pull the plug on entertaining games, or restrict children to a diet of "edutainment" that bores them senseless. The best advice I've gleaned from parents who have raised well-adjusted gamers is to stay involved in choosing, and even playing, the games. You don't let your kids watch six straight unattended hours of Die Hard videos. Likewise, you don't let them go blind playing Mortal Kombat.

Because I write occasional game reviews, Alec and his friends get to try out a lot of hardware and software. I've spent many hours watching, and I like some of what I see. In kindergarten, Alec taught himself to read, add, and subtract playing game-like drills on a toy V-Tech laptop. Now, he's drilling himself on fractions and algebra.

This isn't about being brainy. Ask Alec where Mexico is, and he might say North Dakota. It's about taking delight in hard challenges--over and over again. Can you learn the same lessons reading books or playing baseball? Sure. But if you want a balance that has technological relevance, electronic games also have a place in the lineup.

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