Video games: Future of education or harmful addiction? (part 1 of 3)

One of the most challenging things facing many parents today is how to understand their children’s love of all things digital. Marc Prensky has labeled us “old folks” (himself included) as Digital Immigrants, while our children are the Digital Natives. Within the digital nation of those digital natives, nothing is quite so potentially inaccessible to parents as video games.

Some see video games as the learning tool of the future, an example of how technology can be used to engage our kids. Others see video games as a harmful obsession that leads to addiction and a wasted life.

Over the past several weeks, I’ve read two books concerning these topics: Prensky’s Don’t Bother Me Mom, I’m Learning! and Playstation Nation by Olivia and Kurt Bruner. I’ve also had a chance to take a look at the writings on the authors’ respective websites: Marc Prensky.com and VideoGameTrouble.org. Though these authors say basically the same thing about the nature and design of video games, the conclusions they reach could not be any more different from each other.

In his book (and on his website), Prensky makes a distinction between the triviality of the “mini-games” of the past and the complexity of modern video games.

Almost all the pre-computer games were card or board games. (I am excepting physical games and sports, which have remained the same pre and post computer – except for their strategies.) The pre-computer games typically took no more than an hour or two to play (and often less.) With only a few exceptions such as Bridge, Chess and Go – which were played seriously by relatively few – games of the pre-computer era gave kids very little to reflect on or learn at a deep, or thoughtful level. Sure, kids may have learned a few economic lessons from Monopoly, but games, back then, were mostly games. Distractions, if you will.

What makes a “complex” game different from a mini-game is that a complex game requires a player to learn a wide variety of often new and difficult skills and strategies, and to master these skills and strategies by advancing through dozens of ever-harder “levels.” Doing this often requires both outside research and collaboration with others while playing. (Is this starting to sound like something that might work in education?)

The “levels” in a complex game may consist of building bigger, more complex cities or civilizations (e.g. Sim City, Civilization III, Rise of Nations), conducting harder and more challenging campaigns (e.g. Age of Empires, Age of Kings), confronting harder and more challenging enemies (e.g. Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings), solving harder and more challenging puzzles (e.g. Myst, Riven), completing more and more challenging quests (e.g. EverQuest, City of Heroes, World of Warcraft) or meeting other challenges of increasing subtlety and complexity.

In part 2: Attributes of games and game design and the different conclusions drawn by Prensky and the Bruners.

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