Video games more than simple fun

October 11th, 2005
Jonathan Pillow, News Assistant
A nationally known research on computer gaming and its relationship to children's learning dispels myths about electronic games
To many members of Generation X, computer and console gaming is a mysterious concept associated with violence, social isolation and other negative influences on today’s youth.Last Friday afternoon, Yasmin Kafai, one of the nation’s pioneering researchers on computer gaming and children’s learning, spoke to an assembly of Virginia Tech faculty, alumni, students and local citizens in Fralin Auditorium in an effort to dispel many of the myths that surround the gaming culture.Her speech, entitled “Learning with Computer Games: What Research and Practice Tell Us,” focused on her research findings concerning the positive effects that educational games have on today’s youth.Kafai, a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, said although first-person shooter games garner most of the media’s negative attention they only account for 8 percent of gaming sales.In reality, educational games have far more influence on the rapidly growing gaming market, she said.“Nowadays we have a whole generation who grew up on Nintendo, and the majority of your video game players are no longer eight to 10 years old — they are adults. This leads to an increase in (profits) to where (games are) bringing in the same if not more revenue as Hollywood does,” Kafai said. One of the problems with educational games is that in most titles the rewards are extrinsic to the learning experience, she said. For example a child would answer a math problem and as a reward he would be able to shoot rockets, an activity that has nothing to do with the problem itself. More successful educational games are intrinsically rewarding, such as “Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego,” she said. In this game the reward and educational elements are directly linked. As gamers travel the world in search of Carmen Sandiego, they encounter many of the world’s capital cities and other geographic information.Learning happens naturally on some levels, even with video games, Kafai said.“You must look at the gaming environment as an example of what the learning environment should be, because it is an environment where gamers collaborate — it’s social, it’s authentic, it has to have all the right interactive characteristics,” she said.Kafai said that it’s not just the process of playing games that is educational, but also making games, which embodies “constructionalist” learning.In her research Kafai documents a classroom of 4th grade children in an inner city Boston school as they design and program their own educational games intended to teach fractions to third graders, she said. Through creating explanations for the material, designing their representations and dealing with the process of programming, these children experienced a more wholesome and hands-on educational experience than many standard environments allow.“Economically and psychologically, the video games industry is something that can no longer be ignored, it is no longer an enterprise of marginalized focus. It plays a great part not just in our children and youth’s entertainment but in adults’ as well,” Kafai said.Catherine Allen, professor of human development and mother of an 18-year-old studying video game design, said that she completely agreed with Kafai’s presentation.“Video games are a very creative outlet,” Allen said. I remember the first time my son got a hold of a Nintendo when he was around seven — it was like the world opened up to him.”The event was the second program hosted by the Center for Information Technology Impacts on Children, Youth and Families through an endowment from Glover M. and Frances Graham Trent to host an annual Distinguished Scholar Lecturer.Peggy S. Meszaros, professor of human development and director of CITICYF, said she immensely enjoyed the speaker and was pleased with the turnout.“If you get this large a crowd on a rainy Friday, and on homecoming weekend no less, it’s wonderful,” she said.

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