Writer: Video Games Are Good for Kids

Here's a book title that will bring joy to parents and children engaged in daily battles over computer time: "Don't Bother Me Mom — I'm Learning."

Its premise, put forward by American software developer Marc Prensky, is that children who play computer games have distinct advantages over those who don't, even when the content of the games is violent.

This is not a popular theory. Most parents feel compelled to limit computer time, given the consensus that too many hours in front of a screen is bad for development, learning and general sociability.

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The British government is now so concerned about the effect of the Internet on young people that it has commissioned a panel of experts to examine the impact of violent video games and Internet pornography on children.

But, says Prensky, kids have changed.

"They're not little versions of us any more," he says. "Because of the technology they're growing up with, they're able to learn in different ways, able to teach themselves in different ways, and one of the greatest places they've got this from is by playing the complex games of today."

The notion of what a game is has changed too, he says, pointing out that over the past 20 years a more intricate sort of game has emerged, such as "Civilization IV," which teaches the span of Western history, or "The Sims 2," which teaches strategies for winning and losing.

"You have to reach multiple goals, it takes multiple skills and it takes 30 or 40 or 50 hours to play and master a game," says Prensky. "From those games, the kids learn a lot."

Prensky has written other books on this subject and is the founder of Games2Train.com, which develops training software for clients, including IBM, Nokia, Pfizer and the U.S. Department of Defense.

He believes that there are a lot of skills to learn in front of a screen. One is collaboration, since most games are now networked. Effective decision-making under stress and prudent risk-taking are others.

"Games involve ethical and moral decisions, such as 'just because you can beat someone up with a baseball bat, should you?' Scientific deduction, mastering and applying skills and information, persistence and lateral thinking are all present in the modern game," he says, as is managing people.

One of his acquaintances claims that his parents used to shout at him for playing games.

"What they didn't know was that he had a 300-person 'guild' of online players under him, all playing in their own bedrooms," explains Prensky. "He says he now uses the same skills managing the people that he employs as he learned managing that guild."

Directing invisible players on the end of a network connection isn't the only solid example of a skill being acquired through playing, says Prensky.

He cites a doctor in New York, who specializes in laparoscopy, which is like a computer game in that it involves manipulating a control while watching a screen.

"He wondered whether the doctors who had played video games made better surgeons, so he did a poll," says Prensky.

The doctor found that many of those interviewed agreed that computer games made them better in the operating room.

There are also parallels in the legal system; some American lawyers play a game called "Objection" to sharpen their mental reflexes before going into court.

Psychology professor Kevin Durkin at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland supports the idea that there are benefits from computer games.

"Navigating the complex environments of computer games can help to promote spatial abilities, and rapid responses to events on screen can improve reaction times, eye-hand coordination and planning," he says. "The range and quality of educational games continues to improve, and we need to look carefully at their potential in many areas of learning.

"Research also dispels the notion that gameplay encourages children to become isolated, locked in their rooms for hours with a computer," Durkin adds. "In fact, most children prefer to play games with their friends or family."

But not all computer games can be described as educational.

Some contain deliberately violent content and have attracted criticism for putting players in a first-person situation in which they roleplay shooting and maiming others, sometimes with graphically gory results.

"The costs of playing violent games far outweigh any potential benefits," says psychologist Brad Bushman of the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research. "The costs of playing violent games far outweigh any potential benefits.

"Research evidence clearly indicates that violent games increase aggressive thoughts, angry feelings, aggressive behavior but decrease cooperative behavior," adds Bushman. "In addition, the more time kids spend playing video games — violent or nonviolent — the lower their grades in school."

Prensky plays this down and is particularly critical of press coverage.

"Most of the journalists who write about these games don't play them," he says. "So they have no idea what's going on; they've heard a bad thing or seen a bad screen."

He believes that children will know the difference between fact and fiction just as they would in any other medium.

On the surface, the game might seem violent, Prensky agrees, "but there's huge depth to the games that people don't give them credit for, but which kids understand. There's the strategy, figuring out the rules, the environment and the ethical situation."

He points to interesting developments in the games industry that will emerge on the market in time for Christmas, predictably enough.

A game called Spore has captured his attention: "You start off in a primordial pool as protozoa and, by working your character, you get onto land, then they build a civilization and move to conquer a planet and the stars."

He is also watching Nintendo very carefully; the physicality of its Wii console, in which players mimic the movements of bowling or tennis rather than fiddling with an ordinary game controller, has attracted attention far outside the normal teenage games market and is getting entire families playing together.

Most people would agree that whatever the merits of games as a learning tool, an activity that brings a family together is a positive thing. And even people who think that Prensky's case is overstated will agree that in terms of hand-eye coordination there is something to be gained from playing in this way.

The controversy over the violent content of some games, and indeed the Internet overall, remains, though.

It's difficult not to sympathize with Bushman, who concludes, "Nonviolent games can teach [useful] skills just as well as violent games can."