Soundbite

Joystick Engineers

First-person-shooter video games have taken the rap for every cuckoo violent teenager who makes the news. Now games like Doom are finally getting some good press: They improve visual attention skills by 30 percent or more, according to a study published last June in Nature.

That video games could improve players' lives -- even their intellects -- isn't any surprise to James Paul Gee, author of What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy (Palgrave). Gee, a University of Wisconsin-Madison education professor, first became interested in games when he played Pajama Sam with his 4-year-old son. He found it to be "pretty challenging, even for an adult." Soon Gee was logging eight-hour stints with more advanced games -- and developing the enthusiasm and analysis that make his book such a good read. Assistant Editor Sara Rimensnyder spoke to Gee in June.

Q: What do you mean when you write that video games teach a "new literacy"?

A: Games are very complex worlds, and kids learn to think about their design: How can I learn not only to interact with this world but to customize it to my styles, interests, and goals? It's a form of writing, if you like, using not just words but pictures, video, and complex environments.

Think about a kid playing Tony Hawk Pro Skater. He can easily create his own skateboard park -- it's an engineering problem, and 10-year-olds are doing it. In this domain, as with so much modern technology, people are not just consumers; they're producers. Meanwhile, kids at school don't see themselves as producers; they see themselves as consumers, often reluctantly.

Q: Would kids be better off playing video games than going to school?

A: School is a mixed blessing. It often rewards linear thinking -- getting straight to your goal. These games reward lateral thinking: reconceptualizing your goals from time to time.

Video games are very complicated systems that are designed to get learned very well. Why? Designers go broke if loads of people don't learn how to play them. Unfortunately, schools don't go out of business when kids fail to learn. We need to get schools to teach on a conceptual, deep level. They need to get kids to understand algebra the way they understand a game like Rise of Nations.

Q: How does role playing benefit gamers?

A: It plays with identities in ways that get you to think about the multiple and different identities in your own life. It lets you self-fashion. We're expected in the modern world to take on different identities in different settings. Role playing allows you to ask what kind of person you would be if you had more freedom.

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