A good video game is challenging, entertaining, and complicated, Gee says. It usually takes 50 to 60 hours of intense concentration to finish one. Even kids who can’t sit still in school can spend hours trying to solve a video or computer game.
“Kids diagnosed with ADHD because they can’t pay attention will play games for 9 straight hours on the computer,” Gee says. “The game focuses attention in a way that school doesn’t.”
The captivating power of video games might lie in their interactive nature. Players don’t just sit and watch. They get to participate in the action and solve problems. Some games even allow players to make changes in the game, allowing new possibilities.
And kids who play computer games often end up knowing more about computers than their parents do. “Kids today are natives in a culture in which their parents are immigrants,” Gee says.
In his 2 to 3 years of studying the social influences of video games, Gee has seen a number of young gamers become computer science majors in college. One kid even ended up as a teaching assistant during his freshman year because the school’s computer courses were too easy for him.Video games can enhance reading skills, too. In the game Animal Crossing, for instance, players become characters who live in a town full of animals. Over the course of the game, you can buy a house, travel from town to town, go to museums, and do other ordinary things. All the while, you’re writing notes to other players and talking to the animals. Because kids are interested in the game, they often end up reading at a level well above their grade, even if they say they don’t like to read.
Games can inspire new interests. After playing a game called Age of Mythology, Gee says, kids (like his 8-year-old son) often start checking out mythology books from the library or join Internet chat groups about mythological characters. History can come alive to a player participating in the game.
Even violent games have a positive side, Gee says. “Grand Theft Auto 3 does not exist to get off on shooting people,” he says. When the game begins, your character has just been released from jail. You need to figure out how to make a living, but the only people you know are criminals. Along the way, you might end up fighting or killing people, but you don’t have to.
“The game offers you a palette of choices,” Gee says. Players must confront moral dilemmas, develop social relationships, and solve challenging problems that might apply to real life, he says. “How compelling would a game be if you only had good choices?”
Video games might also help improve visual skills. That was what researchers from the University of Rochester in New York recently found.
In the study, frequent game players between the ages of 18 and 23 were better at monitoring what was happening around them than those who didn’t play as often or didn’t play at all. They could keep track of more objects at a time. And they were faster at picking out objects from a cluttered environment.
“Above and beyond the fact that action video games can be beneficial,” says Rochester neuroscientist Daphne Bavelier, “our findings are surprising because they show that the learning induced by video game playing occurs quite fast and generalizes outside the gaming experience.”
The research might lead to better ways to train soldiers or treat people with attention problems, the researchers say, though they caution against taking that point too far.
If Gee gets his way, though, teachers might some day start incorporating computer games into their assignments. Already, scientists and the military use computer games to help simulate certain situations for research or training, he says. Why shouldn’t schools do the same thing?