Smarter Video Games, Smarter Kids


BusinessWeek reader Harry Konnor Tetteh urges parents and schools to inspire young students by embracing video and computer games

I read with great interest BusinessWeek.com's coverage of the video game industry's Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in California—especially given recent research claims that nearly 1 in 10 American children and teens who play video games show behavioral signs that may indicate addiction. As a result, parents and educators are concerned that avid video game playing may lead to poor test results and grades.

This reminded me of a debate I had with my fellow teachers at Opoku Ware School during my national service here in Ghana. While we discussed the relevance of technology to education, I encountered such questions as: "What if technology dies out?" and "What about Internet fraud (popularly known in Ghana as Sakawa)?"

It amazes me that amid all the debate about the decline of educational standards around the world, we ignore the most fundamental fact: Students have changed, radically. The old systems still being used in Africa and around the world to teach and assess our young people are obsolete, given the rapid advances in technology and the Internet.

DIGITAL IMMIGRANTS VS. NATIVES

Video and computer games, cell phones, the Internet, instant messaging, and social media are integral parts of life today. This ubiquitous environment, and the sheer volume of kids' interaction with technology, mean that today's students think and process information differently from their predecessors. Marc Prensky calls them "digital natives." Those of us who were not born into the digital world, but have later adopted the new technology, are—and always will be—"digital immigrants."

Digital immigrants may adapt to their environment but will always retain, to some degree, the "accent" that reveals they keep one foot in the past. Examples include printing out e-mail (or having a secretary print it for you—an even "thicker" accent); printing a computer-composed document in order to edit it; and bringing people into your office to see an interesting Web site (rather than just sending the URL to them).

Digital natives, on the other hand, cannot go backward. Parents, teachers, and employers have no choice but to migrate, adapt, and innovate. Computer and video games engage youth while education, sadly, is often less than engaging. Video games are adept at luring students away from their studies because the game designer's primary objective is to keep the user engaged.

FISH WHERE THE FISH ARE

How can we make education more engaging? Embrace the medium to make video games educational and education more fun. Educators and game designers should collaborate to produce games for students of all ages and across all levels of the curriculum. Going by the adage "Fish where the fish are," we must engage our young people in an environment that already inspires them.

As an educator, I'd love to offer students video games that pertain to all subject areas, such as a game that teaches the knowledge to pass their next statistics or economics test. I'd love to see Google develop a database of online games (like YouTube) that allows anyone to search for age-appropriate games on any topic.

Games can introduce students to important life skills. For example, SimCity 3000 introduces players to a model of urban life, complete with simulated citizens (Sims), traffic, commerce, industry, utilities, taxes, and other important aspects of city living. This allows students to learn as they assume the role of mayor—creating and managing their own city.

PUTTING FUN INTO FUNDAMENTALS

Above all, as kids today will attest, video games are fun. They enrich the imagination, encourage players to form connections with others players, and stimulate young minds with harder and harder challenges. Why not integrate their favorite form of recreation into new formats for learning?

Children and teens (and no doubt, many adults) assimilate information better through things that they are already interested in rather than via things they are forced to learn at school or work. Games produce learning with engagement. Once students experience this, they'll always want to learn with engagement.

Any curriculum developed today should be designed with engagement as important a component as content. Technology can be a force for good, so let's channel it in all our endeavors—particularly those that enrich young minds and plant the seeds for future generations to thrive and explore new worlds.

BusinessWeek reader Harry Konnor Tetteh promotes new technology to inspire students and educators through his work as a program officer at Opportunity International Development Foundation in Ghana.

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