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Don’t Bother Me Mom, I’m Learning (the book)

A few years ago I wrote a lengthy slashdot review of an important book about the educational value of games.

I just learned that author/game developer Marc Prensky has written a sequel that addresses a question I’m encountering more and more often: reassuring parents that the time spent by children in gameplay is educationally valuable. It’s called Don’t Bother Me Mom, I’m Learning .

I keep hearing the same “concerns” from parents determined to limit a child’s gameplay:

  1. Playing games is ok as long as they don’t spend too much time on it. Wrong! Immersive games by definition require sustained gameplay. Trying to limit gameplay is simply denying the very premise of it.
  2. I wish Johnny could get more exercise (sigh). It’s those damn video games. See Dance Dance Revolution! This problem seems to be an argument for more video games, not less.
  3. What about the sex/violence/bad influence? Then turn off the goddam Bugs Bunny cartoons. And while you’re at it, remove the Brothers Grimm books from the house! And if you were genuinely interested in preventing real-life violence, why did you vote for candidates who sent us to war?
  4. The problem with videogames is that they’re outside of parental control. Duh!! Isn’t that the point? Yes, you parents need to become involved, but not to the point where you can control your child’s mind or prevent him from learning for himself. Videogames permit an extraordinary amount of autonomy; that’s fantastic. Contrast that to TV where thought is basically controlled by a few gigantic media companies that want you to drink Coke and buy Dell.
  5. I don’t want videogames being a babysitter. Wait, aren’t babysitters expensive? Do babysitters inspire the imagination? Parents who say these kinds of things assume that they are always there for their children or that some babysitter is. That just isn’t the case anymore. Kids play videogames when you’re not there. That’s a fact of modern life.

I’m sure Prensky had to address these “concerns” (albeit with less sarcasm). For a sense of Prensky’s perspective, check out Listen to the Natives and using cellphones for learning . The book has a companion website which lists the educational merits of various video games. for example, GTA Vice City:

Parents Ask your Kids:

The entire Grand Theft Auto series provides a good starting point for discussing video game violence in an open and supportive manner with your children. Let them educate you about games and violence. You might be pleasantly surprised regarding their perspective and understanding of the issues. Ask them, for example: 1. Why do you like this game?
2. Is there anything that makes you uncomfortable? Why?
3. Do you think this is a game about real life?
4. Do you see any ethical or moral questions in the game? How do you deal with them?
This game could be used as a starting point for a discussion of power, democracy and politics.

TEACHERS
1. What are rules and laws?
2. Why are rules and laws important?
3. Who should decide about guilt, innocence, punishment?
4. Is it important to be critical about the games we play?
5. Should the government control entertainment?

Also, on the website, inspirational quotes:

# Anybody who makes a distinction between education and entertainment doesn’t know the first thing about either one. (Marshall McLuhan)
# Designing good games is one of the hardest tasks a man can do. (Carl Jung)
# Game designers have a lot better take on the nature of learning than instructional designers. (Seymour Papert, MIT)
# I believe learning comes from passion, not discipline. (Nicholas Negroponte, MIT Media Lab)
# Why are we even talking about “educational games” — as if games weren’t already educational! (Will Wright, creator Sim City, The Sims and Spore)

I don’t spend a lot of time on games, but two anecdotes suffice.

Recently I visited my nephew, a 5 year old game addict. We were playing games together (mainly the new Harry Potter game, which frankly had boring gameplay). The amazing thing was that this boy had learned to navigate several levels and rooms and traps and monsters, all without being able to read any of the text instructions that appeared onscreen. When I was playing, he was providing advice and narrating a little history of the game. In fact, he was using a splendid amount of vocabulary (mostly sorcery kind of terms) and knew all the characters involved in the story. Plus, he had figured out the physics of movement and navigation and had an intuitive understanding of the function of objects.

Second anecdote: in high school the geeky activity was playing Dungeons and Dragons, and I loved it. It was a marvelous game of imagination, but it also exposed me to different kinds of knowledge which I would have never experienced before: weaponry, knightly quests, indigenous religions (druid, etc) and a sense of social structures. To be aware of a lot of objects, you also had to understand the historical context; what equipment did you use for horses? Last but not least, I learned a remarkable amount of new words, and being a player forced me to think creatively; how do I use my existing tools to devise a solution? And when I was a DM, how do I create an adventure and a set of characters that will sustain interest over time?

Ironically, I probably would have been better off playing hooky from school for a few hours and delving more deeply into what D&D was. Luckily, my parents were relatively tolerant and adopted a hands-off policy to the game. Also, the game was very social; it allowed me to meet people and spend sustained periods of time with them without getting drunk or painting grafitti or getting someone pregnant.

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