Super Bowl, Olympics, Super Mario: How games help teach

It's easy to dismiss the Super Bowl, Monopoly, and Grand Theft Auto as a waste of time. But games go way beyond racking up points or winning Winter Olympic gold.

Remember that cartoon from the dawn of the video-game era? It appeared back before the Mario Brothers were promoted to super, when Pong was still dazzlingly high-tech, and well in advance of the multiplayer shoot’em-ups that chew through so many teen-age hours:

A gleeful parent was circling a “help wanted” ad while a youngster with a primitive controller was absorbed in a video game. “Earn big money in exciting new field,” the ad read. “Professional video game players are in demand!”

It’s easy to dismiss game playing as frivolous, especially if you didn’t grow up with the game. From ancient Egypt to River City, games have spelled trouble to parents. Why so violent? Come up for air, will you? But games are a big part of how our species learns, copes, tells stories, and socializes.

You can waste a lot of time with them. You can also learn a lot.

The Winter Olympics and the Super Bowl are the big games of the hour. The Olympics provide a proxy for international relations. We learn about other cultures, individual achievement, and teamwork. The Super Bowl? It’s pretty obvious that football is about battlefield strategy and tactics. George S. Patton Jr. and Norman Schwarzkopf Jr. both employed football metaphors in their sweeping “end around” and “Hail Mary” maneuvers.

The sheer vividness of video games would seem to make them different from their nonscreen predecessors. But when you think about it, chess has some questionable ethics. It is about offing opponents with the ultimate goal of regicide. Monopoly is about dealmaking and untempered capitalism. Even Scrabble often is won with cheap tactics like plopping the word “ox” onto a triple-letter space.

Meet Jenny Levine. She is an Internet development specialist for the American Library Association and a staunch advocate of bringing state-of-the-art online games into libraries. As you can imagine, she has run into resistance. Librarians (whom we might consider stand-ins for the more studious angels of our nature) have traditionally resisted crazes that upset the quiet of a reading room.

Graphic novels, compact discs, DVDs – all were barbarians at the gates at one time. Earlier threats included e-mail, the Internet, fiction, and even children. These had no place in libraries. “Many people over the age of about 40 don’t have a frame of reference,” says Ms. Levine. “They’re not sure where to draw the line around gaming. People tend to agree that chess, CandyLand, and Scrabble are okay, but what about World of Warcraft? How about Dance Dance Revolution or Rock Band?”

The criticism of gaming usually starts with the content – violence and sex – and then focuses on the bad things that come from staring at a screen all day. Parents and children should indeed be aware of the content, some of it hidden deep within the game. But on the issue of screen-fixation, listen to Steven Johnson, author of the 2005 book “Everything Bad Is Good For You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter”:

“Books are also tragically isolating. While games have for many years engaged the young in complex social relationships with their peers, building and exploring worlds together, books force the child to sequester him or herself in a quiet space, shut off from interaction with other children.”

As she has introduced video games into libraries, Levine has watched young people organizing tournaments and seen different generations performing competitive dance steps together. Creative librarians have even developed library research games.

The take-away, in other words, is not the game itself. Junior probably will never be called on to destroy the sort of hidden biolab found in Resident Evil 2. As he practices doing so, however, he may stumble upon other parts of the library – the book stacks or chess set, for instance. Just don’t get too absorbed.

John Yemma is the editor of The Christian Science Monitor.

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