Computers And Society
David D. Thornburg
Los Altos, CA
Last year I devoted two columns to the use of computer games in the classroom. Based on the mail, phone calls, and personal discussions that followed, I am convinced that this topic continues to be a sensitive one for many readers – especially those readers who are teachers.
Most of us have seen newspaper stories describing what some parents and teachers consider to be the negative influence of game arcades. Communities all over the nation are passing ordinances prohibiting or severely restricting children's access to these arcades.
One popular hypothesis is that the game arcades are responsible for truancy, increased juvenile crime, and a multitude of other assorted problems.
The fact that truant officers are often able to find children at the arcades is not surprising – but this hardly means that the arcades are the cause of truancy. To my knowledge (based partly on personal recollections of a distant past), if kids are going to skip classes, they are going to skip classes. Period. When I was a kid, you couldn't go to a soda shop when school was in session because parents and teachers felt that soda shops contributed to truancy.
Every time truants find something to do with their time, this new activity is blamed as the cause of truancy. When viewed in the context of earlier "causes of truancy" such as hanging around pool halls, drinking booze, and shooting dope, I fail to see what makes a few games of Asteroids less desirable.
If people are concerned with truancy, that's fine with me. I think that our children's education is very important. And no matter how motivated a teacher is, he or she can't teach students who don't show up for class. But if you want to find out why kids have been skipping classes, you might want to examine the two areas which seem to be more stable than the latest fad – you might want to evaluate the home and the school. All video games could be destroyed tomorrow, and I doubt that truancy statistics would show any noticeable changes.
Of course, it may be argued that the games are addicting and, for many people, they are. My piano instructor recently acquired blisters on her hands from an overdose of Pac Man. As for myself, Centipede manages to diminish my supply of quarters with great regularity.
By what magic do these microprocessor-based marvels extract billions of quarters from a public eager to fill the games' coin boxes? Let's look at what is happening when someone plays an arcade game. The first few times the player's skill level is quite low and the game ends quickly with a low score. Yet something in the game encourages continued practice and, after a while, the player's proficiency starts to increase. Once a certain level of excellence is achieved, the game provides new challenges. And the quarters keep on flowing.
The player is pursuing a self-directed course of study, and is acquiring new skills with a very high level of self-motivation. The player is actually learning something! Students who show little interest in learning new material in school are spending immense amounts of their own money to learn how to master a game.
Presumably, the student's general goal of learning is shared by teachers (although directed toward different subject areas). However, just because teachers are interested in topics other than eye-hand coordination, it isn't clear that their success couldn't be improved by discovering the reason bored, disinterested students become ardent scholars the minute school lets out and they can zip down to the local arcade to play Galaxian.
A student who is unwilling to practice repeated pen movement patterns (to improve handwriting) will gladly spend several weeks' allowance to practice repeated joystick motions to master the latest space game. Is it possible that people concerned with teaching the eye-hand coordination needed to write clearly might be able to learn something from the appeal of arcade games? It might be worth checking out.
I'm not suggesting that our schools need to become giant arcades with electronic action versions of the Peloponesian Wars, or Fraction Blaster. But classroom computers are a reality, and there are exciting games for these computers. If the students are showing us that they want to learn from games, and if they are showing us that they really can learn something by spending a lot of time with these machines, I think we should pay attention to this message and see if we can't make our students think of the classroom being as important a place of learning as the corner arcade.
Next month I will write about some of the most exciting educational games I have seen – including those from the Children's Television Workshop venture with Busch Gardens: Sesame Place.
Until then, let me know your feelings on this topic.