VIDEO GAMES VISIT HARVARD YARD
by EDNA MITCHELLIf there is anything more surprising than "experts" formally discussing video games at Harvard, it must be their conclusion - they liked them! So enthusiastic were the reports that some in the press imputed an uncritical bias to the conference.
The participants also were probably surprised to find one after another of their colleagues reporting optimistically on the current and prospective effects of video games on both children and adults in our society.
I attended the "Harvard Conference on Video Games and Human Development" to report on my research with families in homes where video games are played (more about that below). First I should describe what this conference was all about.
Late last May, a group of social scientists, educators, medical specialists, and computer industry representatives gathered at the Harvard Graduate School of Education to discuss current and future research on the impact and use of video games.
The experts reported on their research, presented new kinds of games and software, and discussed their concerns about the uses of this new technology. All the participants tended to share a common enthusiasm and optimism for video games.
Although notes of caution and reservation were sounded at almost every presentation, the positive results from each study provided an underlying endorsement of video games and computer technology. Researchers and presenters found among themselves an unexpected support network, and many scientists who may have felt isolated in their enthusiasm for this technology (believing public opinion to be generally hostile to favorable reports about video games and computer learning) found a receptive and knowledgeable audience among their peers.
At the conference the gritty question of the value of video games became clouded. Entertainment and fun as legitimate purposes were discussed interchangeably with serious instruction and learning, often making it difficult to arrive at a consensus or to promote vigorous debate.
The environments in which video games are played (including arcades, neighborhood stores, classrooms, and private homes) were discussed. The two reports presented on this theme however, provided only preliminary data describing the quality of experience for children and youth in those environments.
Another report considered the rehabilitative uses of video games for the chronically orthopedically handicapped, the learning handicapped, and for juvenile delinquents. But again, some confusion resulted when researchers did not distinguish between video games and educational software in describing these generally successful rehabilitative programs.
There were demonstrations of gamelike educational materials still in the design and development stage which encourage exploration, creativity, independence, and logical development. These demonstrations stimulated additional enthusiasm among conference participants and concerns about themes of violence and war (themes which characterized many of the early video games) were partially eased by these clearly non-violent games and learning materials.
Herb Kohl, a California educator/ writer turned computer buff, discussed the need for sociological research to monitor the cultural effects of personal computers as potential machines of social inequity. He warned about the widening skill gaps between boys and girls, men and women, white and black, and rich and poor, saying "Poor kids play video games and pop the quarters; rich kids learn programming."
Dr. Robert Kegan, Lecturer in Education at Harvard and author of The Evolving Self, warned against social science research which looks too seriously at the fun of playing games. Children, parents, and reseachers each see totally different meanings in the games, he said. We need to understand youth culture separately from adult culture, and he charged adults with projecting their experiences, fears, and fantasies onto the video game scene. He admonished that neither video games nor television can deliver the magic and glitter initially promised to the young, and he warned against the possibility of social isolation and loss of community among a generation of video-game players. On the brighter side, however, he cited potential worthwhile outcomes such as developing a sense of personal competence, reconstructing and renewing relationships with parents and others, experiencing power and control in the face of threat and chaos, and finally developing useful skills of concentration and logical analysis.
My own report covered recent research on the effects of video games on families at home. In a small random sample of families I found that games were kept in perspective with other family activities and tended to be played at times when family members would otherwise watch network television. I found no detrimental effects on school achievement, homework routines, or extra-curricular interests. Indeed, half of the families reported a positive effect on the children's school progress, but I pointed out that this was based on subjective parent and child opinion supported only by personal accounts. My research also found that mothers played significantly less than other family members, and girls played less than boys. However, females of both age groups developed skills when they committed time to practice and deliberately exerted an effort to improve their scores.
Dr. David Brooks, an instructor at the University of Southern California, reported that the widely-held public opinion that arcades are places for drug dealing and school dropouts is inaccurate. He reported that few of the more than 900 youths in his study were failing in school or were truant.
Antonia Stone, a former teacher who received a Ford Foundation grant for a national study of the use of computers in prisons, described how video games were being used to facilitate social rehabilitation of juvenile delinquents.
In a similar vein, four medical researchers reported positive effects of video games in medical settings. Dr. Steven Leff, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School, Dr. Sylvia Weir, a physician/researcher on learning in handicapped children with MIT, Dr. William Lynch of the Brain Injury Rehabilitation Unit of the Veterans Administration Hospital in Palo Alto, and Emanuel Donchin at the Cognitive Psychophysiology Laboratory at the University of Illinois, all reported gains in learning, improvements in skill, and improved social behavior among subjects in their studies of video game use in clinical therapy.
Alan Kay, Vice President and Chief Scientist at Atari, Inc., closed the conference by focusing on an emergent conference theme. He emphasized a view of computer games and computer explorations as "learning" rather than as "education" ' He defined learning as a process that goes on inside a person, rather than a process which goes on around him in a prepared environment. The distinction between instruction and learning is one which has important implications for schools as teachers and children interact more and more with computers.
The new directions in video games and computer programs which were presented at the conference illustrated Kay's vision of learning and gave impetus to the replacement of skepticism with optimism regarding computer games. Independent designers of software who gave previews of materials based on exploratory learning added still more optimism. Many of the more creative educational programs seen at the conference were designed for young children.
It is clear that the small computer (and software) industry is still in the "Model A motorcar phase". The product potential is clear, and the directions which this industry might take can boggle the mind, although no one at the conference proposed regulation, legislation, or reiterated dire warnings and public policy issues. Indeed, there was a consensus that software products needed to be shaped by people with a human development perspective, not left to technicians or computer programming specialists. Above everything else, the conference made it clear that more research and data are needed about video games and video education, a phenomenon which has certainly had a sudden and dramatic impact upon our real world.
Edna Mitchell is a professor and head of the Department of Education at Mills College, Oakland, CA. She was one of the researchers presenting reports to the conference.