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Microsoft To Study Educational Benefits Of Video Games

February 21, 2009

Devin Krauter sits on the end of his bed, using his video game controller to shoot down aliens while taking with other players through a headset, all the while texting on his cell phone and chatting with a visitor.

A video game Web site ranks the 17-year-old high school junior among the best players at “Gears of War 2,” a game in which soldiers fight their enemies using an assault rifle with a mounted chain saw bayonet.  

Krauter says the game teaches him to think on his feet, and that he thinks about succeeding, not slaying.  

That’s something that interests Microsoft Corp., who publishes the game. The software giant is studying the reactions of passionate gamers to determine whether video gaming can foster learning skills that translate to the classroom.

“We want to figure out what’s compelling about the games,” John Nordlinger, who leads Microsoft’s gaming research, told the Associated Press.

“If we can find out how to make the games fun and not make them so violent, that would be ideal.”

Microsoft has invested $1.5 million to launch The Games for Learning Institute, a joint venture with New York University and other colleges. The objective of the research is to see whether video games, not merely specially designed educational software, can attract students into science, math and technology-based programs. The institute has already started lining up middle school students to study.

Microsoft is the not the first to investigate whether video games could improve education. For example, University of Wisconsin researchers concluded that playing “World of Warcraft” can promote scientific thinking, after finding that players used mathematics and models to handle situations in the game’s fantasy world.

Groups that monitor gaming say Microsoft’s entrance into such research will bring credibility and much needed funding. Many previous studies have focused on educational games, not shooting games.

“There isn’t a lot of good research out there,” Linda Burch, chief program and strategy officer for Common Sense Media, told the AP.

Parents are also interested in the potential long-term sociological and psychological effects on avid game players.

“I would hope that the goal is to have video games that can help develop reaction and problem-solving skills, without blowing everything up in sight,” Dave Walsh, president of National Institute on Media and the Family in Minneapolis, told the AP.

During a visit to the Microsoft’s Fargo campus, the company’s chief researcher Craig Mundie said that games could stimulate educational skills by helping people develop “a higher-order cognitive capability.”

Many shooting-type games require players to track “how many bullets and bombs and missiles do I have, and how do I spend and where do I go get more of them,” Mundie added.  

In “Gears of War,” for instance, players must monitor weapons systems, navigate underground tunnels and buildings, gauge their health and locate places of shelter.

However, some are sure to be skeptical of the notion that such games have broader educational appeal.  

Vince Repesh, a counselor at the University of Minnesota at Duluth, told the AP he worries that gaming is replacing education, not augmenting it. He recalled students who sought his help after they became hooked on “World of Warcraft”, one of whom had gone from straight As to flunking out of his classes.

“I accused him of coming in loaded from smoking dope, he looked so bad,” Repesh said.

“Turns out he had been up for 28 hours straight playing the game.”

Junior Shelby Cossette, 17, joined a new video gaming club at Fargo South High School, hoping to meet fellow gamers.  She also believes the games provide a solid complement to academics.

“I’ve played a lot of puzzle-solving games and they actually help sharpen my brain,” Cossette told the AP.

“My reaction time has actually gone up, thanks to playing video games.”

The club was initiated by English teacher Chuck Lang, who said he believes Microsoft is doing a good thing in researching the games’ potential, even if it might benefit the company through increased revenue.

“Why not spread this market out?” he told the AP.

“Why not promote something where kids are having fun?”

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