Video games could be used for good

By Dan Dunkle | Sep 04, 2012

I keep arguing with myself over whether I should really be playing Modern Warfare 3 at the age of 39.

It's easier to see this waste of time for what it is now that my video game buddy, Joe, moved back to the County and we hardly get to play anymore even online. I also want my kids to grow up to believe in peace, love and understanding rather than bombings, headshots and melee kills.

The problem is, giving up these games is easier said than done. They're completely addictive, not just for me, but for thousands like me who are playing online. Recently, a thought occurred to me — couldn't we make positive video games that taught history or math or science? What if kids were addicted to these educational games the way they are addicted to killing games?

I went down to the video game store and asked if there were any educational games for the PlayStation 3. The poor clerk offered me a blank expression. "Uh... educational?"

The store is filled with hundreds, probably thousands of games. Most of them involve shooting people or mutants or zombies or spaceships or crashing cars. A few are merely non-harmful. They don't incorporate violence, but don't really do much positive either.

This is just sad, because the medium is very powerful, just like TV, and could be used for something positive.

There are several things that have made video games far more powerful than they were in the Pong and Pac Man and Mario eras (pick your age group). The graphics are super realistic, beautifully rendered. Even on my old PlayStation 2, I can remember playing a game called God of War based on Greek mythology. I was absolutely astounded in one scene in that game where I was crossing an ocean on this long chain bridge headed for an island. The sky, the sun glimmering in the water, the birds taking flight in the distance and the clouds on the mountains were all rendered in loving detail. For the first time, I said to myself, "This is an art form."

With the war games, you now play not just against computer programs but other human beings playing their games in their homes possibly thousands of miles away. I have a little earpiece and I can talk to them, though most don't have much worthwhile to say.

The game keeps you engaged like a good book where each chapter ends on a cliffhanger. Part of how it does this is that you can earn prizes. I can earn a new gun or a new rank. If I pull a particularly clever move I get a little insignia I can have appear next to my name showing everyone else playing that I killed five guys by setting cars on fire near them. Yay me.

I know this is sad. I understand that. But it could be changed. Why isn't there an equally high quality video game where the kids can explore the American Revolution? They can fire the shot heard 'round the world and ride with Paul Revere. Sure it's still war, but at least it's educational war.

Why not a game where you can get into a time machine and learn actual facts about history by traveling to a beautifully rendered land of the dinosaurs or Roman Colosseum or lost rain forest civilization?

Why instead of fantasy football don't we have fantasy government where people can get elected to Congress and play online to see if they can get their bill passed? Maybe there could be a game where you and your opponent compete in a mock online election for president. You each pick parties, delegates, have conventions, write speeches and try to win votes from actual people playing online?

The only limits we have in 2012 are what we can imagine.

I have seen Civil War games and whatnot, but if you ask anyone, they've heard of Pac Man or Call of Duty, but they can't list the educational games off the top of their head. And don't tell me there's no market for it. I can't be the only parent that would like to see my kids playing something worthwhile.

New technology and mediums equal new opportunities, some untapped. YouTube has actually done a lot to improve education. I get guitar lessons online.

Many children are now learning algebra and other disciplines through khanacademy.org, another program that started on YouTube. CBS news magazine 60 Minutes carried a story on it this week.

We don't have to fight the future to educate our children. We just have to bend new technology to parents' will.

Daniel Dunkle is news editor for Courier Publications. He lives in Rockland with his wife and two children. Email him at ddunkle@courierpublicationsllc.com or follow him on twitter at @DanDunkle.

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