Young Americans, age 8 to 18, are packing more than 8 hours' worth of media exposure into each day, listening to iTunes, instant messaging their friends and playing a computer or video game… all at the same time. That media multi-tasking doesn't concern some experts. In fact, they see video games as tools for acquiring the multi-tasking skills kids will need to succeed in tomorrow's workplace. But others worry that kids don't have enough time for the hands-on activities that develop and refine their creativity and other skills that are just as important.
Many - perhaps most - adults can't understand why kids are so attracted to video games.
"When you ask a kid what they like about video games they say, 'I like going up the levels," Marc Prensky says. Mr. Prensky has followed the video game trend for almost 20 years and sees that as a learning opportunity in disguise.
"Most games today are networked," he says. "So people play them with others. Working effectively with others, cooperating, collaborating, working in teams and doing it remotely is certainly part of a great skill that will be useful for the 21st century."
And, he says, some of today's video games encourage the development of physical skills. "Games like Dance, Dance Revolution, where you have to do complicated dance steps to a rhythm on the dance pad, and you have to get the rhythm exactly right," he says. "To beat that game is quite a workout. There are more games where you involve your arms, the rest of the torso and we are seeing more and more of this. In fact in many times, it's being adopted by schools."
In his book, Don't Bother Me Mom, I'm Learning, Prensky points out that it's hard to advance through the increasingly difficult levels of a video game and win. But the fun is in playing the games, he explains …and so is the learning experience.
"Kids are clearly learning how to do certain kinds of things, whether that's run around, whether that's actually play the game," he says. "They are learning what to do. Because rules are not given to them, they have to intuit them. They are learning why to do certain things, which is the strategic part of the game. They are learning a lot about where, which is the context of the game. Games are typically about something - it could be an alien civilization, it could be winning a race. And most important, they're learning whether to do something or not. So that just because you can hit somebody over his head with a baseball bat in the game, the question is, should you?"
Most video games have a story line of sorts, and Prensky says that helps develop kids' imagination.
"Video games are all about becoming a character," he says. "In almost all of the games, you get to customize the character, the character's look, the character's behavior and traits. In other words, it's all about creativity and imagination."
But director of the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Mitch Resnick, disagrees. "To be honest, I find that most of the times, the real imagination was done on the part of the game designer," he says. "My concern is the game designers are developing more imagination and learning more than the game players are. When kids play a videogame, which is interactive in some way, it's still largely a very passive type of interaction. What we found in our research is that children's best learning experiences come when they are actively engaged in designing things, creating things, inventing things."
Resnick says that requires a real-world hands-on approach. "If you go into a kindergarten, you'll see children building towers or bridges out of blocks," he says. "In the process they learn about structures, what makes things stand up or fall down. They make paintings with finger paints. In the process, they learn about how colors mix together. As children get older, in the older grades, they don't really have those types of design opportunities. They spend a lot of time filling out work sheets, just listening to their teachers talking. And even in their own life outside school, at home or community centers, they don't get enough opportunities to design and create things in that kindergarten style."
Inspired by the way young children learn, Resnick and his group have developed new technologies that allow kids of all ages to design and create toys and games and gain skills in the process. "In our own lab we've developed robotic construction kits where children can build their own robots and write programs to control how their robots behave," he says. "We found that children learn more building their own robot than just interacting with a robot that someone else created."
There are video games on the market that allow players to design and develop their own characters and communities. However, Resnick says, playtime away from the computer is still an important part of a well-rounded childhood.
"It's not that I think it's harmful or bad for children to spend part of their time playing video games," he says. "But I do get concerned if children get so absorbed and focus so much of their attention and energy that it takes away from other, more creative and imaginative activities."
New technologies will be an integral part of life and work in the 21st century. Resnick says he hopes more companies will begin producing new kinds of software to help kids use those technologies to create their own games.