Video games tend to get a bad rap: They promote violence, limit physical activity and turn young minds to mush.
That’s a pretty reductive assessment, suggests Marc Lesser, senior director of learning design at Mouse, a NYC-based youth program with a mission to use video games, and technology in general, as a “force of good.”
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Mousecurrently partners with up to 100 New York City public schools each year, bringing in experts to lead elective courses and afterschool programs in engineering, computation and information technology.
The majority of Mouse schools are under resourced, and a key aspect of the grant-funded program’s mission is to “close the divide in equity in who gets to participate in STEM careers,” says Lesser. Currently, women represent only 12 percent of the engineering workforce, African-Americans and Latinos just 14 percent.
Today’s young tinkerers, who will come of age in world where computer programming is baseline knowledge, need to be active producers — creators, innovators and developers — and not just passive consumers of technology.That’s why the program goes beyond basic 101-level skills — and where the lessons derived from video games come in.
“Different games are activating different parts of people’s cognition,” explains Lesser. “There are active games, and there are passive games. Active games we know to be supportive of skills related to problem-solving, to the strength of systems thinking for young people.”
Take the world-generating, narrative-driven game Minecraft.
“You have a few things going on. You need to learn what materials produce what effects, which is at the core of national science standards in K-12,” says Lesser, who recalls the way one student applied the concept of cause-and-effect from the game to create a trapped door using a pressure system.
“They’re also creating alternate worlds in a way that English teachers love because suddenly it gives them an opportunity to teach all kinds of things related to narrative, and telling the story of your design.”
Web-based games like Minecraft that have the option of collaborative play in fictional worlds (“Minecraft realms,” in gamer parlance) require players to work together, which develops speaking, listening and communication skills.
Improving digital literacy
There is extensive research on video games and cognition; one study of note referenced in a 2014 article in theAmerican Journal of Playfound that action video games had a positive impact on basic cognitive functions like perception, attention, memory and decision-making.
Active games requiring players to engage all cognitive cylinders “really mirror what happens in a professional context now,” says Lesser. NYU’s Create Lab,for instance, uses simulation and interdisciplinary skills in product design.
Lesser, whoco-founded Emoti-Con!,the NYC Youth Digital Media and Technology Festival, sees the intersection of tech and social responsiblity in the professional world, and he's taken it to the classroom.
Says Lesser, “Almost all courses end with students applying new skills to real problems. Young people are taking an issue and designing a game that builds awareness, or is set within the context of a global issue.”
In addition to a Green Tech curriculum that includes building electric generators, DIY batteries, and solar-powered toys, students develop final products that attempt to address real-world needs. One student project included a climate change video game on reducing carbon footprints.
It’s all part of teaching students to use technology for a larger purpose and avoid thegood/bad dichotomy we often use when talking about it.
Says Lesser, “What folks don’t realize is how complex cognition is when we’re learning.”