The Games Children Play

Posted: Sep 06, 2007 12:01 AM
The Games Children Play

History won't repeat itself in the future so much, it will just rewrite itself. The young who grow up on computers will inevitably be influenced by the games they play.

The hottest new electronic games are based on facts of history, and the players must study the actual events of history to devise winning strategies. I know, because my young tutor in one such game stopped the barbarians from invading Rome with stealthy deceptions of bad leaders and wily negotiations with men easily duped.

This young player insists we can learn from mistakes of history. (Certain presidents and prime ministers would die for such do-overs.) A player can't do what the rules of the game don't allow, of course, but the rules of the game I watched leave ample opportunities to alter the wars of the Roman Empire. Playing the game sent my tutor to the library for a stack of books on Caesar's campaign through Gaul, and several interpretations of why certain senators conspired to kill Caesar. I even managed to talk about Mark Antony's funeral oration as rendered by Shakespeare, with a discussion of sarcasm and irony in the description of Brutus as an "honorable man."

If I sound like a passionate convert to the educational value of computer games, of having more going for them than strengthening skills of hand to eye coordination, I am. The young man who taught me the rudiments of the game took hours away from his computer to think about military and political tactics. He learned how to ask crucial questions: "If you're asked to do a military mission," he told me, "it's important to know whether you have the resources to carry it out and whether you can do it without weakening forces already in other fields of combat." Hmmmmm. That sounds a lot like news from the front page of this newspaper.

A game player must learn to defend against riots, rebellion and other kinds of disorders. Taxes pose a dilemma familiar to every president. Taxpayers don't like paying taxes and a state must be wary of raising taxes the people may not accept, punishing those who inflicted them. Tweaking tax rates, such a player learns, is risky business.

Futurist magazine focuses in its current issue on the popular computer games known as MMORPG, for Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game. (The alphabet soup beloved of bureaucrats spills over to the computer keyboard, too.) In these games, participants "role play" with a multitude of different characters in contained fantasy worlds. The limits of reality don't apply. (Sounds just like Washington, doesn't it?)

Computer games can become an addiction, particularly for compulsive personalities, and psychologists and sociologists fiercely argue whether such young people too frequently use them as an escape from their real world. Such games must be carefully monitored, particularly by parents of young children. But we're foolish to dismiss their educational promise.

Edward Castronova of Indiana University is working with a team of students to develop a role-playing game titled "Arden: The World of William Shakespeare." Young and old students of literature "experience" the historical time of the Bard and rethink themes in his plays. They may revisit the wiles of Richard III and how he made it to the throne, studying the War of the Roses and how Shakespeare manipulated history for the sake of a good story. Young players might delve into the cultural and psychological backdrop of Macbeth, to consider the reaction of Queen Elizabeth I to a drama about the murder of a monarch.

"The potential of MMORPGs for pleasure, business, education, and experimentation is just now beginning to emerge," says Kimberly Harris Fatten of the Synthetic Worlds Initiative at Indiana University. They may have a major impact on how we think and conceptualize all kinds of ideas and relate to specific policies that affect our lives today. I have warned against making education too much fun as in the dancing numbers on "Sesame Street," because difficult math cannot be disguised as entertainment and ultimately a child must grow up to do the hard stuff with dedicated discipline. But fun can also be a motivator to learn more.

Computers are only as good as those who program them. "Junk in, junk out," as an early cyber aphorism put it. There's always the risk of over-simplification, of false or misleading information, as visitors to the riches of the Internet learn quickly. But computers can be harnessed for deep thinking. We make a big mistake if we ignore the possibilities, for better and for ill, in the games our children play.