In a recent opinion piece in the New York Times, health and wellness writer Jane Brody declares that “[h]eavy use of electronic media can have significant negative effects on children’s behavior, health and school performance.” For Brody, “screen time” is a dangerously addictive distraction from “live” action – a sugary, junky snack food replacing the healthy nourishment of school and family socializing and outdoor play.
Now compare Brody’s vision with that of Paul Howard-Jones, a neuroscientist who leads the University of Bristol’s NeuroEducational Research Network. Howard-Jones believes that screen time, in the form of digital games, will be firmly embedded in schools. “[I]n thirty years’ time,” Howard-Jones predicts, “we will marvel that we ever tried to deliver a curriculum without gaming.”
Greg Toppo’s excellent new book, The Game Believes in You: How Digital Play Can Make Our Kids Smarter, helps us understand and bridge the divide between these two visions of screen time. Toppo was motivated to write his book by realizing that his eleven-year-old daughter, raised in a house of readers, could not name a favorite book. In the course of trying to understand his daughter’s digital life and the strong pull of games, Toppo discovered a world of educators and innovators who are using the inherent pleasures of game play to rethink the way we teach.
The most powerful lessons which emerge from Toppo’s book are not specifically about games at all but rather about human behavior, the mechanisms of the human brain, and large questions about how and why we learn. Toppo profiles game designers who are discovering how to harness the neurochemical reward systems we all have wired into our brains: how to channel our rushes of dopamine or adrenaline or endorphins to drive learning.
Toppo’s profile of high-school teacher Eric Nelson is representative. Nelson had, “Begun his career with a hazy Sound of Music idea that everyone surely loved learning as much as he did,” and tells Toppo he was “shocked” to discover “how zombified ninth graders were.” To capture their attention, he built a game inspired by his own love of fantasy football. Fantasy Geopolitics allows kids to collect and trade various countries, winning points for countries who made news headlines. The result was that his students began incorporating international news into their Facebook feeds and discussing geopolitical events on social media outside of school – the kind of impact which long outlasts a ninth-grade social studies class.
In addition to providing rewards and motivations that traditional schooling cannot, games and computers have other advantages. Unlike parents and teachers, games have infinite patience. As Toppo notes, “A well-designed game sits and waits . . . and waits. It doesn’t care if that wearisome math problem takes you fifteen seconds or four hours. Do it again. Take all day. The game believes in you.” Games are particularly good at inducing immersive play and “flow”, that magical state of effortless concentration and productivity. They can also be a safe space for failure and experimentation without pressure from adults or the risk of embarrassment in front of peers.
The Game Believes in You presents a thrilling vision of what the best screen time can be and how we can harness these powerful new tools in ways that are productive rather than destructive, as they are in Brody’s bleak vision. Toppo wants us to, “Consider a broader application of play in children’s lives, one that holds out the possibility that more play and playful thinking could, ironically, make our schools more serious, productive places.” I think this is a vision that we can all get behind.