My Son and I, Game to Learn

By Sebastian Mallaby
Monday, December 26, 2005

This year my knowing 11-year-old was told to write to Santa Claus, partly to keep the fun going for his younger siblings and partly because it forced him to write. He seized the opportunity to ask, naturally, for a computer game: more stuff to distract him from writing and books. But, hey, I'm not too worried. Hillary Clinton may accuse computer games of "making the difficult job of being a parent even harder," but I bought "Age of Empires III" with a clear parental conscience. The new conventional wisdom says that virtual games are healthy, enriching even. I'm thinking of trying them.

The new wisdom begins by questioning the idea that computer games cause violence. Lab tests have found that people do become aggressive right after a bout of zapping virtual enemies, but tests conducted outside labs have found no such result. For example, Dmitri Williams of the University of Illinois has tracked the behavior of a group that played a gory monster-slaying fantasy game regularly for one month and compared it with a game-free control group. The fantasy killers were no more likely to lose their tempers in real life.

Meanwhile, computer games have some advantages. They train players to master complex rules, to weigh odds and solve problems and make quick decisions. Indeed, players learn how to learn: The mysteries of a new and unknown game must be unlocked by trial and error. Marc Prensky, the author of the book "Don't Bother Me, Mom -- I'm Learning," tells the story of Stephen Gillette, an entrepreneur who picked up his leadership and organizational skills by playing online games. "I remember my mom and dad yelling at me," he quotes Gillette as saying. "They didn't know I had a 200-person [online] guild to manage."

Some games feature academic content. Spinach-pushing parents can buy games that teach algebra or engineering, and "America's Army," a game with some 6 million players, includes an opportunity to learn how to be a medic. Even the rampantly entertaining "Age of Empires III" conveys a sense of history. You begin at the dawn of the 16th century, and work your way into the mid-19th; you can choose among eight European civilizations; and you'd better build up the technological base of your home city if you want your empire to flourish.

I'm waiting to see whether this game will wean my son off "RuneScape," a multiplayer online fantasy. "RuneScape's" attraction is partly that his friends play it; it's a virtual after-school hangout. But the game's main attraction lies in its business challenge. My son has been buying logs, making longbows and selling them at a profit; he says the margins in the bow business fluctuate around 10 percent. Lately he's moved into buying magic herbs in bulk and retailing them individually. This is a dicier business, but the risk is balanced by reward. Herb-trading margins can be 100 percent or fatter.

Edward Castronova of Indiana University has just come out with "Synthetic Worlds," a book on the economics of these online universes. He explains that currencies in games such as "RuneScape" are subject to inflation: In a shamelessly populist bid to keep players happy, game masters tend to be monetary doves. Players can earn money by hacking down trees or killing monsters. Because there's no limit to the number of monsters and trees available, the money supply grows steadily.

When I first heard of this insight, I went home triumphantly to tell my son. He listened politely and told me that I'd only scratched the surface. Sure, the supply of money grows steadily, but the supply of swords and magic herbs grows, too, so prices move in both directions. For example, waves of aspiring bowmakers periodically flood into the industry, driving log prices upward. This pushes established bowmakers to quit, so log prices collapse. Although he didn't use the phrase, my son was describing a classic boom-bust cycle.

This account of two-way price moves fits with the remarkably detailed data one can find on trends in computer-game currencies, which trade against the dollar on well-developed markets. Of the 14 online games tracked by, 10 have currencies that have fallen against the dollar over the past month, confirming the insight that games tend to monetary populism and inflation. But three of the games have steady exchange rates, and one game, "Eve," has a currency that's gained 15 percent against the greenback since November -- support for the view that deflation can occur in virtual economies.

I'm sure that not all games are good for you, just as not all movies or newspaper articles improve your intellect or morals. Williams, the professor at the University of Illinois, has studied the impact of computer games on social patterns, and he finds results both good and troubling. But games that teach 11-year-olds about inflation or history can't be all evil, and they may be an improvement on Clue or Monopoly for all I know. Besides, kids clearly enjoy them. That surely ought to count for something.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company