Students at D.C.'s Leckie Elementary using ST Math, with funding from Hyundai Motor America. (MIND Research Institute/MIND Research Institute)
Columnist

I don’t do video games. I never have. I don’t own any pocket-size devices that would allow such activity. If I’m bored waiting in line, I pull out the latest Washington Post Outlook section — which I always carry wadded up in my back-right pants pocket — and catch up on books and contrarian thought.

I realize this puts me out of step with the modern world, particularly as I watch my grandson Ben trying out video games on my wife’s laptop. His parents discourage this at home, but the morning-care class at his school, where he is an afternoon kindergartner, has introduced him to many games, such as “Monsterland Junior vs. Senior.”

It is an amusing pastime, a smiling little box that he manipulates to drop down on a scowling big box. No mayhem. No blood. So despite my anti-game tendencies, I am willing to accept many of the arguments in USA Today reporter Greg Toppo’s new book, “The Game Believes in You: How Games Can Make Our Kids Smarter.”

Toppo is a former teacher and one of the best education writers in the country. He recognizes there is not much conclusive research on how video games affect children for good or ill. But his wonderfully written book tells the stories of many game makers and scholars who have found clear signs of such activity promoting learning.

Teaching machines, Toppo explains, go back to the 1920s. They experienced many downs and ups, and our current era might be the most promising. In 1960, the National Education Association’s Department of Audio-Visual Instruction published a source book on such devices that was 724 pages. A 1965 report ended that boomlet by concluding that the machines had no advantage over a good teacher with a textbook. A teaching machine might motivate pigeons, one expert said, “but in the long run bored people.”

Screenshot of the game Pushbox, which explores addition and subtraction situations. (MIND Research Institute/MIND Research Institute)

Toppo writes that “schools have long relied on games — they call them sports, clubs and band competitions — to get students excited about coming to school. In fact, these are often all that keep kids there long enough to graduate. But schools have rarely used academic competition to reach more than a few top students.”

That is changing. Toppo describes fourth-graders at the Rocketship Si Se Puede Academy charter school in San Jose doing math puzzles on ST Math software. Playing the game is fun and engaging, with a cartoon penguin named JiJi tottering across the screen to celebrate each solution. About a half-million students in 26 states learn math this way.

The book delves into the work of learning-game enthusiasts such as James Paul Gee, a former linguist. He and other thinkers bemoan the ravages of classroom boredom. A 2006 survey of high school dropouts found that only a third left school because they were failing. Nearly half said that classes were not interesting, and more than two thirds said that they were not inspired to work hard.

The learning-game activists question “many of our basic assumptions about learning,” Toppo writes. “Students, they said, may be checking out at school, but they were learning deeply at home, spending hours and hours immersed in MySpace, Facebook, World of Warcraft, and SimCity.”

That notion led to experimental public schools such as Manhattan’s Quest to Learn, organized around games. Students become adept at problem-solving, useful in many professions, even if their standardized test scores are only respectable. “We’d think we were failing in our vision if our school had the top test scores,” one Quest to Learn educator said.

Toppo finds more than enough to convince him that breaking away from the standard American school routine is worth the risk. We need to give students better tools, “then trust their creativity,” he says. He wants them to have “a chance to explore, to fail, to pick themselves up and try again.”

It’s too late for me to wander off old paths, but play has its uses. It is key to creative thinking. Ben just might have the right idea.

A screenshot of the game Fruit Monster, which explores multiplication and division situations. (MIND Research Institute/MIND Research Institute)