T. Rees Shapiro reports on education for The Washington Post.

The Game Believes in You
How Digital Play Can Make Our Kids Smarter

By Greg Toppo

Palgrave Macmillan.
252 pp. $26

They are in your pants pocket. Your purse, too. They are in your living room, maybe also with you late at night in bed. Wheels up on a transatlantic flight? They are in the seat in front of you. At work? They are at your desk.

Video games seem to be everywhere these days, at the ready on phones for time-killing commuters, on tablets for droopy-eyed insomniacs, and (sorry, boss!) on the office computers of idle and admittedly less-than-ideal employees.

‘The Game Believes in You: How Digital Play Can Make Our Kids Smarter’ by Greg Toppo (Palgrave Macmillan)

Where else? Increasingly, Greg Toppo says, video games are popping up in classrooms around the country. “After decades of ambivalence, suspicion, and sometimes outright hostility, educators are beginning to discover the charms of digital games and simulations, and in the process rewriting centuries-old rules of learning, motivation, and success,” Toppo writes in his new book,“The Game Believes in You.”

Schools are the final frontier for video games, and their adoption has been slow but gaining steadily. (Even the chalkboard, Toppo notes, had an icy reception at first.) In this broad and thoroughly researched book, Toppo argues that video games are poised to transform not just schools but education at large. The appeal is obvious. Ask any parent who has tried to pry a child away from Minecraft, Angry Birds or Candy Crush. Video games clearly engage kids far more deeply than the average class at school — to the dismay of teachers and families alike.

What better tool to capture children’s fleeting attention spans than the exact thing that distracts them from school to begin with? According to Toppo, a national education reporter at USA Today, 65 percent of students in one survey said they were bored at least once a day in class. So perhaps the key to liven up learning is to harness games’ most obvious quality: fun. It’s a challenging task. Toppo points to a Georgia Tech researcher’s 1999 assertion that most attempts to make software educational and enjoyable “end up being neither.”

Modern video games encourage exploration and, above all, failure, concepts often missing from the classroom environment, Toppo says. He notes that, via dozens of attempts at particularly difficult levels, video-game players must innovate their path to success in a way that exemplifies the best kind of learning. The games are also built on a trove of player data that teachers could use to tailor lessons specific to classroom needs. Well-designed games, Toppo writes, “don’t reward casual effort, mindless repetition or rat-in-a-cage responses. Instead they reward practice, persistence, and risk-taking.”

The U.S. Department of Education and the National Science Foundation see games’ potential and have invested millions accordingly. The Gates Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation have together committed $100 million to educational gaming. Others may be harder to convince. Echoing a widely held sentiment, London Mayor Boris Johnson said in 2006 that video games reduce children to “bleeping and zapping in speechless rapture, their passive faces washed in explosions and gore. They sit for so long that their souls have been sucked down the cathode ray tube.”

Toppo counters with convincing arguments for games’ academic benefits. For example, he highlights the Pokemon game, which “taught children how to analyze and classify more than 700 different types of creatures through trading cards that were dense with specialized, technical, cross-referenced text.” Linguistics expert James Paul Gee once called Pokemon “perhaps the best literacy curriculum ever conceived,” noting that among poor and minority children, there is no such thing as a “Pokemon gap” in their knowledge of the game.

The effort to place games in classrooms is part of a larger movement called “gamification.” Making a game of something, Toppo asserts, greatly increases the ability to learn from it or improve one’s behavior. Take the Amsterdam airport urinals as proof. After sanitation workers placed a waterproof sticker with a picture of a fly in the best possible place on the porcelain, cleaners saw spillage drop 80 percent.

I’m sympathetic to Toppo, not only as a reporter who covers education but also as a student who spent more time playing Halo in college than I want to think about. But it’s unrealistic to say I learned anything material playing as a space commando named Spartan 117, aside from Halo’s chief objective: the best techniques for taking down enemy aliens.

Toppo dutifully explains, however, that there is no substantive correlation between video games and actual violence. He assails the combat scholar Dave Grossman, who once described video games as “murder simulators” without citing a solid source for the charge.

Toppo notes that the Columbine shooters, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, played Doom, but he also points to an experiment showing that preschoolers exposed to “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” were likely to express aggression afterward. Moreover, the Sandy Hook shooter, Adam Lanza, was obsessed with one especially nonviolent video game, Dance Dance Revolution. “We need to understand that shooting virtual opponents turns players into killers about as often as dancing on colored squares does,” Toppo sums up. Yet he later mentions that the Marine Corps has developed a version of Doom to help train infantrymen in the concepts of fire support, sequence of attack and ammunition discipline.

Studies already show that children ages 8 to 18 spend 7.5 hours a day in front of screens and 18 percent of that time playing video games. Other research highlights that 20 percent of all children say they performed badly on tests because of playing video games.

Whether video games deserve a more prominent place in classrooms will be left to teachers to decide. Toppo shows that the games clearly hold promise. But do we need more video games in schools when they have already spread everywhere else? Even Shigeru Miyamoto, the eminent game designer of Super Mario Bros., tells children, “On a sunny day, play outside.”