On a hot summer afternoon, eight teenagers gathered in the darkened basement of the Bronx Central Library to play the top-selling football video game "Madden NFL." The Madden tournament in the Bronx, complete with prizes, is part of a growing effort at libraries across the country to lure a client who rarely darkens the door of a public library: the adolescent boy.
"If it wasn't for the gaming stuff dragging me in that first time, I would have gone maybe once in the past two years," says Ian Melcher, 17, a gamer in Ann Arbor, Mich., who had just checked out two calculus books. "I realized the library was pretty cool and had other things I was interested in."
To persuade skeptical libraries to put video games on the shelf next to books, young librarians who grew up on games are drawing support from a surprising source: academic researchers. They claim that playing video games is practically a requirement of literacy in our digital age.
To many parents and baby boomers, playing video games looks like mindless activity. Yet the knowledge built into "Madden," for example, employs a playbook the size of an encyclopedia. To win, players must have a sophisticated understanding of strategy and make split-second decisions about which play to choose.
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"Games stress taking your knowledge and applying it. That's pretty crucial in the modern world," says University of Wisconsin Professor James Gee, author of the 2003 book "What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy."
Indeed, the argument that video and computer games are superior to school in helping children learn is gaining currency in academic circles. Claimed benefits include improved problem-solving, mastery of scientific investigation and the ability to apply information learned to real-life situations. Some of the more complex games, especially multiplayer games like "World of Warcraft" — played online simultaneously with thousands of players — lead some teens to engage in esoteric, online conversations about strategy and to create their own literary spin-offs or so-called fanfiction.
"Many video games require players to master skills in demand by today's employers," concluded a report released in October by the Federation of American Scientists. The organization urged the federal government to invest in research and development of educational games for K-12 students and for adult work-force training.
Science writer Steven Johnson, who popularized the pro-game argument in his 2005 book, "Everything Bad is Good for You," argues that when a child enters the world of a computer game, he is "learning the scientific method" as he tries out multiple hypotheses. For instance, today's youngsters don't first sit down and read a rule book the way baby boomers did. They start pushing buttons to see what happens.
As evidence that kids are willing to master language and concepts usually considered over their heads, Johnson describes an hour spent teaching his nephew to play the urban planning-style game "SimCity." While Johnson was trying to figure out how to save a dying industrial neighborhood, the 7-year-old piped up, "I think we need to lower industrial tax rates."
"SimCity" creator Will Wright says the youngster probably didn't understand tax rates any more than baby boomers understood mortgages when they played "Monopoly" as kids. But he thinks games teach something else. "The ability to reverse-engineer in your head a model of some arbitrarily complex thing is an incredibly valuable skill that you can apply to almost anything in this world," he says, whether that's doing your taxes, programming a new cell phone or predicting the effect of global warming.
Despite the worries of baby boomer parents, there's no evidence that video gaming is replacing reading among teens. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation survey, reading for pleasure has remained steady in the past five years even as video-gaming time has risen.
Nevertheless, anecdotes about teens and adults who skip meals, classes and even work to indulge in hours of video-gaming has led some to worry the games are addictive. Clinics have even sprung up claiming to treat "Internet addiction disorder."
But many psychologists remain skeptical. "There's hardly anyone I would class as a genuine video-game addict," says Mark Griffiths, professor of gambling studies at Nottingham Trent University in Nottingham, England. Few players, he says, meet a strict definition of addiction, which includes withdrawal symptoms and a preoccupation so single-minded that every other aspect of life is neglected.
Experts are also divided over whether graphic violence in games such as "Grand Theft Auto" has any lasting negative effects on players' behavior, despite a few cases in which a teen's murderous frenzy has been blamed on games by the victims' parents. Recent studies indicate that the younger a player is, the more likely he is to be negatively affected by video violence and the longer lasting the effect.
Aside from worries about addiction and violence, not all scholars are equally enthusiastic about the learning value of video games. In most games, the content is "garbage," says Harvard education professor Christopher Dede, "in the sense that it deals with imaginary situations that are not close to the knowledge and skills people need for the 21st century. To claim that learning magic spells is good preparation for the knowledge-based workplace is just plain silly."
Dede is among those interested in adapting one of the most popular offshoots of gaming — virtual worlds — to educational aims. Players create characters (or avatars) who enter a virtual world. Hundreds of thousands of teenagers now participate in virtual worlds like "There.com" and "Second Life," where they can create a character, buy clothes and real estate and meet other players' avatars.
But some advocates worry that all this high-level learning will be limited to middle-class kids, who have access to fancier, faster hardware and to educated parents who can guide their choice of games — creating a new equity gap on top of the existing reading gap between income groups.
A recent study of Philadelphia libraries with computers found that middle-class 12- and 13-year-olds typically used computers to increase their knowledge, by looking up — for example — Christopher Columbus on the encyclopedia site Encarta. But those from low-income neighborhoods were more likely to play "Magic School Bus," a game for 9-year-olds. The difference can be traced to the lack of guidance from a parent or other adult, which is as crucial for good games as for good books, says the University of Wisconsin's Gee.
"Giving a kid a book [or game] is OK, but with no adult to mentor the child and talk about the material it isn't very helpful," he says.