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In December of 2003, I was back in NJ visiting family for the holidays and taking a week off from my job at a marketing and advertising agency/consultancy. I found myself side by side with my then 7 year old cousin as he showed me his newest games. At the time, Zoo Tycoon was on the wish list of most young (and older gamers), and we began to play…

I could barely keep up with his clicks as he moved back and forth, building and constructing fences. He added zebras and lions. And then I suggested he spend some money on “marketing.”

“Nooooooooooooooooooooo!” he yelled, taking his eyes off screen for the first time to explain. “Marketing takes all your money and does NOTHING for you!” I considered arguing (afterall, I spent most of my days advising clients not to keep their products and services a secret), but my cousin was the client at this zoo, and he had decided. No marketing. But a few more elephants wouldn’t be a bad thing.

In the gaming world, that was a lifetime ago. While there have always been those who advocate for gaming, the aides were certainly unbalanced. Images of DSD distracted babes in the backseat were giving parents pause. Educators focused on keeping games out of classrooms, and they worried that chalkboards and storytime wouldn’t seem so dynamic without weapons and levels. 

But a lot has changed since then. First, a lot of those gamers grew up! The halls of academia and the teachers in our classrooms were more likely to have grown up on games than not or at least have children who survived a life with a little bit or a lot of technology at their fingertips. Second, a lot of these game developers became better at articulating (through messages and products) a vision of gaming that went beyond simple entertainment to sophisticated play. And finally, we got past the panic phase of gaming and began to really consider its potential and power.

If there is a final frontier in gaming, the classroom might be it. (Check out the Joan Ganz Cooney Center for more on Digital Education.) But in Sara Corbett’s recent New York Times Magazine article, she features an innovative program called “Sports for the Mind,” at a school called “Quest to Learn,” which harnesses the inherent stickiness of games to teach a range of 21st Century Skills like creativity and problem-solving.  According to their website, Quest to Learn hopes to:

  • “Embrace game design as an agent of provocation, education, and change
  • Build new domains of knowledge connected to gaming, digital media and learning
  • Develop innovative curricula around gaming literacies and other 21st century skills
  • Create experiences bridging digital and non-digital learning environments
  • Foster new models of collaboration between students, educators, and professional game designers
  • Provide a space for the experimentation and exchange of ideas across creative, technology, and education sectors”

In short, it looks like we adults are starting to pay attention. What kids “play” inherently has meaning – and often tells us more about development than distraction. With levels to master, personal and public challenges to confront and overcome, learning of complex directions and learning to look under the rocks of virtual worlds, gaming seems to be offering kids knowledge that can’t help but make it offline, off the screen and into their real world.

Check out some of these online games (the technical term: Mirrored Games, where doing good in the game actually allows you to do good in the world) with a purpose:

Free Rice

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