Letter to the editor

To the Editor,

Last semester you published an article “American Boys are Short-Changed in School,” that dealt with declining school performance by males. I found this article important, especially with regards to the issue of gender bias in our classrooms. Many ask why there are such discrepancies between the two genders in regards to school performance. Dean Joe Mark gave many different contributing factors to explain the “demise in male education”- including a lack of positive male role models, the “ways literacy is taught to males and who is teaching them,” the reinforcement of stereotypical societal expectations of males to be “tough” and emotionless, the over-diagnosis of such disorders as ADHD, and the high usage by males in the field of interactive media such as computers and video games.

As a video gamer, I was immediately drawn to the last factor. I was not surprised to see video games mentioned, knowing they have been blamed for contributing to failing school grades and even school violence. However, I would argue that video games are not as much of a contributing factor as many would think in declining male performance at school.

Conflicting perspectives have become increasingly polarized as video games continue to evolve and as consumer demand for better interactive media continue to dominate worldwide entertainment markets. Are video games “cultural pollution” or is there a possibility that they actually develop skills that are valuable for gamers like myself?

The dominant anti-video game position is that they are wasteful and harmful, sequestering players in a solitary, make-believe world dominated by themes and images of violence, racism, sexism, and gore. Gamers, who can be as young as 8, are exposed to adult themes and questionable content that may inhibit their cognitive development. Certainly, study after study exposes the darker side of video game messages and communication through popular mainstream titles such as Grand Theft Auto. Prominent social psychologist Philip Zimbardo argues that “eat him, burn him, zap him are the messages rather than bargaining and cooperation.

Most games tend to feed into masculine fantasies of control, power and destruction.”

However, is this the only way to understand the video game? Are video games one of the main causes for the failures on students’ report cards? The answer is – not exactly.

It is parents’ responsibility to monitor their children’s exposure to negativity – but not all games deserve this rap, and although gamers may seem addicted to “purposeless” games, they are actually learning. According to Don Tapscott, gamers develop motor, language and social skills as well as “cognition, intelligence, reasoning, personality, and, through adolescence, the creation of autonomy, a sense of the self and values . in an interactive world.” Video games can “provide a unique learning environment … an interactive complex entity that is accessible at low cost and zero risk,” according to Henry Jenkins.

Indeed, the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), which advises the government on high priority subjects such as terrorism, has asked for greater investment from “the federal government, private industry and schools to explore the promise of video games . Their complexity . allows them to teach ‘higher order thinking skills such as strategic thinking, interpretive analysis, problem solving, plan formation and execution, and adaptation to rapid change” – in addition to increased reading, communication, conflict resolution and mathematical skills.

Many teachers have begun to integrate these technologies within the classroom. Greg Toppo notes that “about 500 elementary schools and middle schools this fall are piloting a game-based reading program.” According to Cliff Edwards, “game designers estimate that at least 10 percent of the classrooms in the nation’s 2,500 major school districts will use mainstream titles for learning, up from a handful five years ago. The adoption rate appears to be accelerating.”

The second point I would make is personal. In my experience, gamers are female as well as male – despite a stereotypical focus on the macho hero with common depictions of pathetic, weak, and scantily clad, anatomically impossible female supplementary characters. Both genders are exposed to these obvious, absurd gender stereotypes. In my own collection of over 30 games, many of which are current mainstream titles, I have only two that are geared more towards a female audience. This leaves female gamers little choice of what type of gender geared game to play – but it does not stop us from playing.

In a world dominated by thousands of different interactive technologies, video games are here to stay no matter what gender you are. Focusing on the potentially negative effects of video games on males masks other issues which I think really matter such as the lack of time in the classroom to work with individual students with learning problems, the pressures on schools and their staff to raise test scores thanks to NCLB, and a lack of understanding of the value of an experiential environment to avoid setting many students up for poor performance and failure.

Though I do not agree that all video games benefit students, I do find that video games are a strong source of additional learning in and outside the classroom. For years we have tried to turn the video game systems off and force students to read and write. However, maybe the time has come for us to leave the systems on.

– Courtney O’Keefe [Education & History Major]

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