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From the moment you start playing a video game, you face choices. And those choices, some experts say, often lead to educational experiences - sometimes even more enriching than what students get from sitting in traditional classrooms.

"That's not just because they want to have fun," said Indiana University researcher Sean Duncan. "That's also because (games) are meaningful, complex and tough decision-making spaces. They're learning when they play these games."

Indiana University is marching at the front of a national movement to promote video games in education. And, as Duncan's work in the university's Center for Research on Learning and Technology highlights, it's not just the made-for-learning math or spelling games that boost cognitive skills.

It can also be the popular video games that millions of children - and adults, too - remain glued to for hours on end: Skyrim, Minecraft and, yes, maybe even Grand Theft Auto.

Wait. But aren't video games just brain-melting evil sludge that corrupt our youth?

Hardly, Duncan says. (Well, sometimes. But we'll get to that later.)

"These open-world environments allow the learner to choose what they want to do," Duncan said. "These are things that we don't do at all in schools. We very rarely allow a learner to say, 'OK, you want to go off and do this? You figure out what you need to do and we'll give you the resources to do it.'

"No, it's 'Stay in the chair. Stay still. And we'll tell you what to learn.'"

He calls it "playful learning."

Making most of video games

IU has also joined the budding Higher Education Video Game Alliance, where Duncan helps hype video games for their myriad potentials: For instructional purposes, to increase tech literacy, as an art form and a culture, and to create high-tech job opportunities.

IU also plans to roll out a new game design major in fall 2015.

Last year, a study by the American Psychological Association found that rather than making children "intellectually lazy," video games fostered problem-solving skills and creativity. First-person shooter games developed spatial navigation. Losing at games made children more resilient.

Children often use video games, IU's Duncan says, as a playground. They make "virtual mud pies."

Take the wildly popular Minecraft. The game plops the player into an open virtual world, Duncan says: "What you do is you combine things, explore, create, build. But the game doesn't tell you how to do that. The social community around the game tells you how to do that."

They can - and have - even recreated the city of Indianapolis.

One of the minds behind building Monument Circle in Minecraft during last year's PopCon: Then-14-year-old JT Graham of Brownsburg.

His dad, John, worries a little bit about how much time the teenager spends wrapped around the computer, and he tries to keep JT away from the really violent video games.

But JT awed his dad with what he created: He snaked a labyrinth of caves and put a blimp in the Minecraft sky.

He has invented his own zombie video game. He has built game levels on virtual moons with other players from places like Portugal. He has watched YouTube videos until he can solve a Rubik's Cube.

"That was one of those parenting moments where I was like, Wow. My kid is active and wants to learn something," John Graham, 41, said.

Concerns about violence

Still, video games have endured significant backlash from parents concerned about the hours children spend zoned out in front of games and the exposure to jarring violence, hypersexualization and other types of mature content included in many popular games these days.

Frankly, IU's Duncan shares those same worries. He's bothered by the themes in games such as Grand Theft Auto. But at the same time, he sees problems with polarized conversations around video games.

"We want to think games are one thing or another," he said. "Games are going to save the world, on one hand, or games are going to turn us into killing machines."

Implicit in the national video game alliance's mission, Duncan said, is improving perceptions and understandings of games.

Studies on the effects of video games on young minds span the gamut.

A recent one from the University at Buffalo found players feel guilty when they commit immoral acts in games. On the other hand, research at Iowa State University has connected violent video games with making children more aggressive and less caring.

Out of the IU School of Medicine, a study a few years ago pointed to violent video games causing changes in brain activity that could eventually affect players' behaviors.

The Parents Television Council, an advocacy group headquartered in Los Angeles, opposes games that expose children to sex, violence and profanity - particularly those like Grand Theft Auto that are rated M, recommended for mature audiences ages 17 and up.

"What the games are doing is putting the child in the shoes of a horribly violent person," said Melissa Henson, director of grassroots activism and education.

She added: "There are video games out there that can be very instructive that can really encourage children with their creativity, their imagination. But I think I would want to steer kids away from the M-rated games and more in the direction of something like a Minecraft."

Henson also noted she would encourage parents to be careful about how much time their children spend in front of television or computer screens.

Taking the broad view

But parent Anna Lynch said she sees a bigger picture when her two daughters, 12 and 14 years old, play video games.

"They have understood that you're just trying things on, and you're understanding different perspectives in the world," said Lynch, 44 of Bloomington. "You don't always have to only wear that outfit. You get to try other things on, and that's OK. That doesn't mean you become that person.

"Learning to play is OK. That's a really valuable thing. I think taking yourself too seriously all the time is probably more of a danger than playing."

Her daughters are going to IU's Game Development Camp, where last week students designed games where jumping over spikes changed day into night, marshmallows faced off against evil-doers and late-night TV host Conan O'Brien hunted for cookies to eat.

Camper Evan Wilt, 17, of Martinsville, says he learns from subtle messages in video games. Not everyone notices them, he said - "but I feel like if you do see it, it's a very important part to the video game itself."

In his favorite game, Metal Gear Solid, "the main theme of the story is being yourself and trying not to be told that you are supposed to do this one thing," Evan said. "But instead, follow what you want to do."



Copyright 2014USAToday

Read the original story: Beating video game baddies moves minds up a level

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