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

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

by Greg Toppo


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781137279576
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 04/21/2015
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 626,651
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Greg Toppo is USA Today's national education and demographics reporter. Toppo was a 2010 Spencer fellow at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism and in 2011 he co-led the team that investigated cheating in the nation's public schools, most prominently in Washington, DC, schools under then-Chancellor Michelle Rhee. He lives in Ellicott City, Maryland.

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The Game Believes in You

How Digital Play Can Make Our Kids Smarter

By Greg Toppo

Palgrave Macmillan

Copyright © 2015 Greg Toppo
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-7945-4



How I Got Curious about Video Games

Robert Frost said that a poem begins as a lump in the throat. This book began as a sharp pain between the eyes. About twelve years ago, I asked my then-eleven- year-old daughter to name her favorite book. She looked at me as if she'd just noticed I had fins and gills — the question seemed that unusual to her — and I wondered, Do kids have favorite books anymore? Do books even register?

This was a child who was practically perfect in every way. She got straight A's, was crazy about playing the cello. A happy, gifted math whiz who could read several years above grade level, she was confident and college bound, the fifth grader that America wishes it could clone. If this kid didn't like reading, what chance did reading have?

She'd grown up in a house with books in every room, including the kitchen and each of the bathrooms. I'd been a teacher for the first few years of her childhood, so I'd collected cases of children's books. They lined the shelves in her room and her little sister's room. At least one Sunday a month found us at the local Barnes & Noble, eating, drinking, and browsing the shelves and bringing even more books home. This was a house where you couldn't eat dinner until someone cleared the newspapers and magazines off the kitchen table. We had more overdue library books than most people had books. To be fair, perhaps we overdid it. But given a choice after six years of schooling, my daughter might never again have picked up another book. She was not alone. One survey found that one-third of high-school graduates never read another book — for the rest of their lives. I'm a journalist, so I started looking for someone to blame.

Nearly every daily influence in her life seemed a culprit: parents, teachers, friends, TV, music. Maybe it was her evolutionary birthright as a member of a race of restless hunter-gatherers. Or maybe, just maybe, reading — sustained, focused, calm, contemplative reading — had simply become too much trouble. I began researching relentlessly and found that kids were as steeped in books as ever — in 1954, public-school libraries had three books for every student. By 2000 they had seventeen. But even as the number of books increased, reading seemed to have lost its appeal. Seventeen-year-olds' reading skills were essentially unchanged over more than forty years, even as nearly all other indicators of well-being rose. Meanwhile, between 1984 and 2012, the proportion of seventeen-year-olds who said they "never" or "hardly ever" read for fun had grown threefold. Never? Hardly ever? Gilbert and Sullivan jokes aside, this was bleak.

I was, it turned out, not the only one wondering what was going on. Tech writer Nicholas Carr noticed that his newish habit of surfing the World Wide Web, with its hyperlinks and hunts for information, had rendered him practically incapable of finishing a book. He worried that we'd "evolved from being cultivators of personal knowledge to being hunters and gatherers in the electronic data forest." The artist and writer David Trend, looking for the source of his eight-year-old daughter's "mysterious problem with the written word," came face-to-face with this: "In most of her life, she doesn't need reading," he said. Her world was driven by images, media, and interactive technologies, all so inviting and easy to access that learning to read "feels like a conspiracy invented by grown-ups and school."

Most research on reading habits by then had found that upper-income, well- educated Americans read more than others, but even this statistic was in danger of fraying. By 2005, Northwestern University sociologist Wendy Griswold was beginning to talk about the emergence of a small, elite "reading class," much like a "leisure class" or "chattering class," that considers books very important, even as millions of Americans each year drop reading from their daily lives. It wasn't clear, she wrote, whether as a result reading would become a prestigious, rarefied skill or an "increasingly arcane hobby," like needlepoint or playing the autoharp. Griswold found that while educated people still read the most, younger educated people's reading had declined much the same as that of their less-educated peers. She foresaw an entire generation who can read but choose not to. The effect, she said, is the same as if millions couldn't read.

Was it the teaching? Yes, said longtime educator Kelly Gallagher, who in 2009 coined the grim term "readicide" to describe what he saw happening in schools nationwide. Like many of his colleagues, he was distressed at how schools were putting test prep before authentic learning. But he also saw that teachers, beyond the reach of administrators, were both "overteaching" and "underteaching" important books — when they weren't removing them altogether. Teachers were covering material too quickly and drowning students in "a sea of sticky notes, marginalia, and double-entry journals." As a result, he said, kids' love of reading was being starved in the one place where it should be nourished. "Intentions are not the problem," he wrote, "our practices are the problem."

The odd thing was that this crisis seemed to be hitting just as children's books were enjoying a rare moment in the sun. At the time, you couldn't help but look around and see that kids were reading and enjoying massive books, hardback novels of the sort that my generation would have considered uncool. The Harry Potter series and, a few years later, the Twilight books grabbed kids' imaginations and didn't let go. In 2008, the Harry Potter books occupied seven of the top nine spots on the "Top Books" list of my employer, USA Today. By 2010, the Twilight titles had spent two years in four of the top spots. When I met the great children's novelist M. T. Anderson, he told me that he'd worked in children's publishing in New York in the 1990s, and that if he had suggested a series of 700-page children's novels, he would have been laughed out of midtown Manhattan. "The prevailing wisdom was, 'No kid will ever read that book. That is a ludicrous thing to do.'" Now, he said, books of 700 and 800 pages are international best-sellers. "Vast series, taking up thousands of pages, are read by every child."

So given the right books and social cues, kids could ingest large quantities of print. Were they really "reading less"? The question was tricky. Depending on how you asked it, you got different results. What did it even mean? How did you measure it? Minutes of reading? Pages consumed? Pounds of wood pulp whipped into vampire novels?

Eventually, a more interesting question emerged:What are kids paying attention to these days?

What I found was that they were paying attention to pretty much everything: books, music, movies, television, fashion, dance, science, history, economics, politics, photography. And they were paying attention to each other. Everything but school and the ways it was asking them to slice and dice academic disciplines. The amazing devices in their lives had given them access to a whole new world, as well as a different way of thinking about the world. We were living in what educator Will Richardson called a "moment of abundance" that granted our kids access to virtually everything, all the time, on their own terms. School seemed to be struggling to keep up.

Video games typified this abundance better than almost anything else. Soon, everywhere I looked I saw that games were becoming a kind of cultural force that couldn't be ignored. They presented a way for young people to spend time together, to challenge each other, to blow off steam, to learn new things, and, in the end, figure out where they stood socially. In many cases kids loved the games themselves, in others they embraced the groups that formed around them to talk and write about the game, share hacks and news, and challenge each other to design new levels that were often jaw-droppingly difficult. Game designer Robin Hunicke has noted that Facebook is actually a complex, massively multiplayer online game, with challenges, rewards, and levels just like any other. Think about it for a second and you'll realize that the rules are simple: be the most fun, intelligent, witty, caring version of yourself. The benefits are obvious, Hunicke observed: Facebook "makes people feel like they matter, like they have friends and family across all kinds of distances," she said. "How many games make you feel loved?"

Many kids play games to work through personal problems and frustrations, and many turn to them to vent or grieve. A surprising number of young men I met, many from families of divorce, play games to spend time with their fathers, both in the same room and across great distances. I met a young college student named Erik Martin who discovered World of Warcraft, or WoW, the massively multiplayer online role-playing game, or MMORPG (it's often shortened simply to MMO), while recovering from a case of anorexia nervosa so severe that it landed him in the hospital for a month and a half during his freshman year in high school. The game, he said, saved his life. He's not alone: a Tumblr page, "How Games Saved My Life," details the "life-changing power of video games."

Probably the best example of an MMO, WoW takes place in a vast fantasy world populated by trolls and elves and fire-breathing dragons, but Martin, fourteen years old at the time, found refuge, strength, and unconditional support in the human friendships he forged there. "I found it exhilarating to be in a space where I couldn't be judged on anything except how well I did in the game," he told me. "It's sort of a pure meritocracy. Nobody cares where you're from (he was from rural southern Maryland), nobody cares what you look like, nobody cares about anything except how you play the game." Martin began playing WoW at a friend's house — he knew his parents wouldn't approve, and actually, he thought the game was a waste of time at first. But it quickly grew on him and he eventually saved up enough cash to buy himself a laptop computer so he could play in bed, under the covers, at night. By seventeen, he was a guild co-leader, directing the strategy, tactics, and movements of forty players, but also remembering to send guildmates birthday presents and baby shower gifts in the real world. "It gave me this space that was actually very, very empowering," he said.

Video games were also growing so fearsomely realistic and sophisticated that they were giving rise to a strange phenomenon: players were using them to learn about and reflect on the world in ways their early developers had never intended. Games were recalibrating players' expectations of life itself, a development about as far removed from the hand-eye predations of Pac-Man as anyone could possibly have imagined. Visiting London once, video game critic Tom Bissell wrote that he found his way from Trafalgar Square to the British Museum simply from memories of having played the open-world driving game The Getaway. Alex Hutchinson, creative director of the best-selling Assassin's Creed games, told me that he had gotten letters from players who had visited Venice because of Assassin's Creed II. He also heard from students saying they had aced exams based on what they'd learned in-game about the Borgia family. No one would confuse the Mature-rated series with educational games, but the response, he said, proved that history can be "alive and intense and fascinating, something that sticks with them and isn't just disposable."

In his 2011 book Video Games and Learning, Kurt Squire, the University of Wisconsin researcher, remembers sitting in high-school history class as the teacher quizzed students on Spanish colonialization. In a Ferris Bueller moment, the teacher asked if someone — anyone! — knew what kinds of ships each European nation had. Squire raised his hand and, as if channeling the textbook, said the Spanish had galleons to carry gold. "The French mostly hadbarques. The Dutch, fluyts. The English, merchantmen. If you saw a pinnace, that was French, Dutch, maybe even a pirate." Squire explained that the Dutch "were mostly traders. They didn't have much territory, although Curacao was a great trading base." His classmates were stunned — Squire's on-the-spot dissertation delayed an inevitable test — and they wondered where he had consumed all this material. "It was, in fact, the result of my spending way too much time playing Sid Meier's Pirates! on my Commodore 64," he wrote.

The stories kept coming. Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Raheem Morris once told the producers of Madden NFL that playing their game had influenced the way he runs his team. In 2009, while scoring a game-winning touchdown, Denver Broncos receiver Brandon Stokley killed five crucial seconds from the clock by running parallel to the goal line, "an unconventional move familiar only to anyone who has ever picked up a control pad," wrote ESPN's Patrick-Hruby. A few weeks later, in Super Bowl XLIV, New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton told his players to go for a touchdown on fourth and goal at the end of the first half, bypassing an easy field goal. They opened the second half with an onside kick. Former NFL coach John Madden, the video game series' namesake, reportedly watched the game from his California studio, "incredulous and oddly transfixed" at the spectacle. "I was thinking, 'S —, this guy is playing a video game!'"

In preparation for the 2010 World Cup soccer tournament, Gordon Durity, audio director for Electronic Arts Canada, which produces EA's sports titles, sent a crew to South Africa a few months in advance to capture the sounds of a typical game. He sat down with an engineer to listen to the audio they'd captured. "I kept hearing this beehive going on," he recalled. "What is this thing? This is driving me bonkers!" The engineer said the drone was coming from thousands of plastic vuvuzelas blown by fans. "You have to have it or it's not authentic," he told his boss. Durity decided he'd keep the vuvuzelasbut give players the option to simply turn the drone off. When the actual World Cup began, he recalled, "People were saying, 'How come the TV channels can't just put a mute button like they do in the actual video game?'"

In a way, British journalist Jim Rossignol offers the best explanation for games' appeal. They're a "voracious" medium, swallowing up most of the others — music, comics, fiction, television, sculpture, animation, architecture, and history. Games, he wrote, are "a kind of ultimate decadence. They are as expensive to produce as anything else on earth and utterly rooted in the pursuit of pleasure. These are sophisticated, arousing experiences that have few of the ugly side effects of drugs or debauchery. They are the indulgence of animal impulses without actual violence or brazen depravity."

In other words, they're the perfect thing to bring to school.

As soon as I started poking around the world of games, I found teachers trying to sneak games into their classrooms, convinced that they would improve learning. To my delight, I found that most of those who had laid the groundwork for this movement were not only still alive and well, but also eager to talk. I initially thought I'd be able to track down everyone, count them on two hands, and interview them all. I not only found that there were more people than I could talk to — there were more people than I could ever talk to. Even now, almost every day I encounter game designers and educators whose work I can't believe I've overlooked. I found that most of them had gotten into this discipline not because they love games, but because they love children and want something better for them. After a while, I stopped counting the number of times that someone leaned in and told me, "I am not a big gamer."

As with most everything in the world of games, I soon discovered that all is not as it seems. When, after months of trying, I finally got access to Quest to Learn, the school in New York City that everyone calls "the video game school," I realized with a shock that most of the games being developed and tested there were paper based. Even as I visited classrooms there and elsewhere, where I knew that games were happening, I had to rethink my own prejudices. Once, as I walked around a noisy classroom at the PlayMaker School, a sixth-grade program that had recently become part of the private New Roads School in Los Angeles, I noticed two girls sitting together, staring idly in the corner. They seemed to be taking a break from an intense class-wide game that resembled a sort of Assyrian-era commodities trading floor. I came over to ask what they were searching for. What looked like slacking was strategizing.


Excerpted from The Game Believes in You by Greg Toppo. Copyright © 2015 Greg Toppo. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Prologue Hard Fun 1

1 A Kind of Ultimate Decadence 13

How I Got Curious about Video Games

2 To the Moon and Back in Five Minutes 25

How Disdain for Centralized Authority and an Impulse to Play Brought Us "Supercomputers Everywhere"

3 "Don't Kiss the Engine, Daddy, or the Carriages Won't Think It's Real" 39

How Games Work by Getting Us a Little High

4 The Game Layer 59

How Three Inventive Teachers Use Game Principles to Engage Students

5 Math without Words 77

How Euclid Would Have Taught Math If He'd Had an iPad

6 Rube Goldberg Brought Us Together 95

How a Group of New York City Teachers and Game Designers Are Redefining School

7 "I'm Not Good at Math, but My Avatar Is" 115

How a Subversive Suburban Teacher Is Using World of Warcraft to Teach Humanities

8 Project Unicorn 135

How a Heartless Media Conglomerate Could Spark a New Golden Age of Educational Gaming

9 A Walk in the Woods 153

How a First-Person Game Based on Tboreau's Walden Can Make Transcendentalism-and Reading-Cool Again

10 Throw Trucks with Your Mind 173

How Video Games Can Help Heal ADHD, PTSD, and Depression-and Help Kids Relax

11 The Opposite of Fighting 191

How Violent Video Games Really Affect Kids

12 The Ludic Loop 205

How to Talk to Your Kids about Their Gaming Habits 205

Epilogue 215

Games Everywhere 215

Acknowledgments 222

Notes 224

Index 243

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The Game Believes in You: How Digital Play Can Make Our Kids Smarter 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
KatyMessier More than 1 year ago
I love gaming so this book instantly stood out to me.  As much as I love playing games on my computer and tablet I hadn’t really thought of them on a level of learning.  After reading this book I’m realizing how the various games we play can actually improve how we think and interact.  I’ve always known some games were great for school – I remember a game called Number Munchers clearly in school when I was growing up.  What I hadn’t expected is how wide of a population games can reach – including children with limited English.  Interestingly enough, this book brought up the idea that gaming can in itself erase the need for these standardized tests that dominate schools in America now.  It was great information but at times it felt like I was reading an enjoyable text book and I got a bit lost in names and dates.  My favorite part of the whole thing was how it emphasized the need to make students want to learn, to enjoy learning. Disclosure: I received this free from the publisher through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.