“Video games tend to have a bad reputation.” So begins “Learning with Games,” the first episode of iQ:smartparent, WQED’s new six-part series and online community on parenting media-savvy kids in the 21st century. But rather than jumping on the bandwagon of bashing video games, this episode takes a smart look at their power for learning.

Maybe it’s Pittsburgh, where mixing technology and education in innovative ways is commonplace, but the conversation on the set and the questions from the audience suggest that maybe the tide is turning in our love-hate relationship with video games. The questions were no longer fear-based, but inquisitive. What games should I be looking for? How can I get my teen interested in math through games? An educator working with children with emotional-behavioral disorders and autism told of the increased engagement and decreased destructive behavior after introducing iPads in the classroom.

The host of the series, Debbie Gilbao, noted that by the age of 21, the average young person will have spent 10,000 hours gaming—and parents are worried. The series helps parents understand what their kids are doing when they’re seemingly staring at the screen, and how to both encourage smart gaming and find balance. They’re turning the conversation around from what video games do to kids to what they can do for our kids.

They also discussed the move of gaming into the classroom. As CEO of Pittsburgh’s Schell Games, Jesse Schell, put it, kids love to be challenged, “they’re learning machines.” Games create graduated challenges that kids can work through. As one kid put it, “games are hard but then you get better.” That, in a nutshell, is what learning should be about. Well-designed games require patience, perseverance, collaboration—all the things we want to teach our kids.

Video games, Schell noted, also allow kids to become creators, not just passive consumers. Good video games require players to act in real time. They have story and character, and the player can be a part of that story and change it.

Being part of the story rather than passive consumers is also part of the National STEM Video Game Challenge, sponsored by PBS Kids and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Students are encouraged to design their own video games as a way to advance their skills in science, technology, engineering, and math. Four Pittsburgh middle schoolers won the national contest in 2012 for their game “Archers vs. Aliens.”

Connor Schexnaildre, Campbell Kriess, Justin Bicehouse, and Drew McCarron from Evans City Middle School (about 30 miles north of Pittsburgh) joined the show to discuss their game, which they built to teach kindergarteners basic math skills. Kriess learned the programming at a local tech camp over the summer, and the team collaborated on the idea, the artwork, and the concept.

It’s no longer just playing games, but creating them that is exciting kids. The Elizabeth Forward School District has developed courses, with the help of the Pittsburgh company Zulama, that teach kids programming and 3D and video art. The idea for Zulama was hatched at Carnegie Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center, where founder Nikki Navta was a student.

Elizabeth Forward is also the only public school in the nation to have a SMALLab—a high-tech video game of sorts that incorporates motion and learning. SMALLLab is changing the dynamic of the classroom. The kids are driving the instruction—they’re yelling encouragement to one another and truly getting excited about building a sentence or combining molecules.

But not all games are good, and unfortunately the games I mentioned above are still in the minority. First-person shooter games make up the vast majority of the multi-billion dollar industry.  Violent games are directly linked to aggression, according to Brian Primack of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. He discussed the latest research on the potentially harmful effects of gaming, including aggression, links to obesity, and social isolation. People are also concerned about the potential of violent games to desensitize children to violence and make them less compassionate. Quality, Primack says, is one of the key attributes to consider. Like a diet of junk food, a diet of violent games is never good. It’s all about balance.

Following broadcast of “Learning with Games,” Gilboa had this to say at the Huffington Post about how the quality of the games may determine the outcomes: The conversation, she says, taught her that what’s important to examine is not the number of minutes teens are spending in front of a screen, but what kind of experience they have when they use media. Screen time on its own is not the point, but the quality of that screen time.

Parents are clearly concerned. For those looking for guidance, the series is supported by Common Sense Media, an organization that helps families navigate the world of media and technology. They have a video game rating system with information and specific guidance on the content of video games. They also rate movies, books, apps, TV shows, websites, and music.

The takeaway of all the guests was the need for parents to be involved and participate in their child’s education. By providing forums for discussion, programming, and resources, iQ:smartparent can help parents, educators, and other concerned individuals have those important conversations. You can watch the full episode of “Learning with Games” at WQED. The next episode of iQ:smartparent, “Girls Growing Up with Media,” airs March 25 at 8:00 p.m.

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