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Video games teach kids 'new literacy': Do you buy it?

When you check in with your kid, who is now into hour three of his Halo marathon, you repeat that well-worn phrase your mother used on you about killing brain cells and trading in the controller (well, it was a joystick back in your day) for a book.

But are video games really the anti-books?

A new article on PBS's Mediashift web portal presents a different argument: our definition of literacy is outdated. Kids may be learning a "new literacy" through playing video games.

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"They are learning a new interactive language that grants them access to virtual worlds that are filled with intrigue, engagement and meaningful challenges. And one that feels more congruent with the nature and trajectory of today's world," writes Aran Levasseur.

Exploration is a key part of learning and gaming encourages it, he says. Also, unlike many academic pursuits, it lets kids fail without making them feel like they've failed.

It's just understood that you'll have to keep practicing to advance through levels and put your problem-solving skills to work.

He addresses the most frequent critique of video games -- that their content is often offensive -- too: "Games are based on problems to solve, not content. This doesn't mean that game-based problem-solving should eclipse learning content, but I think we are increasingly seeing that a critical part of being literate in the digital age means being able to solve problems through simulations and collaboration."

In the last decade, many academics and digital opinion leaders have been exploring this issue and reaching similar conclusions.

A 2008 study completed by researchers at Fordham University found students in grades 5 to 7 improved their cognitive and perceptual skills after playing a video game they'd never seen before.

In 2006, Will Wright, the creator of The Sims, wrote in Wired Magazine that the new generation has a completely different way of completing tasks: they don't bother reading instructions and then attempting to solve a problem. Instead, they figure things out through trial and error, as they've learned to do through video games.

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"It's a rapid cycle of hypothesis, experiment, and analysis. And it's a fundamentally different take on problem-solving than the linear, read-the-manual-first approach of their parents," Mr. Wright says.

Mr. Levasseur wraps up his Mediashift piece encouraging parents to play games themselves so they can properly engage with their kids on this new type of literacy. He says, "Not learning how to play games would be akin to talking about 'The Lord of the Flies' without having learned to read."

Will you join in? And does this change your attitude about video games?

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About the Author

Dakshana Bascaramurty is a national news reporter who writes about race and ethnicity. She won a 2013 National Newspaper Award in beat reporting for her coverage of changing demographics in the 905 region. Previously, she was a feature writer for Globe Life. More

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