Electronic Design

Can Gaming's Powerful Pull Get Kids Into Engineering?

It may seem ironic that today's most advanced chips are designed for what some might say is our most trivial of pursuits—gaming (see "Games Flourish In A Parallel Universe,"). Yet video games exert a powerful force, not only in the world of electronic design, but also on the psyches of our younger generations.

I'm a bit too old to be much of a gamer. Growing up, I could only spend so much time with Pong. But I vividly remember the lure of those first arcade games—Space Invaders, Pac-Man, and racing games. Still, any addictive tendencies were tamped down by the requisite pile of quarters to play.

I've never dedicated enough time to any of the home gaming consoles to master all those fast-action button combinations. The Nintendo Wii, with its "natural motion" controller, was supposed to be the thing that would hook non-gamers like me. But after an initial "wow, this is cool" burst of play, our Wii has been mostly gathering dust. It would be nice to competently compete with my son—a natural born gamer. But he's been so good from such an early age, my learning curve is all the more frustrating.

Joe, who is now 14, seemed drawn to gaming from the day he was born. I can remember him pretending to game when he was too young for his own gaming console, inventing imaginary controllers out of anything that had a lever or buttons. Like a lot of kids, gaming became his main social activity. When Joe gets together with friends, they game.

I can understand the pull. Joe and his friends get to explore exciting fantasy worlds and learn and prevail in challenging predicaments. And the graphics are amazing. I'm awed by both the hardware and software that renders these alternative universes. But like a lot of parents, I wonder about the consequences of too much gaming.

On the one hand, I figure, what is it hurting? Joe is a great student and a motivated athlete—recently chosen "student of the marking period" by his teachers. He isn't exhibiting any of the Center for Online Addiction's warning signs:

  • thinking about gaming during other activities
  • gaming to escape from real-life problems
  • lying to friends and family to conceal gaming

But there's no doubt gaming has a powerful psychological effect. Tetris, the simple yet mesmerizing game involving falling shapes, seems the most studied—apparently because players commonly dream about those shapes. Harvard Medical School's Robert Stickgold used Tetris to study how the brain "defragments" memories during sleep, filing the important ones and clearing the trivial. Stickgold found that video games permeate dreams because they create "perceptual memories," i.e, they're perceived as "first-hand" experiences.

Another Tetris study at the University of California, Irvine, showed that gaming raises cerebral glucose metabolic rates (GMRs), meaning a huge boost in learning and brain energy. Wired magazine explored whether gaming is an "electronic drug," noting "the elevated ‘GMR' high is why you get wired after hours of play."

But apart from brain chemistry, my real concern is that time spent gaming doesn't seem the least bit creative or intellectually stimulating. After all, these first-hand experiences are limited to what somebody else has already programmed and compiled. And since Joe says he wants to be an inventor, I wonder how sitting around flicking a joystick is ever going to be the path to scientific discovery.

When I voiced these concerns in a previous column (along with musings as to whether gaming could be a good draw to get kids into engineering), I commented that I couldn't buy Joe a kit to build his own gaming station. Well, I heard back from a number of you readers telling me to check out the Hydra Game Development Kit (see figure) designed by Andre Lamonte of Xgame Station and sold by Parallax.

One reader, Phil Pilgrim, called Parallax's products "a tinkerer's delight," noting that the company's robotics kits have been mainstays of the educational and hobbyist market for years. Xgame Station was designed with a mission to "educate a new generation of hardware and software hackers in the nitty-gritty, low-level world of hardcore game development."

That all sounds great, and I want to get Joe one of these kits. But clearly it's not a given that an attraction to playing video games will correlate to an interest in developing them. The Xgame Station aims to tap the "best ideas of history's most prolific hardware" and allow "immediate results and immediate fun, allowing users to put graphics on the screen in a few tight lines of code." Whether that can compete with fighting the monsters in Darkwatch remains to be seen.

TAGS: Medical TTI
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