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Last summer, I spent more than $500 to send my son Akira to computer camp for a week, and he came home a game champion. (来源:EnglishCN英语博客基地)

He won the Starcraft local and regional tournaments run by the camp and then placed fourth in the national tournament. The entire competition was played online.

My feelings about Akira’s success, which made him a hero to the other computer campers, budding nerds and geeks all, were mixed at best. I thought I’d wasted my money. I was expecting him to pick up some skills that would make him employable in the real world.

Oh, he did learn a bit of programming, in between games, and he says he wants to major in computer engineering in college.

Akira says games motivated him to learn how the computer works. “If it weren’t for games, I wouldn’t use the computer,” he says. “And I did learn more about how the computer works, and how to change the settings and configurations and so on, because you have to do that to play these games.”

But does he think computer games really teach him useful computer skills? “No,” he admits, “it’s just for fun.”

Like many parents, I struggle with the issue of computer games. Are they a waste of time and money? And I wonder what, if any, real-world skills my kids are gaining by playing them. So I rounded up a few experts to get some answers. Here’s what they had to say.

The bad news

Sorry if you were hoping all those hours spent playing Battle Tech were going to turn your child into the next Bill Gates. The simple truth is, it probably won't.

“Kids learn next to nothing about computers by playing computer games,” says Jay Sax, a computer professional with years of experience in systems administration and programming. He has also played computer games, in online multiplayer games in particular, since the early 1980s, so he's no armchair critic. Until recently, Sax also reviewed games as cofounder of a now defunct game review Web site, GameCommandos.com.

If a child knows nothing about computers and is presented with a computer and a game, Sax says, the game may inspire enough interest to result in basic learning, such as mouse and keyboard use, and perhaps even booting and restarting and other simple operations. “You've got to be able to turn it on, after all,” Sax says. “But in most cases that's about it.”

He adds, “Remember learning to drive? Most kids just learn to drive. A few learn to drive and then end up being fascinated with cars.... They become mechanics. In the same way, some kids will learn to play a game on a computer and then get sidetracked into learning more about the computer itself.

“In both cases it's mostly an accident.”

A slightly different story with younger kids

Of course, younger kids need to learn to turn on a computer and use a mouse, and games are one way to motivate them to do this. They may also use a computer to learn shapes and colors, or even to improve their reading or math skills.

Vicki Matthew, who runs the business HouseCalls: The Computer Tutors in Qualicum Beach, a small town on Vancouver Island in Canada, gave her sister’s almost-four-year-old twins some computer games for Christmas.

Matthew says the twins are allowed 20 minutes a day on the computer. “Those two have definitely learned mouse skills,” she says. “They are very adept at using the mouse. They get a lot of pleasure and at the same time are learning colors, shapes, and pre-reading skills. There's no doubt in my mind that the computer is useful to them.”

Matthew qualifies this by adding that she thinks computer time needs to be limited, as it is for her sister’s children.

She says their six-year-old brother is using his reading skills to play a game called Midtown Madness. “It’s probably a bit of a time-waster,” she concedes, “but he’s having fun and that’s good.”

With older kids, it depends on the game

Brian Chin, a senior producer in the New Media department at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, says some games can help teach kids problem-solving, analytical, and strategic-planning skills. “I suppose the classics here would be Myst and Riven,” Chin says, “which were basically elaborate puzzle games masked in elaborate simulated environments (which players also had to learn to navigate) backed by a rich, invented mythology (which players had to largely deduce from various clues).”

Chin says that the early text-based Infocom adventure games (like Zork) were really nothing but problem-solving games in a very abstract context that probably helped kids’ verbal skills as well. More recent graphical games like Tetris and Windows Minesweeper also help develop problem-solving and pattern-matching skills, he says.

“If done right, if thought out properly, I think computer games can help teach children other things as well,” Chin says. “Some, of course, have been deliberately educational. The Carmen Sandiego games are useful for teaching geography and history in bite-sized information bits. Many kids probably have at least a theoretical grasp of urban-planning issues from whiling away the hours in front of SimCity.”

 
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