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InfoWorld Interview

SAN FRANCISCO, CA-- What starts with P and rhymes with T and that spells trouble?

Arcade games? Not according to psychologist and industry consultant David Van Nuys.

Van Nuys, who works with personal-computer-industry consultant Tony Wolff and is a member of the psychology department at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, California, thinks that those who are attacking the video-arcade-game phenomenon are misplacing their criticism.
"What I'm hoping is that the demand from consumers will be pushing manufacturers to outdo themselves, and that, as a result of that, there will be serendipitous breakthroughs and serendipitous spin- offs, much as there was with the space program," he says.

Van Nuys, who has worked as a consultant for Atari, is enthusiastic about the potential of video games for changing the way people learn and think.

Echoing MIT computer scientist Seymor Papert, he says, "I think these games, in ways that we don't yet understand, are giving people tools to think with."

Van Nuys acknowledges the concerns that are being voiced around the country about video-game arcades becoming teenage hangouts, but he feels that parents should look beyond the setting and more closely at the technology.

"I'm a parent, too, and I don't want to in any way downplay the legitimate concerns that exist about the kind of atmosphere in which these games are played," he says. "At the same time, amidst the hysteria about how menacing these games might be to our youth, I think it's important to ask what is positive about them."

Van Nuys sees plenty of potential for positive effects from the games. "When you look at kids who supposedly, when they're in school, have a minuscule attention span and who are able to spend hours in front of an arcade game, you have to ask yourself why."

He thinks that there is something inherently interesting in arcade- game techniques and that educators and parents would do well to look at those techniques more closely to see if they might be put to benevolent use.

"The reason why games grab the kids is that they are interactive," he notes. "They give you immediate response. For that reason alone they are a step out of the dark cave of television into the light of day.
"Instead of having the kid lost in a mind swamp of total passivity, watching TV for hours on end, the kid is interacting with an environment that is pushing his horizons."

Van Nuys argues that the reason that kids love arcade games so much is that the kids respond to being challenged: they want the experience of mastery.

He also thinks that B.F. Skinner's educational theories have fallen short, not because of their substance, but because of the shortcomings of the medium of the printed page, which was employed by programmed-learning texts in the past.

"Skinner was on the right track, but his technology was much too slow and too limited," he claims. "If you look at arcade games, by contrast, they give instantaneous response. As soon as you do something, the machine does something back."

As a result, he argues, the machines continually push players to the limits, and in the process, they teach them new, and often subtle, skills.

"I think that the skills [learned from arcade games] have applications that we can't see," he suggests. "We live in a culture that has valued the word and the intellect, yet body knowledge exists. We know that it is very important for athletes, artists and musicians."

Van Nuys also feels that our society has failed to provide teenagers with what he calls "mythic challenges."

"Teenagers sit in school for years and years and they hunger for life- and-death kinds of challenges. There's a myth involved in playing an arcade game. It provides a framework that allows people to act out or role-play being a hero, and I think that that's more important than the aggressive component," he says.

In the future, software designers are going to be pushed to create games that are in fact complex simulations of real-life situations.

"Why can't a kid have pretty much the feel and experience of flying a jet trainer?" he asks. "You can also simulate whole societies and complex problem-solving operations."

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