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From the Arcade to the Lab: The New Science of Video Games

Most professors would agree that playing video games is not the best way for students to progress in their course work. But for a few students and professors, video games are their course work.

A growing community of scholars is practicing what they call "games research," a field that defies departmental classification. Chet Hedden, a Ph.D. candidate in education at the University of Washington and a games researcher, says he and his colleagues work from expertise in "psychology, software design, entertainment, education, social behavior, technology, values, and culture." But they share the same subject matter: electronic games.

For example, Mr. Hedden is studying ways in which the engrossing aspects of electronic adventure games could be used to motivate children in their schoolwork. "There was a lot of talk in the 1980s about video games' being addictive for kids," he says. "That could be good if focused on education."

Games researchers like Mr. Hedden are still a rarity in academe, so he turns to the Internet to find his colleagues. He moderates Psygame, an electronic discussion list with a membership of 43 games researchers.

One of the forum's primary functions is to allow members to get feedback on their work from scholars with similar interests. Some subscribers submit copies of their research papers to the list to solicit comments.

One list participant, Marv Westrom, a professor of curriculum studies at the University of British Columbia, is a member of a research group dedicated to using computer games in education. The group, Electronic Games for Education in Math and Science (E-GEMS), is helping grade-school students develop an interest in mathematics and science through the games. One of the group's projects is a game in which students can get help with mathematical puzzles from artificially intelligent computer programs that pose as characters in the game.

Julie, one of the game's virtual mentors, is also available to help users at E-GEMS's Web site. Because the game is intended primarily for fifth- and sixth-grade girls, Dr. Westrom says, Julie's areas of greatest expertise are popular music, movies, TV shows, and boyfriends.

Dr. Westrom finds the Psygame list most useful for keeping in touch with other games researchers, members of a field he describes as "esoteric." "Because it's so specialized, it's hard to get together."

Membership in the discussion list is limited to scholars with specific research projects or interests in the field. According to Mr. Hedden, the list at first was open to anyone, but its provocative title attracted as many game players as it did game scholars. Researchers interested in joining the list can get more information at

-- Kelly McCollum

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