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By Kate Metropolis
Public sentiment is both charged and confused on the potential for digital media to improve children’s lives, in Michael Levine’s view. Everyone concerned with the health and education of children urgently needs more well-designed studies to help clarify the potential of serious games and to seed meaningful standards in product design. Michael Levine, Ph.D., is Executive Director of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, New York.
Nearly 80 percent of all teachers and parents believe that mastery of digital technologies is as important to their children’s future as the mastery of basic skills like reading and mathematics, according to a recent poll conducted jointly by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center and Common Sense Media. On the other hand, the same survey reports that the majority of parents and teachers sees digital games and social media as far less useful, or even harmful, to their children. If a skeptical public is going to be persuaded that digital games can be valuable, Michael Levine argues, it is essential to conduct and report on scientific research that assesses their worth.
Children’s growth and development has been the focus of much of Levine’s professional life. He oversaw work in early childhood development and educational media for Carnegie Corporation of New York and was a senior advisor to the chancellor of the New York City schools before becoming the first executive director of the recently established Joan Ganz Cooney Center. The Cooney Center is an outgrowth of the nonprofit Sesame Workshop–the organization that saw educational potential in television and demonstrated it by developing Sesame Street. The two-year-old organization is dedicated to carrying out the twenty-first century analog: advancing children’s learning in the digital age, through research and advocacy.
As a child, Levine recalls, he was “a total sports nut. I was drawn to both the competitive and cooperative nature of game play and established a good deal of my personal and professional skills through being on teams.”
Not surprisingly, then, a key point that Levine makes to the Center’s core audience of leaders in research, industry, policy, digital technology, and philanthropy is that learning is inextricably tied to healthy development. Children who suffer from health risks like obesity, diabetes, and asthma are more likely than their healthy peers to miss school, which leads to poor academic achievement. They are also less likely to participate in sports, which, in addition to exercise, provide experience in cooperation and creative problem solving within a framework of rules.
“Learning and health are areas that offer great untapped potential for innovation with technology,” he says. “Games can help bridge the gap between home and school, as well as provide tailored learning experiences for children.”
The Cooney Center released a report in June aimed at galvanizing leaders in key fields to invest in more interdisciplinary research and to create suitable distribution and business models for serious games. The report, Game Changer: Investing in Digital Play to Improve Children’s Learning and Health, states that “digital games can . . . be effective in improving children’s health, from physical fitness and health promotion to disease management.”
The report goes on to call for “a rigorous, large-scale research program [in the field of health games].” One of the biggest challenges Levine sees is building a consensus on how to assess and measure the impact of digital media. Essential markers for rigor and scale, in Levine’s opinion, are the standards for health-oriented research set by the National Institutes of Health and other important bodies like the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. Before heading into the course of random assignment, double-blind clinical trials, however, he believes research should focus on how digital games may fit into promising and proven practices: do they increase the efficacy of health promotion practices, health delivery practices, or professional reforms?
The commercial success of games that promote physical activity, such as Dance Dance Revolution and Wii Sports, demonstrates that there is definitely a market for this genre. “The question is,” says Levine, “how can we improve the design and formative and summative research methods so that games will not only be engaging and entertaining, but show real concrete behavior change and skill acquisition?”
Government and philanthropists have roles to play in encouraging research in the field of serious games, Levine believes. He advocates federal and state R&D initiatives to increase coordination and collaboration among academic researchers, organizations specializing in health and learning needs, and the digital media industry. He would like to see investment and incentives to spur public-private partnerships, such as research networks to help set priorities and transfer knowledge across disciplines.
“Commercial game makers are masters at developing, marketing, and distributing games,” he says. “Having them team up with organizations specializing in health and learning needs to develop new games and conduct research could accelerate innovation of serious games that demonstrably improve children’s learning and health.”
Digital games for health are now at a crucial point, in Levine’s view. “Many kids, at earlier and earlier ages, are not getting the physical exercise they need to develop healthy habits for life. Digital media use can contribute to these normative behaviors. We need to look to another model of utilization: one that encourages children and their families to link their virtual behaviors to important physical and health promotion activities.”