Still Think Video Games Make Kids Dumber? A Million Bucks Says You're Wrong

If kids are going to spend hours in front of a video screen playing computer games, as so many do, they might as well learn something in the process. At least that’s how the University of Chicago’s Game Changer Chicago Design Lab sees it. And the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation agrees.

The Chicago-based funder just awarded a $1 million grant to the Design Lab to support its development of game-based learning tools that promote academic achievement, health, civic engagement, and general well-being among urban youth.

We've seen some other grants for digital game-based learning lately, and quite a few funders are intrigued by the potential herenot to mention many for-profit education tech firmsbut we've never seen a grant this big. So much for the notion that video games turn kids' brains to jelly. 

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The Design Lab is part of the university’s Center for Interdisciplinary Inquiry and Innovation in Sexual and Reproductive Health. The grant from MacArthur will expand the Design Lab’s programs and ongoing projects, as well as fund the development of new games.

The lab also plans to broaden its efforts in schools and community-based organizations. It has conducted summer programs in the past and hopes to expand its games and programs beyond summer. The lab also hopes to create internships that will open STEM careers to youth from traditionally underrepresented groups.

Chicago youth collaborate with university faculty and students to create games and digital activities to explore social, academic, and health issues. Examples include “A Day in the Life,” a one-person role-playing game that simulates the everyday life of a high school student. Through interactive stories and decisions, the player works through the issues faced by today’s youth. A more academically oriented project is S.E.E.D., an extended game takes students through a series of activities and STEM-related challenges.

The Design Lab seems tailor-made for MacArthur’s funding interests. The funder’s Digital Media and Learning program grew out of its past education investments. After years of mixed results and few successes in its education grantmaking activities, MacArthur shifted gears about 10 years ago, turning its attention toward learning opportunities outside of school. The funder sees the Internet and digital media as driving new ways of sharing and organizing knowledge. Further, the Design Lab is in Chicago, the site of other MacArthur Foundation digital learning labs. These include YOUmedia at the Chicago Public Library’s downtown branch and Quest to Learn, a new school model developed in response to the learning potential offered by digital media.

Digital learning, whether through interactive games, blended learning, or online classes, is an approach to education that is likely to only grow in popularity, which means ample funding opportunities for schools, nonprofits, and other organizations exploring new ways of harnessing this technology. Funders such as MacArthur are taking noticeand writing bigger checks.