Good news: Video games without violence or sex!

September 05, 2005

Waltham, Mass. - September means back to school for millions of youngsters, though the beginning of a new year may put very little dent in the time many kids spend playing toxic video games replete with car jackings, explosions and shoot 'em up scenes. But the on-line launch of two new video games in safe, multi-player environments may ease the transition from crashing and burning to algebra and geometry.

The launch of MoneyBEE.org and PatternBEE.org, free, on-line multi-player video games, may help revolutionize how kids in grades 2 through 8 learn basic skills. These games follow the successful launch last year of SpellBEE.org, the first-ever on-line, multi-player spelling bee, which has attracted over 25,000 users. Both new sites use the same login and password created for SpellBEE, but instead of English literacy, focus on problem-solving skills valuable for future scientists and engineers.

The games are the brainchild of computer scientist Jordan Pollack and his lab at Brandeis University, the Dynamical and Evolutionary Machine Organization (DEMO), which researches the principles of self-organization in complex systems. After many years of studying simulated evolution, Pollack and colleagues in the DEMO lab realized that these systems tend to reach equilibrium, or a fixed point, through monopoly or collusion between competitors, at which point learning stops. As part of this research, they developed theories and strategies to prevent collusion and enable continuous learning.

"Most games are competitive, a zero-sum equation in which the same players always win and lose, with negative side-effects for education," explains Pollack. "But the BEE games create an entirely new incentive structure which rewards players both for success at problem-solving as well as for creating just-difficult-enough challenges for their partners, which requires ongoing assessment."

In MoneyBEE, two players create traditional coin problems for each other, such as figuring out which four coins add up to 30 cents. Solving money problems uses pre-algebra skills involving number sense, arithmetic, problem solving and mental visualization. PatternBEE is a game in which the players challenge each other with geometric puzzles using a rare version of Tangrams. PatternBEE builds skills in geometry, problem-solving, pattern recognition, spatial reasoning, and creativity.

In a single game, the winner is the one who solves more problems correctly, while providing his opponent with problems that are neither too easy nor too hard. "Everyone becomes a winner when they have another person who motivates them to focus on solving problems just within or beyond their reach." says Pollack, who was named one of MIT Technology Review's TR 10 in 2001.

At a time of rising concern about children's safety and privacy on the Internet and the corrosive effect of sex and violence in video games, these websites provide a welcome haven. To ensure privacy, the websites do not collect name or email addresses; players simply choose a nickname for themselves. There is no "chat" or email contact through the sites; players communicate only by the strategic choices they make in the game.
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The research and development of the on-line BEE video games were funded by combined grants of about $450,000 from The National Science Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

All three websites, as well as the DEMO website, can be accessed at www.BEEweb.org.

Brandeis University

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