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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Many parents wish their kids would spend less time at the computer playing games and messaging, and concentrate more on homework, sports or family activities.
One university professor, however, has come up with a combined solution that would integrate educational role-playing video games into the classroom.
Doug Thomas, an associate professor at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication, is developing a game for students ages 10 to 12 that aims to teach ideas and skills not found in traditional textbooks.
"Because games are experiential they might be good at teaching things that you learn through experience, and that are difficult to teach through books," Thomas said in an interview.
His game, "Modern Prometheus," uses the story of "Frankenstein" to teach ethical decision making. The player assumes the role of Dr. Frankenstein's assistant, who is forced to make a series of difficult choices that impact the game's outcome.
To complicate matters, Thomas and his team added a twist -- the assistant must help the doctor cure a plague that is threatening the town's residents. One dilemma is whether or not to steal body parts from a cemetery -- a key requirement for curing the disease.
"Stealing a brain is hard to justify ethically, but doing all this work that seems kind of shady in the present is actually going to save the town in the long run," Thomas said.
"We want them to really wrestle with doing things and ask 'Is it good for me, or is it good for everyone else?' There is no right way or wrong way to play it," he explained.
The aim, Thomas said, is for students to play the hour-long game individually, then discuss the choices they made with their teachers and classmates.
"It's not just a game but also the conversation that happens around it," Thomas said. "When kids play games they don't just play them, they also talk about them with each other. There's a huge amount of informal learning that goes on."
One challenge for "Modern Prometheus" and other classroom games is finding teachers willing to incorporate them in their lesson plans.
"It's really hard for teachers to work with an unfamiliar technology that the kids know more about than they do," Thomas said. "They feel like 'my job is hard enough already.'"
He also acknowledges that the game doesn't quite fit into many established middle-school curricula.
To overcome that obstacle, Thomas is collaborating with Indiana University Professor Sasha Barab, whose "Quest Atlantis" game is used by 4,500 students around the world. Currently in beta testing, "Modern Prometheus" is expected to be in some U.S. classrooms by spring.
The ultimate goal, Thomas said, would be to allow many players to experience and interact with one another inside the game. That could mean creating an environment for "Modern Prometheus" in a place like the virtual world Second Life, Thomas said.
That way, the game could reach a wider audience and potentially appeal to older teens, who are more fickle about what games they will play.
"It's not 'Halo 3,' but for the age group we are working with now it's pretty good," Thomas said. "We'd love to have it scale for a wider audience, but teenagers are the toughest because they are resistant to everything."
Reporting by Nichola Groom