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Image: Bookworm Adventures: Vol. 2
PopCap Games
During his speech to schoolchildren Tuesday, President Obama told kids to spend less time playing video games. But gaming and education don't have to conflict. Brainy games like "Bookworm Adventures: Vol. 2" are perfect for studious minds.
By InGame reporter
NBC News
updated 9/11/2009 8:44:26 AM ET 2009-09-11T12:44:26

For a guy who once said he hadn’t played a video game since “Pong,” President Barack Obama sure has a lot to say about video games these days.

Or at least, he has a lot to say ... for a commander-in-chief.

Alas, most of the time, the leader of the free world doesn’t seem to have much good to say about games.

On Tuesday, during a speech to school children, Obama urged the future of America to spend less time playing video games.

“I’ve talked about teachers’ responsibility for inspiring students and pushing you to learn,” he said. “I’ve talked about your parents’ responsibility for making sure you stay on track and you get your homework done, and don’t spend every waking hour in front of the TV or with the Xbox.”

His speech arrived as children across the U.S. have begun fastening thinking caps securely to their skulls and diving headlong back into school. So it’s certainly no surprise that the Dad-in-Chief would want to encourage the nation’s children to buckle down and focus on their education.

But as GamePolitics.com points out, Tuesday’s speech was not the first time Obama has made a point of pointing a judgmental finger at video games. The President has, on numerous occasions, used video games as an example of how the youth of America wastes its precious time. His standard mantra is: Spend less time playing games so you can spend more time doing important things.

In a Father's Day message, Obama told dads everywhere that, “We need to replace that video game with a book and make sure that homework gets done…” And in a speech to the American Medical Association, the prez said that kids should “step away from the video games and spend more time playing outside.”

But for many people — children and adults alike — playing video games is important. For them, it’s time well spent. So what should video game enthusiasts make of Obama’s anti-gaming pep talks. Is he a hater, like, for real?

Nintendo fanboy in disguise?
While gamers tend to start booing and hissing every time Obama utters a half-sentence about their favorite form of entertainment, I say, “Whoa there nelly!”

I think we should thank our lucky stars we have a leader who knows that video games exist in the first place. After all, our commander-in-chief seems to understand that an Xbox is not a device that tells us why airplanes fall out of the sky. And I call that progress.

Image: Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box
Nintendo
Say what? President Obama wants us to spend less time playing video games? But is solving brain-challenging puzzles in the excellent new game "Professor Layton and the Diaboloical Box" really a waste of time? Or is it just another way to give our brains a good workout?
More importantly, according to the New York Times political blog, Obama’s daughters are the proud owners of a Wii. And guess what? The President of the United States of America even admitted that he’s used the Nintendo machine himself to practice his bowling moves (bye-bye “Pong,” helloooo “Wii Sports”).

Don’t you see ... it all makes sense now! Clearly the president isn’t a hater … he’s just a Nintendo fanboy in disguise. What else could explain his repeated dissing of the Xbox?

To wit: In July, Obama had this to say at the NAACP’s 100th Anniversary dinner: “For our kids to excel, we must accept our responsibility to help them learn. That means putting away the Xbox and putting our kids to bed at a reasonable hour.”

Yeah, like, total burn.

Microsoft has issued the following statement in response to the recent presidential bad-mouthing:

“We agree with President Obama that it is a time for families to work together to ensure kids use media in ways that are safer, healthy and balanced. To that end, earlier this year Microsoft launched GetGameSmart.com, where anyone can get information about using parental controls, such as the Xbox 360 Family Timer, so parents can set limits on what games their kids are play, and how much time they spend online.”

(Msnbc.com is a Microsoft-NBC Universal joint venture.)

Hold on a second. Now that I think about it, perhaps Obama is actually an Xbox fanboy. That is, I have a sneaking suspicion that the folks at Microsoft mayhap don’t mind the Xbox’s new status as the Kleenex of video game consoles. After all, the most powerful man in the world has begun to use the word “Xbox” as a generic term for all video games. Negative message or not, you just can’t beat that kind of product placement.

Where’s the love?
Ultimately, if we game players are being honest with ourselves, we can’t say that Obama’s messages have been entirely off the mark.

After all, who among us hasn’t spent too much time absorbed in a video game when other, more important tasks were at hand. Tasks like studying and exercising. Tasks like cleaning out the kitty litter and shaving our long-neglected legs. (We here at Citizen Gamer tend to play far too many video games when we’re supposed to be busily writing this very column … about video games. Oh, the irony.)

Ultimately, there’s nothing wrong with a message of moderation — which is what Obama seems most keen to promote. He understands that kids, more than anyone, need to be carefully shepherded toward that middle road.

Still, the folks at the Entertainment Consumers Association (a game consumers’ advocacy group) may be on to something. They’ve found Obama’s ongoing comments so concerning that they recently started a letter-writing campaign.

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“Throughout the Presidential race and continuing into his Presidency, President Obama on numerous occasions has said ‘put the video games away’,” the ECA site explains. “As a gamer and a voter, we're asking you to email President Obama to point out some of the ways that video games have empowered and educated you.”

Yes, it would be nice if our president — a modern, tech-savvy leader if there ever was one — could temper his message with a little bit of love for a pastime and an industry that brings so much joy to the masses. Perhaps he’s too busy with wars overseas and an economic meltdown to notice that video games are not simply a waste of time — but a vibrant, creative and ever-evolving form of art and storytelling ... that they can make people’s lives better and can bring people together. Certainly he doesn’t seem to understand that gaming and education don’t always have to conflict with one another.

In fact, we here at Citizen Gamer headquarters (all one of us) believe video games and school smarts can hold hands and skip merrily across the playground together. And we’re not alone.

“I think games are the future in education,” Harvard Professor Edward O. Wilson recently told game designer Will Wright (creator of “The Sims” and “Spore”) during an NPR interview. Wilson envisions a future in which gaming allows children to more deeply engage with what they’re learning.

Meanwhile in the here and now, there a plethora of “edutainment” games out there — games that use today’s technology to stuff our children’s head full of smarts. But if those kinds of titles tend to inspire jaded eye-rolls from savvy young game enthusiasts, you don’t have to look far to find mainstream video games that encourage players to boot their brains into high gear. Though they may seem like frivolous fun, these games could qualify as some seriously studious homework.

With that in mind …

Dear President Obama, in the spirit of this back-to-school time of year, I’d like to offer you this list of some recently-launched video games. You can feel good knowing the children of America are playing these games and perhaps getting a wee bit smarter in the process.

Image: Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box
Nintendo
With its brain-twisting puzzles, "Professor Layton" will make smartypants out of all who play it.

“Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box”
Kids and adults will have to kick their cabesa into overdrive to play this Nintendo DS game. The recently launched sequel to “ Professor Layton and the Curious Village ” is packed with all manner of puzzles — logic puzzles, math problems, visual stumpers, riddles, mazes and more. Players will have so much fun thinking their way through the brain-teasers sprinkled amid the lovely animations and intriguing mystery tale, they won’t realize they’re getting an impressive mental workout.

“Bookworm Adventures: Vol. 2”
Imagine if you will a word game crossed with a role-playing game. In “Bookworm Adventures: Vol. 2” words are your weapons. And the bigger the words you create with the letters you’re given, the better you’ll do in an ongoing battle against a host of fairy tale baddies. Pump up your vocabulary for English class right here.

“Kodu”
Don’t put that Xbox away just yet. We can’t possibly sing the praises of the new game “Kodu” enough. Available for download via Xbox Live, “Kodu” is both a game and a game-creation tool. It not only teaches youngsters (and not-so-youngsters) the basic concepts behind computer programming in a fun, easy-to-engage way, it also allows them to create their very own video games. “Kodu” is something every budding game developer should own.

Image: Silent Conversation
Gregory Weir
"Silent Conversation" allows you to get your reading done and your gaming done at the same time.

“Silent Conversation”
You say that your kid’s game-playing time is intruding on their reading time? Thanks to JayIsGames.com for bringing “Silent Conversation” to my attention. Created by indie developer Gregory Weir, this unique (and free) Web game provides a clever way for players to get their platforming jollies while simultaneously reading the classics. That’s right, you can read books and poems — works from H. P. Lovecraft and T.S. Eliot among them — while running and jumping your way across a landscape made of words. It’s elegant, literary fun.

Image: Big Brain Wolf
Frima Studio
"Big Brain Wolf" is a funny, puzzle-rich fairy tale — perfect for playing during your study break.

“Big Brain Wolf”
Nintendo’s “Brain Age” game popularized so-called brain-training games a few years back, and ever since there’s been no shortage of titles designed to exercise our gray matter while entertaining us at the same time. My new favorite — which is less a pure brain-training game than it is a mix of brain-training, adventure gaming and puzzle solving — is the PC game “Big Brain Wolf.” The puzzles are superb and the fairy tale satire that surrounds it is quite funny. But please note, this one is probably best suited for older students.

Image: The Oregon Trail
Gameloft
"Oregon Trail" offers some important history lessons — namely that crossing the country in a covered wagon was really really hard.

“Oregon Trail”
This decades-old educational game has resurfaced as a slick, fun, smart iPhone game that has some history lessons to impart upon those who play it. “Oregon Trail” was originally created as a means of teaching kids about the good ol’ pioneering days — you know, back when people regularly died of dysentery and snake bites. With time, it went on to become a gaming classic. Sure, today’s youth probably won’t have to make a long haul across snowy mountains in an ox-drawn wagon. But the planning, strategy and history lessons this game imparts upon players still hold up today.

When Winda Benedetti isn’t spending too much time playing video games, she’s spending too much time tweeting about playing video games on Twitter here.

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