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Video games could offer educational value to youth

Associated Press

DALLAS _ Does “The Sims” video game accurately depict human psychology? Does a train simulator like “Railroad Tycoon” broach some basic engineering ideas?

A group of educators, developers and game publishers believe they might. The consortium, calling itself The Education Arcade, is launching a “games for learning” seal of approval to help consumers identify titles that teach more than hand-eye coordination.

The labels are to be announced Monday to kick off the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles and should begin appearing this fall.

Members of the consortium include MIT’s Comparative Media Studies program, the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education and LeapFrog Enterprises Inc., an educational toy maker.

“What we hope is something that looks like the Good Housekeeping seal of approval,” said Alex Chisholm, LeapFrog’s director of content.

Beyond labels, the group hopes to persuade game companies to make more educational games.

It could be a tough sell, though, in an industry that favors low-risk, high-profit sequels built on established franchises.

“Learning multiplication tables on an Xbox hasn’t exactly happened,” American Technology Research analyst P.J. McNealy said. “People would rather shoot people, punch somebody or throw a football than learn math.”

Top titles often take millions of dollars and years to produce, and putting that amount of effort into an educational game is simply too risky, said Warren Spector, studio director of game company Ion Storm in Austin.

“In the same way that documentaries don’t really compete with fiction films, I don’t ever expect to see educational games succeed at the financial level expected of a commercial entertainment game,” Spector said.

He said educational games will be harder to find and won’t be as well produced.

So-called “edutainment” titles, which blend fun with learning, account for a sliver of the $10 billion North American video game business. U.S. educational PC software sales have plunged to $191 million last year, from $340 million in 2001, according to The NPD Group, a market research firm.

LeapFrog, long seen as a success story with its line of handheld educational game devices, has stumbled lately, posting first quarter losses of $11.8 million on sales of $72 million.

Many edutainment products simply have been squeezed out of store shelves to make room for better-selling shooters and sports titles, said Deborah Forte, president of Scholastic Entertainment in New York.

In fact, many companies have gone to great lengths to make educational programs more like recess and less like a final exam.

THQ Inc. of Calabasas Hills, Calif., spent several years and millions of dollars converting a realistic Army training program called “Full Spectrum Warrior” into a commercial video game.