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Mindy Brooks was eager to gauge the reactions of parents and children to “Electric Racer,” a new interactive educational game. Brooks is the director of education and research at Sesame Workshop, the children’s media company that brought us Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch, and Elmo, and that now develops content for computers as well as for TV.

“Electric Racer,” intended to improve the literacy skills of children aged six to nine, is one of a new crop of intergenerational educational games, designed to be played by grownups and kids together. In the game, the “driver” (played by the child) must steer a virtual car through words containing a targeted sound. If “t” is the target, for example, the driver should gun for the word “tool” on the road ahead, and swerve around the word “pool.” Meanwhile, the “passenger” (played by the adult) helps unscramble words with the same target sound for additional points.

So far, so good. But when Brooks and her team tested “Electric Racer” with a group of actual parents and children, they reacted with confusion and frustration. Both adults and kids loved the idea of an intergenerational game, Brooks noted in a commentary on the development process, but creating a game that could engage both young and old would take more work.

Brooks had come face to face with the promise, and the challenge, of the new digital genre of intergenerational educational games. First, the promise: Research shows that when children play an educational game with an adult, they learn more from the game. This may happen for a number of reasons. Such games can create a positive climate for learning, in which practicing reading or counting becomes associated with fun and affection. The participation of an adult signals to the child that the game has value, leading the child to pay closer attention to its content.

As the two play together, the adult can “scaffold” the child’s learning, asking questions, providing guidance, helping the child make new connections or draw on past experiences. Indeed, the adult can support not only the learning of educational material, but also the “soft skills” necessary to succeed at the game: focus, patience, persistence, resilience. Lastly, the child’s often superior knowledge of technology can allow him or her to play teacher to the adult—a role that helps organize and consolidate the young teacher’s own knowledge.

Educational computer games
File photo. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

So what’s the challenge? Children and adults frequently come to digital games with very different experiences, skills, and inclinations. In some cases, these differences are minor; kids and grownups have divergent tastes in avatars, one study suggests. (Young people were concerned with the “realistic functionality and flexibility” of the figures representing them on the screen, while older people were more focused on their avatars’ “appearance and visual appeal.”)

But in other cases, these generational differences can throw up real roadblocks to productive joint play. Adults may not like digital games, may not know how to engage with them, or may even lack the sharp vision and quick reflexes that game play requires.

Take Mindy Brooks’s experience with developing “Electric Racer.” The kids in her group of testers, already comfortable and confident around digital games, jumped right in and started playing. Their parents were not so easily drawn in. In a pattern found in a number of studies, the adults in Brooks’s research hung back, hardly even touching the mouse. Though they didn’t directly involve themselves in playing the game, the adults did issue directives from their position on the sidelines, calling out, “Watch out for that word,” or “No, that’s not the ‘t’ sound!”

A stream of commands directed by parents at children — this was hardly the harmonious shared learning experience that the creators of intergenerational educational games had envisioned. But the obstacles are not insurmountable, as Brooks and her team discovered when they tweaked their game and tested it out again.

Among the changes: Designers added a video tutorial, intended to be watched by both parents and children before starting “Electric Racer,” which clarified the roles each party was to play. The game’s point system was made more conspicuous, so that players could monitor their progress and observe the effects of their actions as reflected in their point totals. (In “Electric Racer,” players earn more points when they cooperate more closely with each other.) Finally, the game designers provided more prompts for adults to support children’s learning during the game. If they wanted parents to scaffold their kids’ learning, designers realized, they themselves had to supply the scaffolding for parents’ actions.

When Brooks and her colleagues tested “Electric Racer” a second time, the difference was unmistakable. Parents had much less difficulty engaging with the game, and offered their children more help and support. Children and parents talked more while playing, and both were more likely to express excitement during the game.

Other researchers have also identified effective solutions to the challenges of creating intergenerational games. Sinem Siyahhan, an assistant professor of educational technology at California State University at San Marcos, and her colleagues reported that games that involve “dilemma situations” — that is, practical or ethical quandaries that players have to work through together — are less likely to lead parents to issue directives and commands than are more action-oriented games.

In another study, Mark Rice, a research scientist at the Institute for Infocomm Research in Singapore, and his coauthors found that younger and older players communicated most with each other when they were engaged in joint problem-solving of the game’s logistical aspects, such as the process of customizing on-screen features. Game designers could deliberately introduce tasks like these to get players working together early in the game, Rice suggests. In the same study, Rice determined that once they started playing, pairs made up of one youngster and one adult actually cooperated better than same-age pairs—that is, youngster-youngster or adult-adult duos.

As for the physical limitations of older players, these can be accommodated, and even worked into the structure of the game. In one game— called, yes, “Age Invaders” — older players are allowed more time to react to slow-moving rockets fired by younger players, while younger players must react to the faster rockets launched by their older compatriots.

In fact, with the help of good design, the “digital divide” between young and old can actually become “a resource,” as one researcher puts it, with each generation proffering its own strengths. Children contribute their speedy reflexes and technological savvy; adults bring their broader knowledge and better-developed faculties of self-control. In a study of an intergenerational game as used by bilingual immigrant families, Charmian Kenner of Goldsmiths, University of London, and her fellow investigators found that the kids supplied assistance with English and with the technical aspects of the game, while the grownups helped children “to structure the learning event, maintain concentration, and accomplish tasks relying on linguistic and cultural knowledge.”

Perhaps the most ingenious approach of all is one being explored by Rice, of the Institute for Infocomm Research. He and his colleagues have arranged workshops that bring two generations together to co-create their own interactive games. It may be a bumpy ride, but kids and adults are taking this learning trip together.

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