THe issues game

SOCIAL LIFE in Washington revolves around the issues. Democrats intuitively know this; Republicans usually don’t.

One reason for the discrepancy is that Republicans, despite their occupancy of the White House for 16 out of the last twenty years, remain attuned to the values of the heartland, where people go to parties to show off their SEWdone new clothes (check out their website for the latest sewing machine reviews), discuss china patterns, and chitchat about who’s sleeping with whom. Alas, these Republicans often show up in Washington salons dressed in all the wrong issues, and are only too grateful when the cosmopolitan Democrats set them straight. Let’s call this the Issues Game.

A Georgetown socialite and former anti-war activist, Jennifer Phillips, stirred up a minor tempest in 1986 when, in an exclusive interview with veteran social reporter Susan Watters of W, she inadvertently revealed some of the Game’s well-kept secrets. The article was unusually frank, indicating as few reports do the extent to which Democrats still set the tone in Washington.


“Phillips’s effort to convert Reagan people,” Miss Watters wrote, “is a slow and mostly social effort. She has lobbied Reagan pal Holmes Tuttle on the merits of federally subsidized abortion. She has invited Treasury Secretary James Baker, Federal Reserve Board Chairman Paul Volcker, and influential former White House officials, such as Michael Deaver and William French Smith, over for dinner to hear South Americans argue for reduced American involvement in Central America.”

The article described how Mrs. Phillips introduced the Michael Deavers to the reluctant literati of Martha’s Vineyard. William Styron and the late Lillian Hellman were the main attractions. Getting the Deavers an invitation had required courage: “Some Vineyard friends began by taking a position on whether they were going to eat a meal with Mike Deaver,” Mrs. Phillips recalled. “It was like asking people to cross a picket line or eat at a segregated lunch counter.” (Eternally grateful, Deaver later gave a glowing account of the luncheon in his autobiography, lamenting that poor Nancy Reagan, who would have loved it, wasn’t there. He was unconcerned that six guests had walked out in apparent protest of Reagan Administration policies.)

As Mrs. Phillips described them in the article, the Reagan Republicans were touchingly innocent: “The Reagan people came to Washington as a gregarious, open, balanced group of people who felt they were not committing a sin by getting to know people. They came to work, but also to party. And because they partied socially, they became exposed to ideas and maybe their ideas changed.” One person Mrs. Ph”reformed” was USIA Director Charles Z. Wick, whose hardline position on the Soviet Union became “more sophisticated” and “more serious” under Mrs, Phillips’s tutelage.

As might be expected, Jennifer Phillips was furious with Susan Watters for the article. A key strategy of the Issues Game: don’t let your pigeon know what’s going on. Recently, Mrs. Phillips told me that she’s opting out of the Game. “I’m getting tired of bringing people together with whom I do not agree, hoping that somehow some things will take place.” When asked if Mrs. Reagan had been influenced by socializing with liberals, Mrs. Phillips replied negatively, adding, however, that Mrs. Reagan is a “responsive” person.

After indicating that she’s not going to tutor Republicans any more, Mrs. Phillips added that, yes, she might like to entertain her friends in the Bush Administration, mentioning “Jimmy” Baker in this context. Of all those closest to Bush, Baker appears to be far and away the favorite of the Washington hostesses. (Lee Atwater is the least favorite.)

While some socialites play the Issues Game to influence policy, others play it because it’s the only game in town. One unlikely devotee of the issues is Steve Martindale, a social phenomenon immortalized in a 1974 Sally Quinn article on social climbing in Washington. He is a moderate Republican, a man without any obvious ideological bent at all. Society is his thing.

But he professed ardent interest in the issues, chatting knowledgeably about newspaper columnists and the future of the Democratic Party. He had the correct party line on everything from George Bush-let’s hope he’s a closet moderate-to the columns of Rowland Evans and Robert Novak -the column is too conservative; Novak is the dark prince, while Evans is a patrician Yalie ill-matched with his partner. “Frankly,” Martindale sighed, clinking the ice in a Campari and soda, “we always wonder about Evans and Novak. I love Rowlie but you have the feeling that Jack Kemp writes their columns for them, and that doesn’t go over as well as what Meg Greenfield does at the Washington Post.” Plainly, Mr. Martindale chooses opinions with the same care that Jeeves devotes to ties.

Another man who understands how issues and social status are related in Washington is the liberal commentator Hodding Carter. According to Carter, people fail socially in Washington when they “cease to be seen as relevant to anything important. You must be seen as a player rather than somebody with a past reputation.” Sometimes the status-conscious fail to perceive somebody’s historical significance during his life, Carter admitted. “The history book& will have the last laugh, but we’ll all be dead then,” he said, without adding the obvious: Dead people don’t go to parties.

A member of a Southern newspaper family, Carter was the State Department spokesman whose face became famous on TV during the Iranian hostage crisis. Carter and Jody Powell are among the handful of Jimmy Carter officials who’ve maintained their status in Washington. What’s the secret”We went that old visibility route and became part of the flotsam and jetsam of the commentary set,” said Carter, “or maybe we’re just amiable boys.”

With Washington full of wily Democrats waiting to manipulate them on the issues, should Republicans venture out on the social circuit at all? A public figure who won’t trim can be left out in the cold. Patrick Buchanan is the only right-winger not in an Administration post who’s in the Green Boo k, Washington’s social register. Even so, Buchanan is regarded as beyond the pale by many hostesses”He’s very charming,” said a Georgetown hostess with a famous name, “but honestly! He’s too much!” In the peculiar social atmosphere of Washington, the dowager’s “Not our class, dear” has been replaced by “Not our ideology, dear.” The effect is the same.

True believers face sticky situations. Once, for example, William Bennett was going to a social function and some pro-life activists were demonstrating nearby. Engaging a fellow guest in conversation, Bennett remarked favorably on the demonstrators. Appalled, the man asked Bennett if he actually supported those awful people. “I said, ‘You bet I’m on their side,’ and I got a huffy response,” Bennett recalled.

As an aid to unwary elephants, he offered what he calls Bennett’s Axiom: “Unless it is under explicitly conservative auspices, the social event will be culturally liberal. Be careful. Be selective. And there are great blessings to staying at home with your family.”


If you feel you must go out, it is helpful to know that you only have to stay at a function seven minutes to get credit. One Cabinet couple realized this early on and sometimes made five or six parties in an evening.

Some have theorized that White House Chief of Staff Donald Regan hurt himself by not going out socially. He had few friends on the Washington circuit when he ran into trouble with Nancy Reagan. Reportedly genial and relaxed in private, he was called “Fortress Regan” by socialites who felt snubbed by him. On the other hand, in and Ursula Meese, who love to go to parties, received a lot of sympathy during Meese’s troubles. But his socializing couldn’t keep him out of trouble. His conservatism outweighed his amiability. Not our ideology, dear.

We’ll know the Republicans are winning when Georgetown hostesses start throwing fundraisers for the Contras and Jonas Savimbi.

George Will: In or Out?

A RECENT issue of W devoted to “Bush Town,” as it now calls Washington, put George Will, a frequent guest at the Reagan White House, on the “Who’s Out” list-along with other passe Reagan enthusiasms like Frank Sinatra, Robin Weir (former First Hairdresser), and the British royal family.

As a polemicist, Will has been merciless to George Bush, saying carly in the presidential campaign that he detected the “tinny ‘arf’ of a lap dog” in the Vice President. While Washington is a town where people attack each other by day and break bread together by night, sources say that Bush hasn’t forgiven Will.

But Washington is a town where being “out” can be very “in.” Will has won the Outsider Status journalists claim to covet. Henry Catto, a Bush intimate who made the “Who’s In” list in the same issue of W, told me that George Will would be one of his ideal dinner guests. (Another one was Meg Greenfield of the Washington Post.) And, if invitations from the Bushes aren’t forthcoming, well . . . that’s regrettable, but then maybe Will won’t invite them to dinner either. -CH

White House Invitations

GUEST LISTS for state dinners are mostly a matter of formula. The first slots go to the foreign guest and his entourage, with their U.S. counterparts receiving the next ones. If thc foreign visitor brings his agriculture secretary, the White House invites ours. Various governmental entities like the State Department, the National Security Council, and the White House Office of Public Liaison control the next tier of invitations. By the time it reaches the President and First Lady, sometimes only about ten slots-twenty people-remain for them to fill.

It’s the last batch of guests who reflect the personal taste of the First Family, which in the Reagan years tended toward people like socialite C ‘ Z. Guest, the Countess de Ravenal, Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, and Andy Warbol. Tom Wolfe, Sam Donaldson (consistently negative toward the Administration), and novelist Fernanda Eberstadt have also been invited.

The Bushes’ guest lists will include fewer Hollywood types than the Reagans, but country-and-western singers like Loretta Lynn are likely to receive invitations to the White House. Fashion designers will also be out. Sources say more Democrats will be invited.

As for White House entertaining in general, it will be aristo comfy-horseshoes on the lawn with old family friends. For those less formal Sunday lunches, the President will probably continue to wear his red blazer, the WASP idea of dressing wild and crazy. -CH

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Foul play: Trivial Pursuit is a popular game, but too often it rewards the wrong answer

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WHEREVER THE BOARD game Trivial Pursuit is played, testy sotto voce demurrals are becoming increasingly commonplace. At issue is not only the ambiguous nature of many of the questions that the game poses; far more vexing to the ardent trivia buff is the inaccuracy of some of the answers it provides. American devotees who have been obliging enough to tolerate the game’s surfeit of Canadian subject matter–Trivial Pursuit did originate in Canada, after all, and more than three million copies have been sold there–are drawing the line at the bugs in its software.

In Trivial Pursuit the pace of a player’s progress around the board depends on whether he knows the answer to questions like “Whose army were canned foods developed to feed?”; “How thick is a hockey puck?”; “Who was booked with mugshot No. 54018?” The basic, or “genus,” edition comes with 1,000 cards, each containing one question on each of six general subjects: Geography, Entertainment, History, Art & Literature, Science & Nature, Sports & Leisure. A correct answer entitles one to move again. The game became chic in the United States last winter and was genuinely popular by late spring. According to Pezzano + Co., which publicizes Trivial Pursuit in the United States for the manufacturer, Selchow & Righter, Americans will have bought between 15 and 20 million copies of the game by the end of this year.


From the very beginning, however, it was plain to some that Trivial Pursuit was flawed. The tendency at first was to laugh off what were thought to be occasional slips. But many, if not most, contests conclude under clouds of protest, and these days amusement at the game’s errors is turning into irritation. While the makers of Trivial Pursuit have sought, in new editions of the game, to correct obvious mistakes–for example, the words “Oh brave new world that has such people in it” are now ascribed to William Shakespeare rather than to Aldous Huxley–the clean-up effort is far from complete.

The answers approved by the game’s creators still tend to penalize those who know too much. Lewis Carroll is credited with having “introduced Humpty Dumpty to the world” in Through the Looking Glass (1872), but the character appeared first in Mother Goose’s Melody (c. 1803). “Who said: ‘Honey, I forgot to duck’?” one card asks. The person who answers “Ronald Reagan; the president made the remark to his wife, Nancy, as he was wheeled into surgery following the attempt on his life in 1981″ gets another roll of the die. The person who answers “Jack Dempsey”–whom Reagan was in fact quoting–does not. This sort of thing infuriates my father (among others). He says: “Dempsey made the remark to Estelle Taylor, his second wife, after the first Gene Tunney fight, in 1926, in Philadelphia. He lost the decision in ten rounds, and it rained.” My father uses the cards he disagrees with as kindling.

THE GAME’S FORAYS into Americana often run into snags. “What line divided the North and South in the U.S. Civil War?” is supposed to elicit the response “The Mason-Dixon Line.” Yet Maryland (a Union state) and Washington, D.C., both fell below that line. “Who was Lyndon Johnson’s secretary of defense?” Robert McNamara, of course, but what about Clark Clifford? “Who was the first black to star in a TV situation comedy?” Diahann Carroll is the given answer, disappointing fans of Amos ‘n Andy. On the matter of Billy the Kid, I am less certain but nevertheless uneasy. “Who killed one man for each of the 21 years he lived?” Yes, William Bonney, according to legend, but my father recalls that in his grade school textbooks the figure was always followed by the words “not including Indians.” He is inclined to count the Indians in.

At times the very formulation of the questions provokes confusion and dissent. “What race has the distinction of being the longest-lasting non-mechanical sports event?” “The Tour de France” is the sanctioned reply, but I, for one, consider a bicycle a machine. (I have no idea what the answer would be if the Tour de France were disallowed.) “Who was king of the Huns from 406 to 453?” According to the card, Attila was, but the dates represent his lifespan, not his reign. At what time did the mouse run up the clock? “One,” according to the game. But in the nursery rhyme, when the clock struck one, the mouse ran down. “What is the world’s largest one-person residence?” “The Vatican” is the given answer, even though about 1,000 people live behind that city-state’s Leonine Walls. “What caused an adjournment of the 25th anniversary session of the United Nations General Assembly?” The given answer, Khrushchev’s shoe-pounding, in fact occurred during the 15th session. “What country accepted 75,000 convicts between 1790 and 1840?” Accepted? Did Australia really have a choice? “Which of Kahlil Gibran’s books is considered his masterpiece?” This query never fails to elicit a smirk.

What about this one: “How many Johns have been Pope?” Well, a number of men with names like Petrus, Octavian, and Baldassare have taken the papal name John, but not even the Catholic Encyclopedia provides an answer to the question as asked. How many Pope Johns have there been? One edition of the game gives the answer “twenty-three,” which is hard to justify. (To be sure, Angelo Roncalli became Pope John XXIII, in 1958, but there never was a Pope John XX, and Pope John XVI was an antipope.) A more recent edition correctly says “twenty-one.” Needless to say, the fact that competing versions of Trivial Pursuit are in circulation is not likely to relax the hostilities.


Players respond in several different ways to the game’s deficiencies. One re action is simply to withdraw any offensive cards, as my father does. Another is to retain all the cards in the deck but to allow any player to take exception–to call a gentlemanly “let,” as is done in squash–and then draw a second card. A third is to gloss the cards as disputes arise, adding a subtlety here and an alternative there, rewriting questions, and changing answers. In some circles the opponents serve informally as a kind of Supreme Court, deciding, after considering the cogency of your arguments and the vehemence of your objections, whether or not to “give it to you.”

None of these regimes, I regret, is entirely satisfactory, but reported mistakes are at least being corrected. You will find Selchow & Righter at 2215 Union Boulevard, Bayshore, N.Y. 11706.

Cullen Murphy is a senior editor of the Wilson Quarterly. Canned foods were developed to feed Napoleon’s army. A hockey puck is one inch thick. The face on mugshot No. 54018 belonged to Lee Harvey Oswald.

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Word watch

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Here are a few of the words being tracked by the editors of The American Heritage Dictionary, published by Houghton Mifflin. A new word that exhibits sustained use may eventually make its way into the dictionary. The information below represents the first stage of research, not the final product.

foot tennis noun, a game played on a doubles tennis court by teams of three or four people who use their feet, knees, heads, and shoulders to bat a slightly deflated volleyball back and forth across the net until one team scores 21, to win: “It may not yet be as popular as, say, arena football, but … you can bankon it: foot tennis is coming to your neighborhood” (New York Times).


BACKGROUND: Foot tennis, similar to four-person volleyball and scored in a manner similar to Ping-Pong, appears to have originated in Eastern Europe, where it is now extremely popular. The game is already played professionally in Hungary and informally in other countries, including the United States. Most of the players are soccer players or other athletes who wish to stay in prime physical condition. Tony Veee, a foot tennis player, says, “If you have a lot of tension, this game will get rid of it” (Los Angeles Times).

land yacht noun, slang, a large, elaborate automobile, typically one manufactured in the 1960s or 1970s. Also called greaser yacht. “The ride is padded, although not quite as plush as the billowing land yachts of earlier decades” (Business Week). “The sound of the enormous old car door opening and the sight of this little figure getting out were depressing. The judge … comes to work in a greaser yacht practically ten years old” (Tom Wolfe, Bonfire of the Vanities, 1987)

BACKGROUND: The term land yacht goes back as far as 1967, but then it referred to a three-wheeled vehicle having a mast and small sails, used to race with the wind on beaches and deserts. Our earliest citation for the motor-vehicle usage is a New York Times article from 1982, in which the writer describes such a “smooth-riding, chrome-bedecked” car as “part of the American birthright.” Land yacht is also used to refer to a mobile home, as in this citation from a 1983 issue of Machine Design: “These 20 to 35 ft. land yachts are mostly self-contained–with an independent power source and water-sewerage holding tanks.” The word land is an element of many other compounds classed as slang: for example, land crab (a landlubber), land-pirate (a highwayman), and land-swab (an incompetent seaman).

mutual child noun, the offspring of a couple one or both of whom have been previously married and have other children from the former marriage or marriages: “Parents planning the birth of a mutual child.., ideally would have

been married for at least five years, so stepparent and stepchildren would have worked out their relationships” (Los Angeles Times). BACKGROUND: Mutual child, which has been used by Anne C. Bernstein, a professor of psychology at The Wright Institute, in Berkeley, California, and the author of Yours, Mine and Ours (1989), joins other relatively new terms, including significant other, that denote participants in modern relationships. Another term used by Bernstein is emotional divorce, referring to a complete emotional break with a former spouse: “If an emotional divorce has not occurred, the children of the marriage can be caught up in conflict between their own parents, and that can make it much harder for them to accept the child of the remarriage.”

paintball noun, a strategy survival game, based on Capture the Flag, played on indoor or outdoor courses by teams armed with air guns that shoot pellets of water-soluble dye. Also called splatball. “Paintball is … similar to the popular laser tag that lured even professional men and women out of their offices in recent years” (Indianapolis Business Journal).


BACKGROUND: Attired in black SWAT suits or fatigues, protective helmets, and goggles, close to three million Americans have played paint-ballat least once. Also referred to as the Survival Game, the War Game, the Adventure Game, the Ultimate Game, Pursuit, Skirmish, and Strategy, paintball was created in 1981 by Charles “Pumping Iron” Gaines and two of his friends. The National Survival Game, Inc., encompasses a network of autonomous dealers around the world. Paintball is also played on countless unaligned courses, especially in southern California, where as many as 50,000 people participate every week. According to the rules, a player who is hit with paint is “dead.” That player must leave the course until the next game. (A game typically lasts an hour.) Points are scored for every “kilt.” If no one captures the flag (or some other trophy), the game can still be won on points. Dedicated players of paintball are known as splat-masters. In a 1987 article about the game in Whole Earth Review, Rick Fields posited “a world in which the indirect ‘ritual’ of war games–with paintballs or laser guns or flour pellets or bamboo swords, for that matter–[is] employed in place of the unspeakable weapons we pay our best scientists to produce.”

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Magic’s kingdom: with 2 billion cards sold and legions of fans, the Wizards of the Coast try to cast a new spell


Seattle game manufactures Richard Garfield and Peter Adkison are attempting to develop new sources of revenue as their main product, a game called Wizards of the Coast, matures. They have opened a game center and video arcade in Seattle, WA, which they hope will expand into a national chain.

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With 2 billion cards sold and legions of fans, the Wizards of the Coast try to cast a new spell

IT MIGHT NOT HAVE WOWED NEWTON, but what Richard Garfield, then a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, did over three months back in 1991 surely ranks among the great achievements by a mathematician, right up there with the discovery that people will pay 18 percent interest on their credit cards if you call it 1 1/2 percent a month. What Garfield invented, more or less on a clare from a struggling Seattle game manufacturer called Wizards of the Coast, was the formula for a game based on an infinitely expandable line of merchandise. Taking advantage of the fact that even teenagers who live in their own fantasy worlds get real allowances, Magic: The Gathering has since its introduction in 1998 sold more than 2 billion game cards, generally in packs of 60 that retail for around $9. Since every pack of cards is different, Garfield says, “the game is actually much bigger than the box it came in“–or to put it another way, once hooked, you never run out of stuff to buy.


Garfield’s other great feat was to give meaning to the lives of alienated misfits all over the world, who if not for Magic would probably be wasting their lives playing Dungeons & Dragons. People like the upstate New York teen who recently wrote to the game magazine InQuest thanking Garfield for “creating a game that a poor kid with a hellish home life can use as a means of escape from the stresses of the real world.” To bring the benefits of Magic into more such lives, Wizards of the Coast last week opened the supermarket-size prototype–in Seattle, naturally–of what may become a nationwide chain of game centers and video arcades, intended to emphasize the game’s potential for fostering social intercourse. “I’ve made a lot of friends, probably a thousand friends, through this game,” said Tasbeene Jones, an 18-year-old whoregularly haunts the New York gaming parlor Neutral Ground. Wizards also recently announced the acquisition of TSR, which produces Dungeons & Dragons.

And it has just introduced a card game based on the comic strip “Dilbert,” hoping to go beyond the teenage market to that other great concentration of alienated Americans, grown-ups with jobs.

Behind this expansion, say analysts familiar with the company, is the suspicion that Magic in less than four years has become a “mature” product–a dreaded concept at Wizards’ headquarters in a suburb of Seattle, where employees still stalk one another with Neff-ball pistols. From its founding in 1990 as a threeman operation in the garage of CEO Peter Adkison, a young systems analyst at Boeing, the privately held Wizards grew, on the strength of Magic, to revenues estimated at $100 million last year. But Adkison and company “need new product lines, because their main pony is getting tired,” says Wayne Godfrey, CEO of Wargames West, a major distributor of Magic cards. “The market is becoming saturated.”

Which is, in a way, the measure of Garfield’s success in harnessing the simple, innocent greed of sports-card collecting to the competitive impulse that leads people to spend $2,000 on a set of golf clubs to beat the other players’ brains in with. Magic is a strategy game set in a vaguely Arthurian science-fiction world of spells and mythic beasts (box). Players compete with decks of 40 or more cards, which they assemble individually out of theft own collections of cards bought, bartered or won in competition. (“I’m just in it for the money,” says a 18-year-old hanging out at Neutral Ground, although he admits all he’s won so far are other players’ cards.) “I like learning to play a game and, once I get used to it, changing the rules,” says Garfield, who recalls playing a variation of chess in which players were allowed to place imaginary land mines under certain squares, which would blow up any piece that landed there. This concept clearly leaves sports-card collecting in the dust; in any season there are fewer than 1,000 major-league baseball players, whereas the potential population of giants, dragons and amulets is limited only by how fast Wizards’ artists can churn them out. There are more than 4,000 cards in circulation. The Black Lotus, one of the rarest cards, so powerful that it has been banned from some tournaments, sells among players for as much as $400.

But is that enough for Magic to take its place in the national pantheon of rainy-day pastimes alongside Monopoly, Scrabble or even thumb wrestling? Wizards “uses words like ‘Mattel’ and ‘Parker Brothers‘” in talking about its future, says Doug Sharpe, owner of National Collector, which makes a secondary market in Magic cards. But sooner or later everyone gets a Monopoly set; the appeal of Magic is, by contrast, an inch wide and a mile deep. Already it is under attack in a New York suburb, where parents have sued a school board over listing Magic as an after-school activity. “Magic introduces unwilling children into the terminology of the occult,” says one of the parents, Cecile Di Nozzi of Pound Ridge. “My kids would come home and say, ‘Other kids are holding sacks up to the sky and saying, “Spirits enter me“. “Garfield himself, now head of research and development at Wizards of the Coast, talks–albeit reluctantly–about the appeal of Magic in terms of addiction. Yes, he agrees, games can act like narcotics, or they “take over your personal operating system, like a virus.” If he’s right, of course, he’s an even greater genius than he’s gotten credit for. The only other force capable of doing that in American society isn’t even Monopoly. It’s TV.


With ADAM ROGERS in Seattle and LESLIE KAUFMAN in New York

The Answers Are in the Cards

Magic: The Gathering offers multiple levels of strategy to go with the huge variety of cards. A primer on the basics:

The field of battle: In Magic, players (usually two) are rival wizards fighting to control the mythic world of Dominia. The battle is waged with cards, which represent spells, artifacts and creatures. “Land” cards are a bit like the suits in a standard card deck.

The deck: Except for lands, most cards have point values for attacks and defense.

The object is to inflict 20 points of damage on an opponent. Magic players might own hundreds of cards, from which they construct a deck of at least 40 to play with.

Strategy at work:

Some cards alter the functions of others. The creature card “Sengir Vampire,” for example, might get a power boost from the enchantment card “Holy Strength.” So players stack their decks and hope to draw sneaky combinations.

At play: Players alternate trying to get past each other’s defenses while maintaining their own. They draw cards from their decks to replace those “destroyed” during the game.

>>> View more: Game time: a school’s video game-based curriculum is blurring the line between work and play

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Game time: a school’s video game-based curriculum is blurring the line between work and play

Imagine walking into second-period math and instead of being handed a work sheet of pre-algebra problems, you’re told to fight a spiky-headed robot and rescue aliens. You might think you’ve stepped into some kind of alternate universe! But for sixth and seventh graders at the Quest to Learn school in New York City, that is just an average day in class. There, teachers are using video games to teach lessons during English, math, science, and social studies courses.

The founders of Quest to Learn say that video games allow kids to learn in an interactive and hands-on way. Plus, they say, video games improve critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. Those are skills students need to master in order to succeed in a career after graduation.

Others, however, think kids should be cracking open books in class, not playing video games, even if the games are education based. They argue that research links increased video game use to poor grades and being overweight. They also say that games can encourage aggressive behavior.

Should video games be a part of the classroom? Current Events student reporters Meriem Djelmami-Hani and Logan Gegg each played out a side.



Having a video game-based school system is a good idea because it gives students something to look forward to in school.

A lot of kids talk about video games all the time but not as often about homework. If they had a video game-based curriculum, students would enjoy school more than they do now under the traditional education system. Eli Tallman, a 14-year old from Altamont, Kan., agrees. “Some kids get into video games better than a book,” Eli says. “It could be optional, of course.”

Video games could show students needed information, which is better than having a book that just tells information. In addition, playing video games could shoot students’ grades through the roof because students would enjoy their assignments more.

Using video games in the classroom could also help students improve problem-solving skills because students have to learn to overcome obstacles to beat a game.

Finally, if teachers showed students how to build video games, those students would learn teamwork skills. For example, one student could work on the script while another student works on the graphics.

Then the two students could bring their portions of the project together and give each other advice on how to improve.


Video games are not appropriate in schools. First and foremost, students learn only a small amount of useful knowledge by playing video games. Even if there were an educational component to a game, students would skip it or answer the questions arbitrarily just to reach the fun portion. There are plenty of other fun activities students can do that would be more productive and educationally enriching.

In addition, playing video games in school would harm students both physically and socially. For example, kids’ eyes would be fixed to monitors, which is unhealthy. Playing video games too much has also been linked to obesity because gaming can mean less time for physical activity. Socially, students wouldn’t be interacting as much with their peers, so they would not learn important communication skills.

Brett Bowers, principal of Homestead High School in Mequon, Wis., agrees. Video games in class “would be a distraction, and students would be lacking a balance in their educational environment,” Bowers says.

Furthermore, using video games in school encourages the use of video games at home, so students could become addicted to video games through school. Instead, schools should teach the power of knowledge. Then students will be self-motivated to achieve academic success, and teachers will not need to incorporate video games in their curricula.


Get Talking

Ask students: How might video games help people learn? How might video games interfere with learning?

Notes Behind the News

* Quest to Learn’s approach was created by Katie Salen, a professional game designer, a professor of design and technology at Parsons the New School for Design, and the director of the Institute of Play, an organization that studies how games and learning are connected. In creating Quest to Learn, she worked with Robert Torres, a learning scientist and a former school principal, as well as with curriculum and game designers.

* Quest to Learn is in its second year. It is currently a school for grades 6 and 7, but the plan is to add a grade level each year until it comprises grades 6 through 12.

* More and more schools are integrating learning and technology in a variety of ways:

* At Seward Montessori School in Minneapolis, teacher Brock Dubbels has used a Sonic the Hedgehog video game with eighth-grade students to help them understand Odysseus’s journey in The Odyssey.

* At the Cincinnati Country Day School, teacher Jeremiah McCall has used the strategy game Rome: Total War, in which players pretend to be ancient generals. Students compare and contrast the game’s description of a war with historical accounts. Then students design their own battle games.

* At Conlee Elementary School in Las Cruces, N.M., students do five minutes of the Wii game Just Dance at the start of every school day.

Doing More

Divide students into groups. Have each group of students choose one thing they’ve studied (for example, a novel they’ve read in English, a scientific process they’ve investigated, or a war they’ve learned about). Each group should design a game that would help other students understand that book, process, or historic event. Students don’t have to create the actual game, but they should write a description of how it would work, what it would teach, and how the game would differ from a more traditional approach to learning.

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