Fear not the robot: automation will continue to raise our quality of life

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Every few years, we experience a wave of concern over the rise of robots and its effect on jobs. Automation, we hear, will rid the economy of human labor, replacing the inefficient flesh-and-blood employee with amazingly powerful computers. Yet the robot takeover has so far not occurred–human workers seem to be surviving and even thriving alongside all the machines.

Another one of these surges of concern is upon us, fueled by books such as Tyler Cowen’s Average Is Over and Martin Ford’s Rise of the Robots, as well as a spate of articles arguing that this time, the computer revolution really is different. And when we wade through the headlines, this time actually does look different.

Google’s autonomous car has already traveled nearly a million miles on California and Nevada roads. Elon Musk, the founder of the electric-car company Tesla Motors, recently predicted that autonomous cars could enter the market as soon as this year, potentially wiping out the taxi and trucking industries in one fell swoop.


Robots are getting better not only at understanding road conditions but also at “reading” their human operators. IBM’s computer system Watson, which famously defeated its human opponents in the television game show Jeopardy, has continued to rapidly improve and is now answering complex queries about such subjects as medicine. Apple’s Siri voice interface for the iPhone has also improved. Silicon Valley seems close to building a starship Enterprise-like voice-based computer, threatening hundreds of thousands of jobs in customer-support call centers.

Added to the usual worries about computers’ replacing workers is a new concern: Who will own these robots? Will a small stratum of people (capitalists, of course) control them and extract exorbitant rents from the rest of us? If you thought inequality was a problem before, the critics warn, wait until you see what happens next.

Technological change always brings out these negative voices, because we don’t have answers for many important questions. We don’t know where new jobs are going to come from or even whether there will be work to do at all in 50 years. Yet in light of the history of technological innovation, such fears are unfounded.

Far from exclusively benefiting elites, automation has allowed people of modest means to buy products that were once luxury items available only to the most deep-pocketed consumers. Robotics have caused tremendous social change and will probably continue to do so, but their long-term effect may well be to decrease inequality rather than increase it. Indeed, robotics and automation have perhaps done more to improve quality of life than has any other economic force in history. We need to keep this in mind as we assess the massive, world-changing potential of the next round of technical innovations.

Thanks to Star Wars, many of us have images of robots as humanoid figures walking around the desert, but the reality is that robots are often built into the products we use every day. Consider the Keurig coffeemaker. We place a special cup in the machine, hit a button, and the built-in computer handles the rest, leaving us a steaming hot cup of coffee, with minimal human involvement in the brewing process. The device has become a mainstay in office break rooms, and Keurig has sold millions of units around the world. Yet baristas haven’t disappeared from the work force. Despite the popularity of automated coffee machines, Starbucks continues to increase its earnings and expand to new locations, with about 1,500 new stores opening just last year.

We often think of robotics as a zero-sum economic game in which humans and machines are locked in a tug-of-war. The Keurig coffeemaker shows that the zero-sum calculus can be flat wrong. Similarly, accountants did not disappear after the arrival of Excel and QuickBooks; in fact, accounting majors have been some of the most in-demand college graduates in recent years.

Home appliances are particularly good examples of how automation increases convenience, since they are among the most common robots we use daily. Cooking is simplified by microwaves that have all kinds of automation built in, such as buttons that heat our food to the perfect temperature. Cleaning our homes takes less and less effort as well, with devices such as iRobot’s Roomba, which can automatically sweep the floors.

Perhaps no robots have had a greater effect on quality of life than the washing machine and the dishwasher. In the mid 20th century, when women no longer had to do laundry or wash dishes by hand, they suddenly had considerably more time for themselves. The devices saved hundreds of millions of hours of household labor per year. Some scholars argue that the laundry machine did more to increase female participation in the economy than any other change in the last century.

While many of these conveniences began as luxury goods, history shows us that automation tends to permeate the economy quickly. Yesterday’s computers cost millions of dollars and took up whole floors of office buildings, and printers cost tens of thousands of dollars. Today, we can carry a supercomputer in our pocket and purchase a desktop printer for less than a hundred dollars.


Those who fear that robotics will increase inequality overlook the great consumer demand for these products, and the supply-and-demand interplay and competition that force prices ever downward. Based on its autonomous-driving technology, Google could become a monopoly that owns all cars, but it’s more likely that all car manufacturers will incorporate this technology into their models.

There is little reason to think that this trend of democratization will stop, and it may even be accelerating. Soon 3-D printers will allow us to “print” millions of different objects, from mugs to the coasters they sit on. Such printers cost thousands of dollars today, but their prices have fallen dramatically over the past few years, and they will probably be in wide use by the end of the decade. Further, 3-D printers will probably increase the pace of innovation across many fields, as they make it cheaper to quickly make product prototypes and sell early models, allowing more inventors to get in the game and make their work available to the public.

When technology allows consumers to produce average-quality goods at home, companies must offer higher-quality products to compete. The greeting-card industry, for instance, faced extinction with the advent of desktop printing, but it started producing specialized designs that home printers cannot (yet) match. The market expanded to encompass a greater range of consumer tastes.

To be fair, patents and other intellectual-property protections ensure that the inventors of technologies are well rewarded for their efforts. Hewlett-Packard has made millions off its printer ink, much as Keurig and Whirlpool have made millions off their products. But economies of scale are no more likely to drive out competition tomorrow than they are today.

But we shouldn’t tout the benefits to the individual consumer of all these conveniences without taking a wider look at automation and its overall effect on the economy. Greater efficiency through robots allows us to produce more in less time, but these changes can force some workers to change their occupations.

The most important factor in improving quality of life is productivity growth. Productivity is simply the quantity of goods and services we can produce given limited resources, particularly our time.

If we want to improve our standard of living, there are only two options available. One way is to increase our work hours and thus the amount that we produce. But human productivity rarely grows linearly in proportion to hours worked, nor do we necessarily want to spend more time at work. The other option is to increase productivity per hour. We do this when we expand access to education and job training, increasing the productivity of individual workers. We do this also by enhancing human industry through the use of tools, which includes automation and robotics. When we use a microwave to produce a meal in five minutes rather than an hour, we have increased our food-preparation productivity more than tenfold. Multiply such improvements across all devices throughout the economy, and the massive efficiency gains we’ve made in the last hundred years look unsurprising.

Automation in the economy doesn’t strike randomly; it takes hold when market forces determine that physical capital (a robot) is cheaper than human capital (a worker). America’s entire manufacturing sector used to be heavily dependent on human labor, but today’s highly efficient factories produce more goods than ever before while employing far fewer people, because of robotics.

It’s not only a line worker in a factory or a burger flipper who might be replaced by a robot. Many white-collar workers are also at risk. The rules of the market affect everyone. Investors have poured millions of dollars, for instance, into computer startups targeting the legal industry, because lawyers read boilerplate contracts at hours billable well into the triple digits.

Creative destruction is as old as history, but the pace today is accelerating, with millions of workers potentially affected by automation in a matter of years instead of decades. Professions created just a few decades ago are now being eliminated, and entire job categories can rise and fall within a single generation.

There are no simple solutions. Increased efficiency rewards all of us with lower prices for higher-quality goods and services, but certain groups of workers could suffer deep losses. It’s possible that education itself will become more automated, which would allow more workers to take classes and improve their skills to compete in the marketplace. English-teaching robots already exist in Japan and South Korea, and more subjects may soon be offered by such automated programs. Workers must constantly improve their productivity to increase their value. This is fundamentally good for the economy, because it means that the average hourly value of a human worker is increasing over time.

We are all going to have to improve our skills to be competitive in this economy, but this transition shouldn’t distract us from the economic bounty that awaits on the other side of the revolution in robotics.

While the issue of employment garners the most attention from commentators, robotics’ socially transformative effects deserve our scrutiny as well. Perhaps no technology has more potential to improve our quality of life than the autonomous car. We will be able to relax during our commutes, reducing our stress and improving our health. Autonomous cars could almost instantaneously deliver a greater number of goods and services, such as meals, household supplies, and home-maintenance services, giving us more leisure time. Perhaps most significant, many fewer accidents would be caused by drunk driving or distraction while driving.

If autonomous cars become popular, we could greatly reduce the land space devoted to roads and parking. City governments could dedicate vast tracts of land to a variety of new uses, such as parks or housing.

Finally, and perhaps most futuristically, we will have to adapt to having more robots in nearly all aspects of our daily life. Siri and Watson are just the first steps toward fully personalized digital assistants, and future generations of these sorts of products will lead to all kinds of new social interactions and situations, affecting human relationships in ways we can’t yet predict.

There is no question that our economy will undergo vast changes in the next few years. Critics are right to warn that many jobs will be made redundant, and that automation might increase inequality, at least in the short term. But we’ve survived–and thrived–through waves of automation for centuries, and the productivity gains show that we should be championing these improvements, not hoping they stop soon. The best has been, and always will be, just around the corner. Let R2-D2 show the way.

Mr. Crichton is a doctoral student at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, where he researches labor economics.

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Coming to terms: Jimy Williams finds work in the minors

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Coming to terms Jimy Williams finds work in the minors

In company with baseball fans across the continent, the owner of a two-storey house in a fashionable Dunedin, Fla., neighborhood had his television set tuned to the games between the Athletics and Blue Jays early last week. There, near Grant Field, the minor-league complex that is the Jays’ home field during spring training each year, Jimy Williams watched his former charges lose the first two games of the American League championship series. Jays executives fired him from the manager’s job last May – when the team had an unsatisfactory record of 12 wins and 24 losses – but Williams maintains that he has no animosity towards the ball players who did not perform for him. Said Williams: “I am pulling for them, but things are not going well for them now.” In any event, Williams’s own fortunes were on the upswing last week: Atlanta Braves general manager Bobby Cox said that he had hired Williams to be a minor league hitting instructor with the National League organization.


That hiring demonstrated the strong ties that exist between Williams and Cox, a man who took the Jays to their first division championship in 1985. Williams spent three years working for Cox as a Jays coach and succeeded him as the team manager when Cox left for Atlanta in 1986. But Williams, who is now 45, had a stormy tenure at the Jays’ helm, and his teams never matched Cox’s pennant-winning achievement. In 1987, a losing slide of seven straight games – each lost by one run – at the end of the season destroyed Williams’s best chance of winning as the team finished second behind the Detroit Tigers. In addition, Jays officials say privately that Williams took the blame for top management’s 1988 decision to pull hard-hitting George Bell from the outfield and make him the team’s designated hitter. Bell promptly rejected that role and predicted – rightly, it turned out – that he would outlast Williams with the Jays.


Former Dunedin mayor Cecil Englebert said that he had frequently encountered his friend during the summer, a period that Williams spent relaxing with his wife, Peggy, and their four children. According to Englebert, that enforced leisure has helped Williams come to terms with a dismissal that occured after the Blue Jays lost a three-game series with the Minnesota Twins. Said Englebert: “He seemed to be holding up pretty well. The last time I talked to him, he said that he understood why he had been fired – because he was not winning and they had had to make a change.” Now, the man who watched the Jays finish the regular season first without him maintains that he simply wants to do a good job for his new employers – without any thoughts of returning to the major leagues. Said Williams: “I am not even thinking about that.” Just being back in the game is what matters most.

>>> Click here: Can the NFL Help Sell ‘Obamacare’?

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Can the NFL Help Sell ‘Obamacare’?

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Byline: Catherine Hollander

When Massachusetts enacted its health care law in 2006, state officials had to figure out how to sign up 653,000 uninsured residents for health insurance under the new mandate that all adults have coverage by July 1, 2007. It was a tight deadline. So they enlisted a group they knew could reach state residents: the Red Sox. Soon knuckleballer Tim Wakefield had a public-service announcement on TV urging residents to visit the Health Connector, the state’s online insurance marketplace. The Connector team set up a booth at Fenway Park to answer questions. Ads aired between innings on the New England Sports Network. The Red Sox went on to win the World Series in 2007, and 367,000 people enrolled in health coverage.

The Obama administration hopes that 7 million Americans will sign up for insurance during this year’s open-enrollment period, which will span October 2013 to March 2014, and it’s looking to recreate some of that Red Sox mojo. On Monday, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told reporters the administration is having “active discussions right now with a variety of sports affiliates” about outreach efforts. Specifically, she said, the National Football League was “very actively and enthusiastically engaged.” The Bay State could offer a playbook on how to conduct those partnerships.


Here’s how it went down: Weber Shandwick, a public-relations firm, responded to a request for proposal put out by the Health Connector in late 2006. It suggested drafting the Sox to prepare residents for the July 1 deadline. “Given the time frame, given that the average uninsured person in Massachusetts at that time was a 37-year-old male, we thought, who would be the perfect partner?” says Tara Murphy, who runs the Connector account at Weber Shandwick. After winning the contract, the firm floated the idea to Red Sox President Larry Lucchino. “Larry asked one question,” recalls Murphy. “He said, ‘So, this is the law, right?’ And we said yes. And he said, ‘You know, let’s do it.’ ”

The initial plan was to have athletes tout the importance of health insurance. Who better to extol its benefits than the folks whose bodies are the source of their income? But focus groups didn’t like the athletic spokesmen. People worried about the cost of health care and didn’t want to hear about the importance of shelling out for it from millionaires who didn’t have to fret about the bottom line.

So Wakefield’s ad was an exception. The rest of the campaign featured average citizens but used the Red Sox megaphone to amplify the message. The baseball team sold the Health Connector printed ads in game-time guides and TV ads on the Jumbotron. It allowed the Connector to film an ad in the stadium.

The campaign wasn’t free–the Weber Shandwick ad buy on the Red Sox channel topped $1 million–but Murphy estimates the Connector received $400,000 in “added value,” or free spots, from the team. In addition to the “brand halo” the beloved team bestowed on the Health Connector, it also reached a huge portion of the state, especially during the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Health Connector worked with community groups and businesses such as CVS. They sent direct mail to residents and set up a call center for curious Bay Staters.

Similar outreach will be crucial to the success of the Affordable Care Act, and the Obama administration is ramping up its big push in the 100 days left before the new online health exchanges open Oct. 1. In a Kaiser poll earlier this month, just one in five Americans had heard about the exchanges. HHS doesn’t have much money for ads, so sports-league partnerships are an efficient use of cash because they allow it to reach the “bro” demographic–healthy, uninsured young men. As in Massachusetts, these people are critical to the success of the exchanges because they can bring down costs for everyone in the pool.


The administration is developing strategies to reach this “healthy and young” group, whose 11 million members, ages 18 to 35, might not see the value of health coverage, according to White House strategy documents obtained by BuzzFeed last week. That group is 58 percent male–in other words, stereotypical sports fans. In Massachusetts, young men ages 19 to 39 were both prime Red Sox watchers and made up more than half of the uninsured people in the state in spring 2007, according to The Boston Globe. On the national level, the NFL could be a particularly good salesman for the Affordable Care Act because its season spans much of the open-enrollment period.

It’s not yet clear what form a partnership between HHS and the football or other sports leagues would take; Sebelius said they were discussing paid advertising as well as other agreements. In any case, the administration has a tough road ahead: “Obamacare” is more contentious than the Massachusetts law, and unfavorable views about it still prevail. Meanwhile, during the year of help from the hometown favorites, Massachusetts enrollment rose by just over half of the goal–and it’s impossible to know how much credit the Sox deserve. The NFL is much bigger and fans are more diffuse. And some conservative groups have already flayed a potential sports partnership. “A fan wants to enjoy watching his favorite team play, not be reminded about how his taxes have gone up,” Americans for Tax Reform, a group that opposes tax increases, said in a release this week. No wonder Sebelius is looking for a Hail Mary.

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Opening Day in NFL is what it’s all about

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On Sunday night, the Washington Redskins will face the Carolina Panthers on national television in their 1997 NFL season opener. As we prepare for this game on the road, I can’t help but think back to the final game played at RFK Stadium when we beat the Dallas Cowboys 37-10 last December. A lot has happened since then.

In the new era of the NFL, it is incredible how much takes place from the end of the season to the beginning of the next season. Each team in the NFL goes through the same process.


We re-signed Gus Frerotte, Terry Allen and Darrell Green to long-term contracts. Our organization made a great commitment to keep the key players on this team together. We went out and got players who added great experience to our team.

I know I am filled with excitement and even apprehension as we finish our week of preparation for the Panthers. We are going to face a team that went 9-0 at home last season and reached the NFC championship game. They are a very good football team.

We have also faced some adversity throughout training camp, preparing for the season opener without five or six starters. We have practiced without, and played preseason games, without guards Tre Johnson and Bob Dahl on the offensive line. We missed tight end Jamie Asher and defensive end Rich Owens for most of the preseason. Terry Allen had limited work because of a sore shoulder.

We have had a good week of practice getting ready for Carolina. Jamie, Rich and Terry are getting back to full strength. It was very encouraging to see Bob taking snaps with the second group Wednesday and Thursday. He is getting closer and closer to being ready.

That’s the kind of adversity that a team must learn to overcome. I feel confident that this team has enough maturity thanks to veterans like Darrell Green, Ken Harvey, Marvcus Patton, Cris Dishman, Brian Mitchell, Jeff Uhlenhake, Henry Ellard and Terry Allen.

The new additions made to this team in the offseason in free agency and through the draft will play important roles this season. Adding veterans like Cris, Alvin Harper, Jesse Campbell, Jeff Hostetler and Chris Mims will make us a better football team because of their understanding of what it takes to play in this league.

We will start three rookies – Derek Smith at linebacker, Kenard Lang at defensive tackle and Brad Badger at guard – against Carolina on Sunday. Rookie safety Jamel Williams will be in our nickel package, while rookie linebacker Greg Jones will see playing time.


I like what this team has accomplished so far from the end of last season, through training camp and through four preseason games. Obviously, we are just beginning the part that counts with a very difficult game at Carolina.

As I told the team in the locker room after the Miami Dolphins game, this is what it’s all about. Get ready – the preseason is over. Everything speeds up. The veterans understand, the rookies will find out.

There is nothing like getting ready to play a football game in the National Football League. I know every one of our guys has been waiting for this Sunday since that last game of last season.

* Redskins coach Norv Turner’s column appears every Tuesday and Friday during the NFL season – only in The Washington Times.

>>> View more: THe issues game

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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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