Better Parenting Though Games

Question: How can parents find the right games for learning?

Katie Salen: The first thing I would say, and I do tell parents this: Just figure out what it is your kid is interested in.  And also what are the kinds of things that they may be struggling with.  So, if there’s a child that is struggling with a certain way of conceiving of complex problems.  So maybe they’re struggling in math a little bit.  There’s a lot of different kinds of games that give kids practice in ordering certain kinds of problems, working through certain sequences of logic.  Maybe there’s a kid that has a passion around sports.  Okay, sports games are a great opportunity for them to get in there and play with their friends, but also gain some facility around the technology. 

And so mostly it has to do with trying to match an interest that our child might have with what a game might be offering. Not just in terms of content, but also in the type of game.  So if you have a kid that is, let’s say is really interested in, and I’ll go back to the math and engineering.  There’s a whole genre of games about building stuff.  That might be a great genre of game for that kid.  There may be a kid that’s interested—very detailed oriented kind of type A personality kid—real time strategy games are a great genre of games for those kids.  And those are games where you are managing complex sets of resources in a simulation environment and try to advance toward a particular kind of goal. 

Maybe you have a kid that’s really creative and interested in more open-ended kind of exploration.  There’s a whole genre of adventure games that might be really good for that particular kind of child.  So it just really has to do with what the situation is.

Question:
How can parents participate in their kids' games?

Katie Salen: Well, the most important thing we know from a learning perspective is talk.  So, kids that grow up in households where they don’t have an opportunity to talk with parents about what they’re doing, the kids tend to struggle in many ways because they haven’t again been given the opportunity to practice with the language, with using words, with putting together complex ideas, with creating arguments.  So the simplest and biggest thing a parent can do with a child is to sit down and play with them.  Play the game with them, talk with them about what they’re doing, prompt them, ask them questions.  Kids love it when the parent asks them to show—that the kid will show the parent how to do something. 

We have a program at the Institute of Play called Playforce where we bring in kids from third grade up to college and they play test games for us.  And they tell us what they think are valuable about the games. And what we found is with some of the younger kids that the moms started coming in with the kids and they would sit next to them and start to play, and there was a radical change in the relationship; a.) between the parent’s understanding of what their kids were learning from these games and b.) just in the relationship between the parent and their child, as the child became an expert in explaining to the mom what they were doing, what they were learning, how to play the game.  And so that’s a really powerful role that you can put your child in, is letting them be the teacher and letting them share with you what it is they find so interesting about this thing that they’re doing.  And it has consequences in terms of their potential for future learning.

Recorded May 7, 2010
Interviewed by David Hirschman

Communication is key for effective parenting. The simplest and biggest thing a parent can do with a child is to sit down and play with them.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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