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University of Victoria researcher Kathy Sanford studies the upside of video games.CHAD HIPOLITO/The Globe and Mail

If your teenagers are too immersed in video games to take out the garbage or finish homework, it might not be all bad. They may be learning how to be better future citizens.

Kathy Sanford, an education professor at the University of Victoria, has heard all the downsides of kids hooked on video game play. But through a five-year research project, following a group of kids who were aged 13-17 at the start, she's now convinced there is an upside – youth can, and do, adapt their screen-life strategies to useful skills in the outside world.

Dr. Sanford sat down with The Globe and Mail on Tuesday, shortly before presenting her findings at a UVic conference of humanities and social sciences with some 7,000 delegates from across the country. There was a delicious moment of irony in the interview when she was stumped by a request to demonstrate one of the online role-playing games used by her subjects: Despite the years spent learning about the world of video gaming, she doesn't have a password, much less her own avatar. But you don't have to be a gamer to learn the language, and she says educators and parents need to learn about this world if they hope to connect with kids who are comfortable moving in an alternative landscape.

There is a disturbing trend with voters under the age of 35, who are the least likely to participate in elections. How do video games prepare youth to be good, active citizens?

What we found was that what they were learning was a whole lot deeper and more profound than we had imagined, or that you can see from watching them. They are doing a lot of problem solving and strategizing. They are learning collaboration and leadership skills.

But the most profound thing that got me really thinking about their civic engagement is that they are actively making ethical and moral decisions all the time. They are trying out roles through the characters in the stories. If they act badly, if they choose to be evil, they see the significant results of each of the decisions they make.

Is our education system adapting to teach this generation of "digital learners" we're seeing?

We have to look at what we can learn from how they learn. There is, for example, the immediacy of feedback loops in video games, so when they make a mistake, they know right away, they can correct it and move forward. How do we take the characteristics of games – that enable a positive engagement with something really significant – and think about how education might look?

If we don't change things in schools, we are going to have more disengaged kids.

I would think there are more than a few skeptical parents out there thinking, "My kid would be better off outside, playing in real life."

There was a lot of resistance, five or seven years ago. But now it is not just, "How do we get them to stop?" but, "How can we help them navigate life?" Of course we want kids to connect to nature, but balance is critical. People criticize gaming because it is sedentary. But we wouldn't be upset if those kids were reading a book.

You've talked about how video games can help youth learn about ethical decision making. What else?

The ultimate goal in gaming is to win. They are figuring out what is the best way to do that. In online games, they don't necessarily choose their teammates, so they have to negotiate whose strengths are used at what time, who takes up a leadership role, how to move forward with taking on the enemy. These are not one-off strategies. Some of the participants have talked about the usefulness of their leadership skills in running a guild in a game, and then going into a high-school classroom and navigating that structure.

Our kids are growing up immersed in this online world – 21st century literacy skills, is how you describe it in your paper. How can we as parents, as educators, make the most of it?

It's kind of scary for adults, because we don't really know what's going on. We can't see what they are doing in the same way as TV. Especially online, when you don't know who they are talking to. So we have to talk to our kids about what they are doing in an interested and genuine way. Some of the characters are problematic to me, there is a lot of sexism, but we need to talk to kids about them, not just ban them.

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