US Fish and Wildlife Service Shows Kids Wonders of Outdoors with New Video Game

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The US Fish and Wildlife Service has concocted a plan to encourage children to spend more time outside and take an interest in the environment: describe it in a video game. "Neighborhood Explorers" targets outdoor-deprived children aged 8-11; it's 3 characters—Mia, Steve and Lucy—teach children about various species and all the cool things that happen when one is not glued to the computer screen.

While the Service is undoubtedly well intentioned, the strategy seems a bit suspect. For one, there's the obvious paradox of using an implement of sedation to encourage activity. It's like "Drink Responsibly" stickers on a beer pong table. The other point—and this may just be a function of my age—the site is sort of dull. When I was 11, I was playing Metroid, shooting and cartwheeling my way through a primitively illustrated space-scape—an activity far more fun than watching the didactic antics of non-threatening, racially neutral pre-teens.

On the other hand, I found the interactive NX Challenge (NX = Neighborhood Explorers) portion of the site disproportionately difficult. The NX Challenge is a game with a Jeopardy-style quiz with questions like, "This invasive species hurts animals that try to eat it and is so dry that it increases the number of serious wildfires: Purple Loosestrife, Cheat Grass, Salt Cedar, or English Ivy." The questions proved challenging to people who haven't been ages 8-11 since Reagan was in office.

Video Games and the Environment
The Service is perhaps trying to take a realpolitik approach to counteracting the increased use of video games. According to the Nielsen Company, video game use was up 21% this June from a year ago. And while the demographic that the Service is targeting accounts for about 20% of all national minutes played, the increased video game play is not just a juvenile trend: 25% are 12-17 and almost 50% are over 18 years old (surely a figure abetted by the recession). It's not a big leap in logic to say that all the game time has cut in on outdoor time and environmental awareness.

This trend is disheartening for a couple reasons. The first is the emotional toll of video games. According to a WebMD article, there is a growing trend toward video game addiction. Keith Bakker, director of Smith & Jones Addiction Consultants says that playing 4-5 hours a day "takes away from normal social development. You can get a 21-year-old with the emotional intelligence of a 12-year-old. He's never learned to talk to girls. He's never learned to play a sport."

There is also a heavy environmental toll. According to the NRDC, video games in the US consume 16 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity a year, a number equal to the annual energy consumption of San Diego, California. Many video game console manufacturers have also been criticized by Greenpeace for their poor environmental records.

As a non-video game playing, non-parent, I will abstain from prescribing simplistic solutions to deal with the lure of video games and their consequent impact on public and environmental health. But I hope that in the future children and their parents might have the wherewithal to go outdoors and explore their neighborhoods without electronic assistance. One can hope.

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