Can the Wii Be Your Virtual Henry Higgins?

Video games offer kids the chance to do all sorts of things they can’t normally in real life—fly airplanes, duel with lightsabers, steal cars. But can video games actually teach our children real skills? Disney Sing It: Pop Hits is one of a slew of karaoke-style video games on the market, but the only one I know of that offers vocal coaching—and from a real-life Disney pop star, too (Tiffany Thornton, from the show Sonny with a Chance). Then there’s My Ballet Studio, a Wii game that demonstrates actual ballet moves and asks children to mimic them while standing on the Wii’s weight-sensing balance board.

Now are Ms. Thornton’s singing tips going to get your kid ready for American Idol? And will following along with My Ballet Studio lead to a career with the Bolshoi? That’s like asking if Guitar Hero can teach someone to play a real instrument. Obviously not. But what Guitar Hero can do is inspire a kid to pick up a real guitar. Because the game does impart some genuine six-string knowledge. Players can learn what techniques like hammer-ons and pull-offs are; they can pick up elements of rhythm—and they just might say, hey, I should try this for real. It’s been known to happen.

Same goes with those other games. The tips in Disney Sing It mainly serve to make kids better at the game, rather than making them genuinely better singers. But one thing can lead to another, especially if karaoke kudos make a rookie singer think she’s got professional-quality pipes. And while balance and timing are all kids really need to succeed in My Ballet Studio, do you think that will stop crinoline-obsessed seven-year old girls from shouting, “Mommy, Mommy, I got a perfect score on ‘La Danse Russe’—Can I start taking lessons?” I think not.

So to answer that question: Can video games lead to children learning real-life skills? In a roundabout way, yes.

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