A couple of weeks ago, I sat down with Matt Hooper, a Seattle attorney who represents video game and media clients. Matt has a strong interest in “games for good”—video games that promote learning, health, and social justice—and he speaks often about games to scientists, business leaders, and educators. In 2013 he won a Telly Award for one of his presentations.
When I arrived at a downtown Starbucks for our interview, Matt was playing Plants Vs. Zombies on his phone.
Pixelkin: Did you play video games when you were young?
Hooper: I had a Nintendo when I was about nine to 13, but other than that I didn’t play many video games at all. I only really got involved in the video game space when I moved to Seattle a few years ago. Prior to that, most of my work was internet-based or film-based. I was in L.A. for 26 years and northern California six or seven years and then came to Seattle.
Pixelkin: How did you get involved in the world of video games?
Hooper: So I was sitting in a conference hosted by WIN (Washington Interactive Network), and they were talking about the growth of the industry—the incredible growth. Did you know 95 to 98 percent of kids today play video games? The average child plays for over two hours per day.
Pixelkin: And you were concerned about the games kids were playing?
Hooper: You see these games like Grand Theft Auto where kids are getting rewards for running people over. There are a whole bunch of studies done on the correlation between violence and video games, and they come down both ways. The Entertainment Software Association does a big study, and it’s always going to say video games don’t cause any real harm. But the American Psychological Association did a study in 2012 that said that if a child has the right issues in their brain, that it can have an incredibly detrimental effect. [Note: The American Psychological Association says it “launched an analysis in 2013 of peer-reviewed research on the impact of media violence and is reviewing its policy statements in the area. Both are expected to be completed in 2014.”]
My thought was you’re never going to get everyone to agree on that [whether video games promote violent behavior], but what we can agree on is, if instead of playing [violent games], if [kids] played something that was teaching them something or helping society in some regard, that is going to be a benefit. Studies have proven that the brain does react to learning in the interactive space. So I try to travel and speak to professionals on the subject.
Pixelkin: How do people react to your talks?
Hooper: People audibly gasp when they hear that statistic of what the usage is. They’re really blown away by that stuff.
Pixelkin: How common video game usage is?
Hooper: Yeah, and I think there’s a big issue with parents not being informed. Not having the information they need to make decisions about the games their kids are playing.
Pixelkin: I think that’s interesting too. Pixelkin is trying to help with that, and Common Sense Media has been around a long time, but it’s probably not common enough that people understand their 8-year-old should not be playing Grand Theft Auto—that game is rated Mature.
Hooper: True, it’s amazing.
Pixelkin: So you’re doing a lot of speaking to raise awareness?
Hooper: I do my best to get out there and raise awareness. Just in April alone I’m speaking three times, 30-, 60-, and 90-minute presentations. I’ve spoken to real-estate brokers, large medical groups, Rotary. I’ve testified before the Washington State Senate Committee on K-12 Education.
Pixelkin: I’m curious about the presentation you did, the survey of different games for good, educational games, and the crowdsourcing of solutions to scientific problems. Do you see a change in perception on your subject over time?
Hooper: A change in the industry and a change in perception. For a long time there was a stigma, that educational games can’t be profitable. And then a game came out called Dragon Box, which I put in my video. It’s more popular in parts of Europe than Angry Birds, which has been incredibly profitable, which has proven that educational games can be profitable. And Rupert Murdoch got behind a large educational games system (Amplify) that he’s trying to integrate into multiple schools on the East Coast, and so essentially, with this growth, the industry continues to expand. And research institutions are doing research on this, and so you get research studies coming out on this subject of the actual effect on the brain, and that’s been expanding it. People are beginning to understand that games can be used for positive things. University of Washington’s Foldit game got a ton of press for what it did in analysis of the HIV protein, and that helped further it. But if you were to survey parents in the United States with kids 5 to 15, my guess would be that only about 10 percent of them actually would understand that there are games that educate that aren’t boring and that their kids would love to play.
Pixelkin: What do you consider to be your most important work?
Hooper: I serve as outside general counsel to Code.org, and that’s probably some of the most important work I do now. Hadi Partovi, Code.org’s CEO, explains why it’s important for people to learn computer science. Lots of exciting stuff there. The big thing for me is, when you are born into poverty in this country, how do you break the cycle of poverty and really allow opportunity? The income for an individual who is in computer science is $90,000 a year. But the problem is, young kids who don’t have rich parents can’t get access to computer camp or computer science education at a young age, so by the time they get into high school where it’s offered, they have no background in it. They are intimidated by computer science or don’t understand it, so they avoid it. On the other hand, the kids with wealthy parents who did go to computer camp or did get tutoring are properly prepared for the high school classes, take them, and then are prepared for these courses in college and these higher paying jobs. Code.org is working to ensure that all kids—including those who have less money, are minority students (who tend to shy away from computer science classes), and girls (who also rarely enter the field), have equal opportunity. It’s hard to break the cycle of poverty. So I’m working in support of Code.org, which is developing programs to help kids learn these things to help kids break the cycle of poverty.
Pixelkin: Are you going to be doing more of the games-for-good work?
Hooper: That’s what I’m passionate about. What I teach the people in these speeches is that in today’s interactive environment, when kids are texting on their phones and playing a video game and surfing the web at the same time, kids are not set up to receive information passively. Education is changing, and it has to change because otherwise all these other countries and kids are going to learn in an active environment, and we’re going to continue to be stuck in a passive environment, and that’s really dangerous.
And I don’t think we do a great job of identifying the jobs where kids can make a good living—what skills are necessary and what education kids need. And I think the right games can at least help. They can help kids break the cycle of poverty. I think that for a long time people needed basic education, but kids need the skills to allow them to do more than just enough. I think a game can teach that. Resilience is another thing games can teach.
Pixelkin: How is Plants Vs. Zombies?
Hooper: [Laughing] It’s totally worthless, but it lets me rest.