MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Today, the MacArthur Foundation, the people who give out the genius grants, announced it is funding a new public school in New York. The MacArthur Foundation also gives financial support to NPR. The school is going to be for sixth through 12th graders, and the curriculum for the whole school will center around designing video games.

As Heather Chaplin reports, the MacArthur Foundation is throwing its support and $1.1 million behind a new idea about what it means to be literate in the 21st century. It's called gaming literacy.

HEATHER CHAPLIN: Let's say its 1830 and you are a farmer. You make sure your son can read and write, that he can understand the deed to his land and sign contracts. He is literate. Today, literacy is more complicated. The MacArthur Foundation's director of educational grantmaking, Connie Yowell, believes one of the keys to 21st century literacy can be found in videogames.

Ms. CONNIE YOWELL (Director of Educational Grantmaking, MacArthur Foundation): It's not just games but gaming as a way of interacting. It's so important for the future.

CHAPLIN: Yowell recommended to MacArthur that it fund a school of game design, and she went for help to Katy Salen, the director of the Gamelab Institute of Play in New York City. Salen has been experimenting with teaching game design to kids.

Ms. KATY SALEN (Executive Director, Gamelab Institute of Play): See, it felt the change it was too hard. And would you have suggestions on how to fix that?

Unidentified Man: We change the hero to shooting hero, becauseā€¦

CHAPLIN: Salen cant get over how enthusiastic the kids in her game design classes are. But the energy in Salen's classroom is about more than just games being fun. Salen's preparing her students to go beyond 20th century literacy, which was about memorizing information from a textbook.

Ms. SALEN: What we needed to know was in that book. And if we mastered what was in that book, we would be set. Today, it's not so much about knowing the exact content on page 309, but it's understanding how the content on page 309 might be connected to content on page 500, which then may be impacted by something that you find elsewhere on the Web.

CHAPLIN: Juggling lots of different connected elements is a big part of what you're doing when you design a game.

Ms. SALEN: Gaming provides a really interesting frame for looking at the world and kind of parsing what we might call the operating system of the world in this way. And so we call that kind of gaming literacy.

CHAPLIN: Gaming literacy teaches kids about dynamic systems. Take the new Super Mario Bros.

(Soundbite from Super Mario Bros. videogame)

CHAPLIN: As Mario, you're chasing the evil Bowser and his evil son. The game has 80 levels spread across eight interconnected worlds. Grab the micro mushroom and you become so small, you fall down a tiny whole into a new level. Grab the mega mushroom and your Mario becomes so big he can grab coins right out of the sky. That's a dynamic system in motion in a game.

For a real world example, take climate change. You drive you car, it contributes to the release of carbon dioxide into the air, which contributes to global warming, which, in turn, makes the polar ice caps in Alaska melt, which means the polar bears who live there no longer have anywhere to live. This means your car is connected to those polar bears half a continent away. That's also a dynamic system in motion.

The World Wide Web is a dynamic system, the global economy is a dynamic system, your ATM is a dynamic system, the weather, a corporation, all things you need to understand to be literate in the 21st century.

Connie Yowell of MacArthur.

Ms. YOWELL: Games are really systems, and I think when you think about any of the political issues, if you think about global warming, if you think about any of the sort of core problems that we're dealing with as a society, they're no longer black and white that, in order to really participate in society today, you really have to be able to think about problems in a systemic way.

CHAPLIN: In 1830, the farmer was preparing his son for the world by teaching him to read. The MacArthur Foundation is putting its money behind the idea that the way to prepare kids for 21st century literacy is by teaching them how to design video games.

For NPR NEWS, I'm Heather Chaplin in New York.

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