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Last Updated: Tuesday, 2 December, 2003, 17:09 GMT
Uzbek gamers pick up computer skills
By Jo Twist
BBC News Online technology reporter

Computer games are not usually considered to be a particularly useful or efficient use of scarce technological resources in developing economies.

Internet cafe in Tashkent (Image: Carolyn Wei)
Most people in Uzbekistan go online from internet cafes
But a group of researchers from the University of Washington believe they could play a more fundamentally important role than previously thought.

In a country where the net and computers are scarce commodities, like Uzbekistan, they can be seen as an important way to get young people interested in using and exploring a world of computers, technology and what the web offers.

"The majority of people who have ever used a computer in Uzbekistan have played a computer game, and this seems significant," Professor Beth Kolko who led the research explains to BBC News Online.

Game playing could, she argues, be a basis for innovation which could be exploited to produce future economic and social rewards.

"We see internet cafe after internet cafe full of young people playing computer games," she says.

"If games get people interested in using technology, they may also motivate them to eventually become involved in other ways.

"Suddenly, they go from being consumers of information to producers of information. They become programmers, developers, designers, not just passive players."

Pricey access

Uzbekistan is a country in the early stages of technological, and in particular, net development and adoption.

But according to recent World IT Report figures, Uzbekistan's net population doubled between 2002 and 2003.

Technology like the internet holds tremendous potential for people in Uzbekistan, but whether or not that potential is realised completely depends on how it is implemented
Professor Beth Kolko, University of Washington

It is estimated more than 270,000 people are using the net in the region, compared to 137,000 the previous year.

Most access the net in public places, like internet cafes.

In the International Telecommunication Union's digital access index, measuring the ability of people in any country to access and use technologies, Uzbekistan scores poorly at 0.31, where 1.0 is the highest.

Professor Kolko argues that computer games do not just have a narrow recreational use.

They have an educational function in the way they encourage people to engage more innovatively with technology.

To understand that role, the team asked about gaming as part of a larger survey of non-net users as well as 400 net users across rural and urban Uzbekistan, including those who had only been online once.

They found the most popular online activities were sending e-mails to people outside the country, general surfing and playing games.

Mind the digital gap

But, for young people in Uzbekistan, the potential pathway to technology through game-playing is a rocky one.

A multitude of locked gateways and potholes deny many the full access they desire to bring about a true transformative effect.

"When we think of barriers to access in the US or the UK, we think about economic issues, rural versus urban issues, and sometimes race," explains Professor Kolko.

Mosque in Bukhara (Image: Carolyn Wei)
Cultural divides play a part in digital divides too

"In Uzbekistan, we are talking about a whole other set of parameters."

It is expensive to use net cafes - about 60p for an hour's access in a country where the average monthly salary is about 17.

The research highlights larger complex economic, cultural and social issues which are very familiar to countries trying to be part of an "information society."

Infrastructure problems, familiar in many developing countries, as well as censorship issues also stunt the growth of net use.

There are also crucial regulatory and policy issues which have to be addressed before the country can fully participate in the technological world.

"Official policy acts as a barrier by restricting whether new IT companies can open," Professor Kolko says.

"While in the US or the UK new IT companies seem to sprout daily, in Uzbekistan would-be start-ups are subject to a while host of regulatory procedures."

This is a big digital divide problem which continues to prise apart the digital gap, and is something which the UN's summit on the information society hopes to address in December.

"Technology like the internet holds tremendous potential for people in Uzbekistan, but whether or not that potential is realised completely depends on how it is implemented," argues Professor Kolko.

Health care information provision as well as education are just two areas where the net could dramatically improve people's lives.

"The country is grappling with switching its language of instruction from Russian to Uzbek, yet they lack well-developed facilities to print the needed textbooks.

"If you can't afford to print millions of new textbooks, how are you going to get up-to-date information to students? The internet can help solve this problem."

Professor Kolko's research is part of a on-going research into information technology adoption and adaptation in Central Asia.



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