Page last updated at 07:56 GMT, Tuesday, 12 October 2004 08:56 UK

Games help street teens learn

By Roberto Belo
BBC in Buenos Aires

Street children in Argentina's capital Buenos Aires are learning new skills, thanks to their passion for video games, say researchers.

Julio, a 15 year old street child from Buenos Aires, explains a game to a friend. Picture: Centre for Media Studies
Julio (right) is one of the street children who regularly plays games

After a two-year study, the Centre for Media Studies research institute concluded that gaming helps children improve their reading on screen and their ability to resolve conflicts.

It seems to be key in developing strategies to overcome obstacles and reach goals, and even in allowing them back into mainstream society.

According to this study, eight out of 10 of the up to 5,000 children living or working in the streets of Buenos Aires are regular game players, mostly in cyber cafés and arcades.

"We found that kids from the streets learn playing with video games," sociologist Tatiana Merlo Flores told the BBC programme Go Digital.

"We also witnessed a very strong social inclusion and empowerment process. They learn from each other."

Cyber friends

This trend is also being seen in other countries around the world.

The next step, researchers say, is to make use of this potential as a true alternative learning tool, and for that they want to appeal to the games software industry.

Street child in Buenos Aires. Picture: Centre for Media Studies
80% are regular game players
95% of boys go to cyber cafés and arcades almost daily
Girls prefer home console games
66% prefer non violent games
Source: Centre for Media Studies, Buenos Aires

The Centre for Media Studies in Buenos Aires also identified the development of a one-to-one relationship between the teens and other regulars at the arcades or cyber cafés.

This can be seen in downtown Buenos Aires at lunchtime, where it is not unusual to see a office worker playing alongside a street child.

"In that moment, they are all friends, and they play in the same level. The kids broke the digital divide, although they don't know it", said Dr Merlo Flores, who teaches at the University of Buenos Aires and at the Catholic University of Argentina.

Julio, a 15-year-old teenager who works on the streets and dreams of managing a cyber café, has first-hand experience of such an episode.

"I have a businessman friend who works with computers. I've spent a year playing alongside him," said Julio.

"We would always meet at the store he had in downtown Buenos Aires. We have become very close friends."

Some children even have an e-mail, and they share it with their peers, in order to communicate with friends both from Argentina and the rest of the world.

Learning tool

Tatiana Merlo Flores stresses that games provide street children with the challenge and the encouragement that they not always get from school.

Children playing video games
Most of the boys go to arcades or cyber cafés every day

"You can see them, leaving their packages and containers with paper and cartons, and get into these arcades to play," she said.

"They might spend up to half of their wages in that. They pay for this informal way of learning, because this is actually learning."

The next step forward, according to her, is to knock on the door of the big games software companies in order to be able to make full use of the potential of games.

"If we work with them, this could be a wonderful way to promote learning, in a way that children already want," said Dr Merlo Flores.

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