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NES Classic Edition sells out: What old games can teach a new generation

Old-school games like those of Nintendo's original console are being used to teach young programmers across the US.

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The NES Classic Edition is a modern twist to Nintendo's original console.

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Nostalgic video-game heads made short work of Nintendo’s NES Classic Edition when it hit stores on Friday, snapping up every copy of the console, which subsequently appeared on eBay at prices several times higher than the original $60.

The company says it’s “working hard to keep up with consumer demand,”,but it’s keeping would-be buyers’ tongues wagging: major retailers, including Target, Best Buy, and Wal-Mart, only received a handful of units, according to GeekWire, and just two minutes after Amazon’s Friday-morning announcement that the console was available, the online retailer were already sold out.

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The Classic Edition is one of two vintage consoles to be reissued recently, reported The Christian Science Monitor’s Joseph Dussault last week, with Sega releasing the original Genesis console to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Sonic the Hedgehog. The appeal of those games isn’t just the province of 40-year-olds longing for the living rooms and arcades of their youth. Some studies say that while classic video games might conjure sweet memories among older audiences, they’re also a peculiarly good learning tool for teaching kids elemental programming. And a growing model of thought among educators that prizes video-game learning — and looks ahead to a strong computer-science job field — seems to suggest that such classics could endure in classrooms over coming generations.

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One study led by Northwestern University learning technologist Uri Wilensky found that when high school students were tasked with recreating an existing video game, they were four times more likely "to draw inspiration from a game that could be played on an Atari or in an ‘80s arcade than on an Xbox or Play Station.” It might not be just because the earlier games are easier to recreate, the study concluded, since other increasingly popular mobile games tend to use simple mechanics of the sort that are easy to recreate.  

“[I]t is possible that the next generation of great video game developers draw as much inspiration from the classics as they do from modern blockbusters,” wrote Dr. Wilensky and his co-author.

Younger students are also cutting their teeth on programming with vintage games. In 2013, Phys.org reported that in grade schools across the country, kids were building their own video-game replicas of Frogger. It’s part of an effort by computer scientists to get kids to develop basic proficiency with programming, in order to cultivate future talent for a field that struggles mightily to meet its demand for talent. 

"Programming should be easy and exciting,” University of Colorado Boulder computer science professor Alexander Repenning said at the time. "But that's not where we are. The perception of students is that it's hard and boring. Our goal is to expose a much larger as well as broader audience to programming by reinventing computer science education in public schools."

Teachers are also embracing video-games as a classroom tool more broadly, noted the Scientific American in 2014. Surveys show that of teachers who make use of video games in the classroom at all, more than half have kids play them at least once a week. And many say that low-performing students generally benefit from them most.