Will online games-for-scholarships site fly with parents?

ScholarGamers.com's competition for scholarship money ends Dec. 15.

Angelo Tartaro said his business model could prompt a sentence never before uttered by a parent: “I want to one day hear a mother say, ‘Tommy, put down that ball and bat and get in here and play video games so you can win a scholarship.’”

Tartaro, while watching a college basketball game chock full of players on scholarship last year, had an idea for an online platform that would allow superior gamers to convert their hand-eye acumen into scholarship money, just like the basketball stars had done with their physical prowess.

Tartaro and a group of investors based in New Jersey launched the site ScholarGamers.com in October, and from Nov. 1 to Dec. 15, thousands of middle and high school students nationwide will compete for up to $10,000 in scholarship money.

ScholarGamers members, who can register for free on the site if they’re 13 or older, will compete against the entire ScholarGamer community in 20-minute matchups, playing popular Flash-based online games such as “Captain Crash,” “Smiley Showdown,” and “Penguins Attack 2.”

Fifteen finalists will be invited to the Walt Disney World Resort in January, where winners will be given scholarship money ranging from $500 to $10,000. The contributions will be doled out in 529 investment plans, which are designated for education-related expenses. Students can’t win money more than once.

“We’re trying not to educate, but simply to provide an opportunity to a very large population who are trying to get an education, but are limited by funding,” said Tartaro, whose experience with student debt is largely related to his two daughters’ pursuit of six degrees altogether. “And I think video games have gotten a bad rap. … Why can’t children who have special skills in playing video games earn scholarships, too?”

Tartaro said he and ScholarGamers investors are providing the first round of scholarship money in hopes of attracting advertisers for future competitions. He wouldn’t reveal how many students have registered on ScholarGamers, although he expects the website to receive 1 million hits by Dec. 15, the final day of the 45-day competition.

ScholarGamers could tap into a large market of teens scouring the internet for the latest web-based games.

Ninety-seven percent of 12- to 17-year-olds play computer, web, or console video games, and half of teens surveyed said they played a video game “yesterday,” according to research published by the Pew Research Center in 2008.

The Pew research also shows parents’ hesitation to let their children play video games without restriction. Forty-six percent of parents surveyed said they “always or sometimes” stop their children from playing games, while three in 10 said they sometimes play the games with their kids.

Corinne Gregory, president and founder of SocialSmarts, a program aiming to develop children’s social skills, said parents would welcome the chance for their daughter or son to earn scholarship money in middle school, but ScholarGamers’ competition would require daily dedication to non-educational video games.

“The only way to get good is to play lots,” said Gregory, a mother of three. “I can’t really condone having my kids play video games for extended periods of time.  … And I would remind students that there are lots of other ways to earn scholarship money.”

Tartaro pointed to statistics that show student loan debt has reached unprecedented levels. Four-year college graduates left campus with an average of $24,000 in loan debt in 2009, a 6 percent increase from 2008, according to The Project on Student Debt.

College students in New Hampshire and Washington, D.C., graduated with the most student debt, around $30,000, according to the study, which included student debt levels at more than 1,000 colleges and universities.

Graduates in Georgia and Utah left school with the least debt, at $16,500 and $12,860, respectively.

“That’s how [students] are starting their adult lives, buried in debt, and that’s a tough thing,” Tartaro said. “We’re trying to provide a little relief from that.”

Still, urging teenagers to put down their books and play online games, Gregory said, would be anathema to everything a parent strives for during their child’s formative years.

“It’s soft gambling,” Gregory said of ScholarGamers. “I don’t want my kids to spend untold hours in front of a computer screen just to have a slim chance at a scholarship. … Most parents, I think, are smart enough to realize that.”

Denny Carter

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