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Evolution of Pong a game-changer for recidivism

Forty-five years ago, Nolan Bushnell founded Atari. He created its first game, Pong, which at the time was revolutionary, despite its simplicity.

He hired a young man to help create more games — a guy named Steve Jobs, who went on to co-found a little company called Apple. You might have heard of it.

Now, Bushnell is looking to help more people gain stable employment, arguably those who need it most: ex-felons. Bushnell is working with downtown’s Larson Training Center to reduce recidivism by turning career criminals into career-minded productive citizens — and saving Nevada taxpayers a boatload of money in the process.

And much like Pong, the solution is revolutionary and simplistic. First, teach them to type. Second, just like with video games, create training materials that keep the students engaged.

“I always felt that there was a powerful link between game play and learning,” said Bushnell, 72, who lives in Los Angeles. “And I felt that nobody else was utilizing that link as good as I thought they should.”

In 2013, he got more of an impetus to move forward, courtesy of Edward Bevilacqua, director of education at Larson’s campus, located in the Learning Village next to the Container Park. Bevilacqua, who worked with Bushnell in the 1990s for a company that developed Internet video games, approached him about helping beat recidivism. The result was Bushnell’s latest endeavor, BrainRush.

“Our objective was to take brain science and make it as simple as possible,” Bushnell said.

Indeed, it had to be. The people who come to Larson have a third-grade education level, on average. They are put in a 16-week program, first learning to type and begin using a computer.

“It’s just one simple thing. The most fundamental employment skill is to type,” Bevilacqua said. “If you can’t type, you can’t get a stable job. And it’s really not hard to teach people to type.”

Then the students work daily on the BrainRush memorization games, and they can’t advance to the next level until they’ve mastered each game. But the games are so appealing that the ex-felons do in fact master them. They also learn a variety of key Google programs, even how to operate on the cloud. Ultimately, some of them end up more skilled than fellow job applicants who have never spent a day behind bars.

And the results are stunning. Larson opened in late 2013, got its provisional state license a year ago and was fully licensed earlier this month. In the past 12 months, Larson has brought in 120 students, 22 of whom are currently in the program. Of the 50 students who either graduated, completed the program but didn’t graduate, or left early after acquiring enough skills to become employable, 43 gained stable employment — 86 percent.

“When they first come in, they have a 5 percent chance of success,” Bevilacqua said, noting that 22 students came to the program while being detained at the Casa Grande Transitional Center in Las Vegas, and all 22 got hired. “Two of them had never had a job before. They had never gone legit. Casa Grande deserves all the credit for that. They are motivated by the staff at Casa Grande to get a job.”

Casa Grande offers a powerful incentive: get a job or go back to prison.

One of the best parts of Larson’s program is what it costs you and me: Zero. Larson receives no government funding. Much of the center’s funding comes from its California campus, which works strictly with displaced workers — not ex-cons — who pay tuition for training. Some of that tuition money is funneled to Bevilacqua’s program. Downtown Project chief Tony Hsieh has been supportive of the Las Vegas campus as well, and Bevilacqua said the Salvation Army funded 12 students.

The success is undeniable and certainly merits expansion — unfortunately, it has a pipeline bursting with potential students. As Department of Corrections Deputy Director Brian Connett noted, 96 percent of the state’s prison population ultimately will be released.

The problem is that current funding won’t allow expansion, and the state is strapped in so many other areas that it can’t contribute.

But here’s the good news: Bevilacqua said he’s confident the program doesn’t need taxpayer money — something that’s incredibly refreshing to hear. So how might Larson expand?

I’ll address that next week.

Patrick Everson is an editorial writer for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Follow him on Twitter: @PatrickCEverson.

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