CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (AP) _ The nimble little Nintendo men who dodge bad guys to rescue the princess now have a bigger prize to capture: the approval of wary parents exhausted by the video game craze.

As an inducement, the Japanese toymaker has given $3 million to the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for its ongoing research into how children can learn while they play, the school announced Tuesday.

The gift to establish the Nintendo Fund will back the work of Seymour Papert, a mathematician and pioneer in artificial intelligence who directs learning research at the Media Lab.

Making more-educational models of Nintendo could ease parents' worries about the intense attraction the games hold for their children and a tendency to dismiss them as useless diversions.

''Kids do just love (Nintendo),'' said Gordon Cawelti of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development in Alexandria, Va., which examines the use of computers in education.

''But they consume an enormous amount of time. Something like Nintendo is captivating but not very educating, and it's addicting.''

What underlies Papert's approach to work-plus-play equals learning is a phrase he learned from children, Papert said in an interview: ''Children say: 'I like that because it's hard fun.'''

''Fun does not have to be easy. Real play can be painful, but it also has this element of fun and engagement and it's something you want to do.''

''One of the criticisms of school I've made is that it's not connected to children's real lives, what they're really interested in.''

Papert is widely known for his invention of a computer language called Logo. Used in about a third of the country's elementary schools, Logo lets children program computers.

The new grant does not require MIT researchers to devise new Nintendo games, though Papert did not rule out the possibility.

Nintendo games already are played in 40 million homes worldwide, half of them in the United States.

With an estimated 90 percent of children of video-game age playing Nintendo, the market seems about saturated. A new angle could boost sales.

But so far, intentionally educational software for kids doesn't seem to sell as well as the sort regarded as pure fun. Educational software rang up sales of about $350 million last year, compared with $3.5 billion in video games.

Video games are to computer technology what soap operas are to drama, Cawelti said: ''Power-gripping soap operas have no theatrical merit, but they could have.''

But Papert believes video games already teach children about learning, about complex systems and strategy and about communicating with others.

''Parents need to be reeducated to think that fun is the most important element of good learning,'' he said.

Papert wants the new research to expand on the use of video games to teach children about their physical and social environment.

''I'm not against books, but computers open up new routes into these subject matters,'' he said.

Spokespeople at Nintendo's U.S. offices in Redmont, Wash., were away for the day Tuesday and other officials said they could not comment. Nintendo is headquartered in Kyoto, Japan.

In a statement released by MIT, Nintendo President Hiroshi Yamauchi said, ''We have long felt that we ... owe a responsibility to develop our hard- and software to enhance the educational opportunities through our machines. I am confident ... this program will contribute to a smarter generation than ever existed before.''