In 2003, the year that “What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy?” was published, the prevailing sentiment about video games (at least in the culture of mainstream education) was that they were a waste of time at best, malicious influences, at worst. Most games were narrowly targeted to young, white, middle-class male players, and created overwhelmingly by designers fitting the same profile (they still are, but today to a lesser extent). The gaming habits of the perpetrators of the Columbine school shooting, which occurred just a few short years prior, were well-analyzed in the media. The games, supposedly, made the perpetrators “aggressive” and “anti-social” and allowed them to practice fantasies they would later enact in real life. This idea has certainly had its detractors over the years — with scores of think-pieces published about the tenuousness of the causal link between games and violence. I agree — these are the wrong questions to ask about violence and games in society.
But Gee’s work does locate “the theory of human learning built into good video games.” He draws connections between the kind of learning which happens through engagement in the semiotic domain of video game play, and the latest research on how people learn from situated cognition, New Literacy Studies, and connectionism. He extrapolates dozens of principles from games that promote learning.
First provocation, inspired by a talk I heard by Scott Price, now of BrainPOP: If we accept that games are powerful tools for active and critical learning, does that mean we accept that games can teach violence? What are the implications of that?
For Gee, active learning is when we learn to experience the world in a new way, gain the potential to join a new social group, and gain resources that prepare us for future learning and problem solving within the semiotic domain we are entering (video games, biology, etc), and related domains. Critical learning for Gee is active learning PLUS the idea that the learner comes to innovate within the semiotic domain in novel and unpredictable ways.
His argument is that games promote both active learning AND critical learning. The caveat — and it’s a big one from my perspective — is that when he says “games promote…” he means, well-designed games played in specific ways, and within communities that promote active and critical learning.
Second provocation: When are games NOT promoting active and critical learning? Think about the Bogost piece. Should we worry about half-baked principles from games based learning, and poorly designed “edu-tainment” games encroaching on education spaces?
Last year, I ran a game design club at a high school in the South Bronx. I would classify the students who selected into the club as the “hard core” gamer kids of the school. In reflecting on their gaming habits, it’s become very clear to me that they were active learners in the semiotic domain of video games, maybe even, as Gee writes “on their way” to being critical learners in that domain. They were passionately vested, had encyclopedic knowledge of the in-game worlds, they could explain status hierarchies in their gaming communities, they were taking part in online forums of players and fans, creating and watching their own game walkthroughs on YouTube, diving into texts well-beyond their “reading levels” so they might mod their own Minecraft worlds. A lot of learning was taking place.
But their arguments about why they liked their favorite games lacked reasoning, evidence, and formal vocabulary. It was difficult to see how they’d parlay the problem-solving they’d cultivated through gaming into problem-solving in other domains. They needed opportunities to make the connection between domains. That’s where we as facilitators came in. We taught vocabulary like mechanics, pace, components, and personality traits of gamers like “killers,” “socializers” and “explorers” and then guided them as they wrote and filmed their own video game reviews. It was clear that their knowledge gained from hours of play and engagement outside of school was crucial to their success on the assignment, but I do believe the facilitation work we did in the academic domain pushed them to a next level. The students needed all kinds of experiences in order to become active and critical learners: play experiences, social experiences (in and outside of games), AND academic experiences. That’s connected learning!
Third provocation: Can one be a critical learner solely through play, self-guided tutorials, socializing, and peer-to-peer exchanges within a semiotic domain? To what extent does critical learning require intentional facilitation, and to what extent does it happen in the juncture BETWEEN semiotic domains, rather than in one or another?
Finally, the high school students I worked with were all from the South Bronx, most of them Latino and/or Black, and low-income. Only one was female. Gee touches a little bit on the identity of the learner as an important factor in determining the extent to which one feels comfortable learning in a new semiotic domain, ie: the example of the African-American student who feels that learning science is “acting white.” He writes about how one can “repair” (and I don’t like that deficit based term, but I’m going with his words here), a students’ identity as a learner through “good teaching in socially and culturally diverse classrooms.” I welcome thoughts on Gee’s notions there, but I also want to know:
Fourth provocation: Teachers can work to control, to some extent, students’ introduction to semiotic domains like science, math, English, and Social Studies. But if we are using gaming as a model for learning principles, how do we reconcile the fact that the semiotic domain of video games, which students are engaging in on their own time, can be overtly sexist and racist spaces? (Just Google gamergate)
A lot going on for me this week in reading Gee — looking forward to the conversation!
Of course in reading Gee this week, all I want to do is procrastinate by playing games. At least there are some awesome “games for change” or the so-called “serious games” out there which might even provide interesting fodder for conversation next week. Here are some of my faves, in case you too, want to procrastinate:
LIM, about navigating the world as a transgender person, though its message can be more broadly applied to navigating the world with a difference of some kind.
Trauma, a game about bullying and discrimination
Ayiti, Cost of Life, a game made by some students in the program I used to work for at Global Kids (though before my time at the org)
Tampon Run, made by some teens at a Girls Who Code event.
A game created by some students of mine on Scratch in 2014!
The Migrant Trail – About undocumented immigrants
Click on the link on this page for some interactive fiction created by Auntie Pixelante in Twine
Please add to this list in the comments if you play any fun ones… these are all playable for free online!
Of course when I responded to Robert last night and mentioned how there weren’t any other posts up, I didn’t realize that I was responsible for provoking this week! So sorry for the delay.
I already summed up some of my thinking about the Bosquet and Lepore readings on Robert’s thread, so rather than repeat myself, I thought I’d cut right to the chase with some questions.
I’m making lots of Marx connections today. Bosquet focuses on changing labor relations in the academy, writing: “Late capitalism doesn’t just happen to the university, the university makes late capitalism happen. The flexible faculty are just one dimension of an informationalized higher ed — the transformation of the university into an efficient and thoroughly accountable environment through which streaming education can be made available in the way that information is delivered: just in time, on demand, in spasms synchronized to the work rhythm of student labor on the shop floor” (44).
Feel free to skip directly to the provocation at the bottom, but if you’re anything like me, you found this text challenging and dense, and may benefit from a quick summary of some of the major points. Please feel free to challenge or add to my paraphrasing of this work in the comments.
Embedded in the prologue and first chapter of N. Katherine Hayles’ How We Became Posthuman (1999), is a discussion of “what came before” — what it meant to be “human.” For 17th Century theorists of liberal humanism like Locke and Hobbes, the “human” was an individual free from the will of others, “the proprietor of his own person” and capacities (see this for more). Hayles writes that framing the subject in this way helped those theorists form a foundation for market relations and selling one’s labor for wages (even though technically the market existed before the theory!) In the mid 20th century, the liberal humanist or “natural” self was critiqued from many angles — including feminist, postcolonial, and postmodern.
The relatively new field of cybernetics (the study of regulatory systems) stepped in with its own critique, formulating an alternative model for subjectivity: the ‘posthuman, “a cyborg material-informational entity whose boundaries are being constantly constructed and reconstructed” (3). The term views the body as “the original prosthesis we all learn to manipulate,” and recognizes the ways that human beings have become “seamlessly articulated with intelligent machines” (3).
We are cyborgs, even if we don’t have electronics embedded in our person, simply because of the ways technology has become wrapped up in our identity production. Hayles brings up the example of one iteration of the famous Turing test, where you must guess whether an entity communicating with you through technological/electronic mediation is a male or female. Whether or not you guess correctly, the technology has “spliced” what she calls the “enacted body” (the flesh behind the computer) and the “represented” body (electronic signs and symbols) (xiii). That means one’s embodiment (flesh) does not ensure a singular meaning of gender nor identity in a technologically mediated space, fundamentally altering how we think about ourselves.
Crucially for Hayles, even as the idea of the posthuman has departed from the idea of the “human” in many ways, this model of subjectivity continues liberal humanism’s tenet that the body is subordinate to the mind and cognition. There’s something fetishistic and (like Haraway said about this subject in her interview) macho, about the idea that consciousness and information can live on without the human body — that we can “download” human consciousness into a machine — and that humans are understood as sets of “informational processes” apart from materiality.
Hayles’ book is about tracing how the privileging of abstract information over embodiment came to dominate the field of cybernetics as the concept of the posthuman was developed, demonstrating “what had to be elided, suppressed, and forgotten, to make information lose its body” (13). She argues that this conclusion was not inevitable. After all, postcolonial, feminist, postmodern, and critical race theorists underscore the importance of the body in their critiques, as they eviscerate liberal humanism for the role it played in the domination and oppression of the industrial and colonial periods.
She asks whether the deconstruction of the liberal humanist subject can be an opportunity to put flesh back into conversations about cybernetic subjects (5) so that we can celebrate the mortality of the human being, the materiality of information, and realize the extent to which humans are embedded in a material world that we very much depend on.
The implications of this argument are potentially far-reaching. I think about a course I took in undergrad called the Anthropology of Consumption, which was all about examining the social relationships that go into a thing’s commoditization and creating a “commodity biography” which becomes a lens through which to view global capitalism (for example, this one, by my professor about coffee from Papua New Guinea). Posthumanism, around the time Hayles was writing, viewed technology as merely a conduit for information. Sleek marketing reinforces the notion that technology delivers information and entertainment out of the ether, straight into our brains. The fact of information’s materiality, however, becomes startlingly explicit for me when it is time to throw away broken electronics, or when I watch or listen to documentaries about e-waste, and the children in far away countries who pick through piles of it looking for parts to sell.
Perhaps a way to continue Hayles’ project of reconciling posthumanism with a recognition of embodiment and materiality could involve a “commodity biography”-type approach. This conception could help expose the supply chains, labor, and natural resource exploitation that went into bringing it our way. Technology is a part of the material world, and should be viewed as such.
Hayles’ book seems like just the start to what seems to me a worthwhile project. My provocation is: think about your own field of study OR the other readings for the week. In what ways might the human subject of your field or text be in fact, “posthuman”? What arguments and examples would you bring up from your field or the other readings for this week to argue for the incorporation of “embodiment” in the conception of posthumanity?
Another question I had for the group while reading this work: Writing in 1999, Hayles mentions how the “transformation to posthuman is not a universal human condition — it affects a small fraction of the world’s population.” Is this still the case? Why or why not? What specific examples can you provide to flesh out your answer?
Hayles, N. K. (1999). How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. University of Chicago Press.
– Sara Vogel