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James Gee, What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy?

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!

Nakamura and Gane & Haraway

In her ethnographic study of the online world LambdaMOO, Nakamura finds that individuals “perform bodies as text”, often taking on racial identities that (possibly) do not match their real life (RL) racial identities. When individuals are in “[control of] the conditions of their own self-representations“ does this make a space more or less democratic? Is it problematic that race can be overlooked or “not even an option”, or are people increasingly free to take on new identities and shed RL ties (if only while in the cyber world)? This leads to what Nakamura called identity tourism in which players choose to perform a type of racial play. While people may insist that everyone is “the same” in these virtual worlds, access to technology is not; “one of the dangers of identity tourism is that is takes this restriction across the axes of race/class in the ‘real world’ to an even more subtle and complex degree by reducing non-white identity positions to part of a costume”. Identity tourism suppresses racial discourse and degrades the concept of race into something to be performed, not lived, and hence offers an escape only for those who: 1. have access to these spaces and 2. desire to perform race virtually with no repercussions in RL.

This calls to mind Haraway’s insistence that the virtual is never immaterial and one must always consider the “materialities of information”. In considering the materialities of our virtual lives and self-descriptions, to what truths and RL experiences should we be held accountable? And how do we accurately textualize and contextualize our existence in the virtual world? How do we best “wield the signs of subordinated identity in a public domain” (Judith Butler in Nakamura)?

Haraway may have been asking a similar question when talking about our inherent connected, situated, relational existence when she asked: “Taking this relationship seriously and unwinding who we are here lands us in many concatenated worlds, in a very situated ‘becoming’. Then the fundamental, ethical, political question is: to what are you accountable if you try to take what you have inherited seriously?” How do we recognize and acknowledge the many worlds we inhabit and the connections they imply?

Race and gender bring to mind another seemingly related concept – our existence as a human species. According to Nakamura, “new and futuristic technologies call into question the integrity of categories of the human”. Haraway complicates our understanding of our existence as “human” when she claims that we (humans) have been “worlded” and “produced” as species through “the powerful world changing discourses of biology”. Our existence has been anthropomorphized by language and discourse. What, then, does it mean to be “human”? Haraway contends that though living as a species is non-optional because we have been produced this way, we also live as cyborgs and living as a cyborg allows and prompts us to question the (re)constitution of our world. How do we find and use ghosts/bugs in the system and tropes/trippings to look at the world we inhabit to identify cracks, fissures, and opportunities for change?

Furthermore, just as race and gender are understood as a social constructs, should “human” fall into the same category? Haraway calls for a new focus on ‘category work’. When Haraway speaks of category work, she asks for a new and deeper understanding the relationality and connected nature of our lives. How do we engage in category work in an intersectional world? How do we address and understand our own “becoming “ and the “torque” we experience from simultaneously inhabiting various worlds?

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Gane, N. (2006). When we have never been human, what is to be done?: Interview with Donna Haraway. Theory Culture Society, 23:135.

Nakamura, L. “Race In/For Cyberspace: Identity Tourism and Racial Passing on the Internet.”