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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!