Video games and learning: waste of time, or valuable tool?


In his book What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy, James Paul Gee challenges the assertion that video games are a “waste of time” by discussing the potential of good video games to encourage deeper forms of learning and enjoyment of players.  According to Gee the best video games echo the best theories of learning in education, encouraging active and critical learning, rather than basic “skill-and-drill” methods of instruction (4).  The games Gee refers to specifically offer players the chance to take on a virtual persona and navigate a complex and interactive world.

Gee Video Games

These games allow for learning in the contexts of the following principles of learning, situated cognition, New Literacy Studies, and connectionism.  Situated cognition maintains that learning “is fully embodied in (situated within) a material, social, and cultural world,” and is more than just what happens inside the human mind.  New Literacy Studies reiterates the sentiment that learning goes beyond the constraints of the mind, and includes “social and cultural practices with economic, historical, and political implications.”  Connectionism insists that humans are adept at recognizing patterns and learn best when they can link abstract principles to actual experience (9).

According to, education, learning and thinking, are inherently social processes.  We read and interpret different works depending on the social community with which we identify.  Becoming a “gamer” includes more than simply learning to play the game.  Often it leads players to online information, connecting the individual to a larger community of people, or affinity group, with the same interests and similar “identities.”

He describes gaming as a semiotic domain or “an area or set of activities where people think, act, and value in certain ways” (19).  Semiotic domains, gaming for instance, contain “languages” with which participants must become “literate.”  According to Gee video games can encourage players to engage in active rather than passive learning as the new player begins to navigate the game design.   Players are able to try on a new personas, act out and explore their values, and solve problems as they arise within the games.  When a player reaches a certain level of understanding of a game they can start to think reflectively about the games parts and begin to critique it or make innovations.

Gee does not argue for the use of video games in classroom instruction, or that players always learn valuable content.  Rather, his point is that well-made video games, though difficult to learn and master, can encourage active and critical learning in a way that players find enjoyable; they illustrate sound principles of learning that the education system should consider.  Players do not have to get it done quickly and get it right the first time, rather they are free to explore, hypothesize and learn from experience.

It is worth noting that Gee’s discussion of video games does not focus on content or related issues of misogyny in gaming culture, for instance.   While he argues video games are neither inherently good or evil, the importance of community in learning indicates a need to investigate the effects on individuals of potential exclusion by the community.  It would be interesting to hear Gee’s thoughts on the effects of misogyny encountered by female gamers within the “affinity group” of their semiotic domain.

3 Replies to “Video games and learning: waste of time, or valuable tool?”

  1. I like your point about gender construction in gaming culture, Marian. It’s a really important facet of the experience, and not to knock Gee or other male thinkers about video games and education, but I don’t think a lot of men tend to consider the gendering of experiences, especially in a heavily male-dominated entertainment/learning genre like video games. I wonder if video games could be a tool to turn a masculine driven experience on its head, or any dominant culture perspective, for that matter.

    1. I agree (and Laura Croft doesn’t count. Jeeeez.) I was happy to see though that in Mission America’s second mission, you defaulted to a female slave who escapes north and even meets Frederick Douglas. Although I guess we’d have to play the game to see if the experience is in any way gendered.

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