In his book, What Games Have To Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, James Gee argues that video games can be effective learning tools for students. In six chapters, he outlines and discusses thirty-six learning principles, which he contends are embedded in video games. Together, these principles, he believes, foster student learning and prepares students for the high-tech, global society in which we live.
The goal of the book, Gee states is, “to use the discussion of video games to introduce the reader to three important areas of current research and relate these to each other.” (p8) These three areas of research include situated cognition, new literacy studies, and “connectionism” or pattern recognition. He defines situated studies as, “thinking as tied to bodies that have experiences in the world”(p9).He opines that how we think is affected by our material, social and cultural experiences. New literacy studies suggest that reading and writing are not just mental achievements, but also social and cultural “practices.” Finally, connectionism is the idea that people perceive the world through patterns and that logical reasoning is best when it is rooted in actual experiences and “embodied experiences”. (p9) Specifically, he states, “I believe that these three areas capture central truths about the human mind and human learning and that these truths are well represented in the ways in which good video games are learned and played.”( P9) He believes that these truths are not reflected in today’s schools and he is writing this book as he states,” as a plea to build schooling on better principles of learning.”(p9)Although this book is meant for educators and is written to encourage them to consider new methods of teaching and new learning principles, he qualifies his book by saying, “people who know little about these three areas will only pick up on the big picture.”(p9)
The six chapters break down learning principles into specific categories. For example, chapter two discusses semiotic domains. Gee avers that a player’s manipulation of images, signs and symbols (semiotic domains) in computer games assist in the learning process. Another chapter, chapter four, explores the importance of situated learning; that is, how we experience the world. He states, “video games encourage, recruit situated, experimental and embodied forms of learning and thinking.”(p73) In each chapter he names specific video games that include the learning principles that he thinks are important to introduce to the classroom. Throughout his book, Gee suggests that current teaching styles, especially skill and drill and lectures are outdated and ineffective. Instead, he stresses that students need to be active and critical learners, not passive ones. He states,” one way to make people look stupid is to ask them to learn and think in terms of words and abstractions that they cannot connect in any useful way to images and situations in their embodied experiences in the world. Unfortunately, we regularly do this in schools.”(p72) He contends that video games, conversely, enable a player to immerse themselves in games and that by interacting and being active participants in the games they emerge with not only valuable skills but also a deeper understanding.
Gee lists a plethora of cognitive skills and psychological benefits that players acquire from video games. These include becoming effective problem solvers, independent learners and good decisions makers. In addition, he believes that video games enhance logical reasoning skills. Some games, like Pikmin, nurture exploration, hypothesis testing and risk testing, while fostering persistence and diminishing the fear of failure. Instead of being discouraged by receiving a F on a test, video games present mistakes as opportunities for learning, (p37) He emphasizes that the internal designs of video games present challenges that result in developing players into strong strategic thinkers. In fact, Gee stresses the importance of games having different levels of difficulty. He believes that well designed games challenge the player to reach the next level of a game. When a player is able to reach a higher level, he/ she feels a sense of achievement, which, in turn, bulids self esteem. Gee contends that achievement and self esteem are two key components to a student’s successful educational experience.
Gee also suggests that some video games are valuable because they allow players to take on different identities, including virtual identities, real identities and projective identities. Virtual identities are the characters in the game, real identities are the who the players are, replete with the player’s values, biases and limitations, and projective identities are who players aspire to be. Gee contends that by taking on different identities, students not only become empathic about others in their class, but they also become goal setters. In chapter five, he highlights the game, Tomb Raider, in which the player takes on the role of a character, Lara, through her educational evolution. Enabling a player to take on different identities, he states, “ is the heart and soul of active and critical learning.”(p121) In addition, Gee stresses the importance of affinity groups in video games and stresses that by playing with others, students can learn from each other.
He concludes his book by stating, ” when young people are interacting with video games… they are learning in deep ways… video games can leverage deeper and deeper learning as a form of pleasure.”(p215) This statement affirms his central theme that video games with good learning principles engage players to be active and critical learners, not passive ones. The ideas that video games promote a sense of ownership, let students be creative producers, challenges them to solve problems in multiples ways and take on new identities, all support his contention that the learning principles in video games are effective learning tools.
What Gee does not address in his book are any of the downsides to video games, including that they can be time consuming and addicting. Another question is whether these same learning principles can be found in other student activities. For example, can a student derive the same critical thinking and collaborative skills by actively being involved in a science project, acting in a play, playing chess or playing sports? Do these activities not reinforce the same learning opportunities that video games do? If not, then how do video games differ from these activities in building these valuable skills? Perhaps Gee might say that the answer is that video games provide a better environment for situated cognition, new literacy, and connectivism than other conventional activities. As a linguist, Gee is fully invested in how students are affected by how they are nurtured by video games and makes no mention of the power of children’s innate abilities or inclinations. These include if they determined, if they naturally curious, if are they gifted in certain areas as in math and science or literature and how those innate factors play into the motivation of students to learn. Innate traits, no doubt, impact how many skills are enhanced by these games. Finally, he does not discuss the intellectual content of games. Although his book lists shooter games as games that promote learning skills, he does not say that these games offer any opportunities to learn about history or literature. So are players learning about World War I or Shakespeare as they learn skills?
His central argument, however, that video games embody powerful learning principles that, in turn, can be used as effective and useful learning tools in the classroom is thought-provoking and compelling. His argument is especially enlightening as it moves the conversation of learning styles beyond the question are students visual, audio or hands on learners. Gee augments this conversation by asking how can teachers effectively connect to images, words and patterns to active and engaged learning. His ideas to link the three areas of new research: situated cognition, new literacy studies, and connectionism found in video games to the classroom offer a new approach to how schools could think about new methods of teaching.Indeed, Gee’s ideas could be an invaluable blueprint for teachers as they prepare their students for the high-tech world they will enter when they graduate.