Gee Whiz

Maybe it’s that I play a lot of video games, but on nearly every page of James Paul Gee’s What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy, I found myself underlining happily, writing “Yes!” in the margins, or – often – simply smiling at the fact that someone in the Establishment was actually Getting It. This is a book that makes a heckuva lot of sense to me.

So forgive me if I get a little nitpicky when I say that I don’t see my classmates Getting It in most of the blog posts on this book so far. I’m not even talking about Dayna and Roland, who seem to reject most of his arguments – I’ll have more to say on that later – but rather about Kara and Karen and even Mitch [well, maybe not], who all seem to agree with Gee… but seem to take as his central claims something other than what I do.

He is *not* saying that we should play more video games in school, or that playing video games will help students learn school subjects. He is saying that school should be designed more like video games are designed. That’s why when Gee seems to be dorking out about his latest video game crush – or, as Karen puts it, when he “gets carried away describing the video games he played including his personal role-playing, his participation in Klans and what would appear to be at times compulsive game playing behaviors” – he’s not merely relishing the excitement of what he describes: he’s laying out a map, a model, that we can attempt to follow or imitate in designing our curricula and lesson plans. Whenever you see the word “game,” you should substitute the learning task of your choice. (The language of the “principles” at the end of each chapter is purposefully ambiguous to help you make that transfer.)

In brief: video games are a metaphor. You have to look through them. This is what I’m not sure everyone gets.

Here’s Kara, for example:

When he mentioned how video games can situate learning in meaningful environments, improve critical thinking and social skills needed when working in cooperation with others to complete a task, and how this is the complete opposite of how learning takes place in the schools, it struck a nerve. I firmly believe that the fact that students use technology all day and everywhere except in the classroom is unforgivable, since it tends to alienate students’ conception of education from their experiences even more. […]

So as with everything else, video games in moderation and under supervision and/or guidance, can help children learn valuable skills and lessons that they can hopefully apply outside of the virtual world.

I’m totally with you on the first sentence. (It’s a bit of a slap to the face, isn’t it, that learning in schools does not “situate learning in meaningful environments, improve critical thinking [or develop] social skills needed […] to complete a task”? And yet Gee’s example of the science-fair prize-winner who can’t pass a multiple-choice science test (109) is a testament to the fact that our dominant modes of evaluation – modes which have been pushed more and more since the 80s, and especially since NCLB – don’t measure “learning about” that can transfer into “learning how.”) But the second sentence seems almost a non-sequitur to me: the point isn’t to use video-game-like “technology” in the classroom, but rather to teach and evaluate techne. Or, perhaps, the point is to make better use of our own “technology” of curricular design, so as to engineer, as it were, better learning environments for the semiotic domains that we want to welcome students into: mathematics, history, biology, etc., and various subdomains.

Gee’s (primary) conclusion isn’t that students learn, in-game, “valuable skills and lessons that they can hopefully apply outside of the virtual world,” but rather that we, the teachers, can learn things from how video games are designed. The challenge is to set up schools so that they’re “pleasantly frustrating” (Gee 3), so that students keep coming back to the long and challenging curricula.

Or here’s Karen again, on the group blog:

The habits developed playing video games allow learning to take to place in an active and not passive way. Technology is what today’s students crave. Students want to do and not just watch or listen.

Again, I’m all in agreement on sentences one and three – but again, the solution is not to give in to students’ craving for “technology.” The solution is to find ways to let “students […] do and not just watch or listen,” even in old technological environments. Gee’s parable of Galileo at the start of the most excellent chapter 5 points out that geometry is a technology: Galileo used it to figure out how a pendulum works. In fact, as Gee notes, geometry follows the principle of “material intelligence” (106): it “stores much knowledge and skill that the learner does not have to invent for him- or herself” (108).

(In game terms, for example, we might say that the unit circle is a very powerful item, one that we can configure in different ways to find ratios between angles and sides in a triangle. [I love trigonometry for its bottom-up possibilities.] But in order to learn the configurations, students need to equip that item. They need to learn what buttons to press, so to speak, to get the circle to yield up its wisdom.)

By now, I think, you’ll see why I don’t think Dayna’s argument about violence in games is especially troubling. Leaving aside the sociological data Gee provides (10-11), he is simply not arguing that everyone should go out and play Grand Theft Auto, as if games are the only place “real” learning happens. He’s simply saying that even a game like GTA has a better intuitive grasp on how to set up a learning environment than schools seem to, if we look at their reward (grading) and testing (multiple choice / decontextualized problem set) structures. And therefore, if schools are going to compete – and I believe, with Gee, that they ought to – then schools should change.

In fact, the central argument of this book is really very similar to John Dewey’s in Education and Experience. Gee’s innovation here is to offer a new metaphor, a new place to look for a model of “experience.” And I, who have long measured my learning in experience points, say hurrah.

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