Book review: What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy

What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy. James Paul Gee. Palgrave Macmillan.

(This review is based on the first edition of the book.)

This book was a very nice discussion about video games in light of various academic theories of learning. I particularly liked this point:

“The fact that human learning is a practice effect can create a good deal of difficulty for learning in school. Children cannot learn in a deep way if they have no opportunities to practice what they are learning. They cannot learn deeply only by being told things outside the context of embodied actions. Yet at the same time, children must be motivated to engage in a good deal of practice if they are to master what is to be learned. However, if this practice is boring, they will resist it.

“Good video games involve the player in a compelling world of action and interaction, a world to which the learner has made an identity commitment, in the sense of engaging in the sort of play with identities we have discussed. Thanks to this fact, the player practices a myriad of skills, over and over again, relevant to playing the game, often without realizing that he or she is engaging in such extended practice sessions. For example, the six-year-old we discussed in the last chapter has grouped and regrouped his Pikmin a thousand times. And I have practiced, in the midst of battle, switching Bead Bead to a magic spell and away from her sword in a timely fashion a good many times. The player’s sights are set on his or her aspirations and goals in the virtual world of the game, not on the level of practicing skills outside meaningful, goal-driven contexts.

“Educators often bemoan the fact that video games are compelling and school is not. They say that children must learn to practice skills (“skill and drill”) outside of meaningful contexts and outside their own goals: It’s too bad, but that’s just the way school and, indeed, life is, they claim. Unfortunately, if human learning works best in a certain way, given the sorts of biological creatures we are, then it is not going to work well in another way just because educators, policymakers, and politicians want it to.

“The fact is that there are some children who learn well in skill-and-drill contexts. However, in my experience, these children do find this sort of instruction meaningful and compelling, usually because they trust that it will lead them to accomplish their goals and have success later in life. In turn, they believe this thanks to their trust in various authority figures around them (family and teachers) who have told them this. Other children have no such trust. Nor do I.” (pp. 68-69)

This part struck a particular chord in me since I had just read an opinion piece making exactly such an argument: that not all parts of education can be made to be fun, and that “it’s important to realize early on that mastery often requires persevering through tedious, repetitive tasks and hard-to-grasp subject matter”. I found myself somewhat annoyed with that position, but couldn’t formulate my exact reasons for why.

After reading What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy, things became much clearer in my head: part of the value of video games is that they can make a subject feel interesting and meaningful on its own. Once a person has encountered a topic in an interesting context, they will be much more likely to find the topic interesting in other contexts as well. Personal example: when we were first taught probabilities in high school, me having read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy made the subject matter feel more interesting, even though our exercises made no mention of the Infinite Improbability Drive.

Yes, children should learn that mastering valuable skills often requires repetitive practice… but if we want them to actually learn, we should also be teaching them how to experience that practice as interesting and meaningful, and as something that is helping them get better in a field they care about. What we should not teach children is the attitude that much of learning is dull, pointless and tedious, detached from anything that would have any real-world significance, and something that you only do because the people in power force you to. Unfortunately, many traditional school systems are very successful at teaching exactly this attitude, and only the kids who have sufficient trust in various authority figures to make the learning feel meaningful manage to avoid it – and even they only succeed partially.

What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy also talks about the impact of identities on learning, and by associating school with games and school success with success in fun games, we could help learners more easily develop identities as good students, helping make the learning process feel more meaningful – even when they had to tackle tasks that weren’t as inherently fun.

I also liked the discussion of the fact that if a person reads a text that covers a topic the person doesn’t have much experience of, it can be very hard to understand exactly what it is that the text is saying. The words aren’t clearly connected to the concepts that they are discussing. And much of school learning does consist of having the students read elaborate discussions of concepts that they don’t necessarily have much experience of. Even when the students do successfully memorize the rough content of the writing, they are not likely to understand it or be able to apply it very well.

In contrast, somebody playing a video game is actively engaged in the content of the game, free to experiment around with it. Well-designed video games also involve a gradual and natural progression where the players naturally obtain various skills required for playing the game. Once they have beaten the game, it is certain that they have acquired those skills to a far greater extent than if they had just read and memorized the game manual. Games provide for active learning, and the way that a game proceeds from easy initial levels to challenging late-game levels forces a player to constantly acquire additional skills while also practicing the basic skills, in an organic and natural fashion.

The main flaw of the book is that while it provides an excellent discussion of academic theory on learning, its discussion of the way the theory relates to games is at times somewhat superficial. A more detailed analysis of the content of some games in light of the theory would have been nice.

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