Book Review: What Video Games have to Teach us about Learning and Literacy


What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy is certainly one of the most influential and most widely read academic works in the field of game studies. This revolutionary book sets the standard for studies regarding video games and education (in general terms) and, to a lesser extent, video games and cognition. In his first work regarding video games, Gee talks about 36 educational principles, and demonstrates how video games apply these principles, while the majority of schools do not.

Gee’s opening line is, quite possibly, one of the most popular lines in the field of game studies: “I want to talk about video games – yes, even violent video games – and say some positive things about them” (Gee, 2003, 1). This controversial statement portrays the truth that video games are not the evil of society, as some might think.

Gee begins with a narration of how he began playing video games in order to help his five year old son play Pajama Sam. It turns out that it was the five year old who gave Gee advice on how to play. He then moved on to playing adult games and found that playing Time Machine was a ‘life-enhancing experience’. He then talks about his experience playing Deus Ex, a game which he would analyze in all his subsequent works. He then proposes than “the theory of learning in good video games is close to what I believe are the best theories of learning in cognitive sciences” (Gee, 2003, 7). This is where his scholarly discussion of games begins, and where Gee can be seen at his best.

Gee begins his argument by talking about multiple literacies. He argues that literacy is not only about reading, but also about doing other things. He states that there are constructs which he calls semiotic domains, meaning areas of specialization, such as basketball, math, film, literature, and video games. Each of these areas have their own distinct type of literacy. His discussion on semiotic domains and literacies, and how they apply to video games, are truly remarkable, perhaps groundbreaking in the field of game studies, and certainly a worthwhile read to anyone interested either in the field of education or in game studies.

Gee also offers some remarks about the internal and the external design of semiotic fields and comments on how it is not the same to know a field as an ‘outsider’ as it is to know the field as an ‘insider’. He illustrates this by using examples of his own professional career as a theoretical linguist.

One of Gee’s most brilliant arguments in this book is his triple identities model. Gee believes that when playing a game the player obtains three personalities: virtual, real, and projected. To show his idea, Gee states that when gamers play, they become ‘the player as the character’. The virtual identity focuses on ‘the character’, what the virtual character would do or not do within their world, the character’s values (which may be different from the player’s), morals, and behavior. The real identity focuses on ‘the player’, on the choices and decisions he or she makes when playing. The projective identity focuses on the ‘as’, the relationship between the player and the character. This identity focuses on how much the player will compromise for the sake of his character’s development. Within this discussion Gee ties issues of identity, racism, ethnicity, and even education.

Other of the topics Gee talks about include game as learning tools and games as catalysts for discussion on various topics, including good and evil.

There are, however, some aspects of Gee’s discussion which are errouneous, or that at least not everyone would agree with. First, Gee says that players who are forced to take characters as they are instead of being able to create their own characters will often replay a section of the game over and over until they get it perfect as to not let their character down. This, however, is not entirely true. I’ve yet to meet, or read, of a gamer who plays a game, any game, over and over again for the sake of their character. Those who do play the same game repeatedly do so in order to become the best at whatever game they are engaged in. This is most often the case with sports games, racing games, fighting games, and first-person shooting games. Players will often invest hundreds of hours honing their skills in a particular game, say Halo III, Soul Calibur III, or Street Fighter III, in order to boast, not to do honor to Master Chief, Kilik, or Ryu. At the same time, gamers who mostly play lengthy RPGs or strategy games play through the game either once or twice. Those who play through it only once do so to see the entire story told in the game. Those who play through the game twice usually do the second run of the game in order to find all the hidden artifacts so that they can boast about their feats. Still, this is an excusable error in perception in part of Gee, who is relatively new to gaming, specially if the players he sees around him are constantly re-playing games over and over, struggling to improve their skills.

Secondly, Gee argues against the people who say that video games do not have content by stating that the way we play is the content of the game. However, this point is refutable. To say that ‘how we play a game’ is the content is like saying that ‘how we read a book’ (skimming, scanning, or fully reading a text) is the content of the book. The content of a game includes how it is played, certainly, but the main focus of a game’s content is the story, or narrative, in games that have these elements (such as the Final Fantasy and Grand Theft Auto games) or the characters themselves in games that focus around the characters, like sports games (updated yearly rosters and statistics are the main content of the game, while gameplay shifts to a very close second position). Gameplay is important, there is no doubt about it, but gameplay without actual game content is, for the most part, meaningless. Certainly there are some games that are almost devoid of story or purpose, games where the player is thrown into some sort of fray and expected to come out on top, (like Unreal Tournament) and in these games then gameplay and the goal, or achievement, of being ‘the best’ are integrated into content.

Finally, the greatest flaw in Gee’s work is his apparent lack of experience as a gamer. This is shown by the limited examples of games he uses to argue his theories, and specially in a few specific statements such as “originally, Sonic was the hero in a set of games for the Dreamcast platform” (Gee, 2003, 140). The truth is that originally, Sonic was the hero of a series of games for the Genesis platform, a console that launched in 1989, ten years before the Sega Dreamcast hit the market.

With the exception of these minor disagreements, Gee’s work truly shines. It is truly one of the landmark works in the field of game studies, and an excellent work in the fields of cognitive sciences and education. This is certainly a great read, and well worth the price of admission.

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About Quijano

Johansen Quijano is a professor of English in The University of Texas at Arlington, where he is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in English. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in the Teaching of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), a Master’s Degree in Curriculum and Development focusing on TESOL, and a Master’s Degree in English Literature. He has published and presented on a variety of topics including video game studies, popular culture studies, education, teaching methodology, language acquisition, romantic poetry, and victorian literature. His research interests include the above-mentioned topics, narrative, interactivity, simulation, new media in general, and 18th century literature. He also enjoys creative writing (fiction, historical fiction, and poetry), and reading all kinds of epic literary works - from the Epic Poem of Gilgamesh to Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series.

Posted on February 15, 2010, in Book Reviews and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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