Book Review: Why Video Games Are Good For Your Soul
A reader who has engaged with, and likely enjoyed, Gee’s previous books (What Video Games Have To Teach Us About Learning and Literacy (2003) and Situated Language and Learning (2004) on video games and learning might be eager to find out what new ideas Gee, one of the lead video game scholar, proposes. They are likely to be disappointed. In his first video game related work, Gee (2003) theorizes about why video games provide a better learning environment than schools, and provides 36 learning principles grounded in modern educational theory which modern video games put into practice and several classrooms do not. In his second video game related work, Gee (2004) makes a critique of traditional schooling and compares it with video games. He argues that video games provide ‘situated’ meaning, in other words, tutorials and practical experiences, while schools usually give students a type of banking education where the teacher gives students the theory without the practice, which leads to information that cannot be related to practice, and in turn leads to poor learning. In his work Why Video Games Are Good For Your Soul, Gee is nowhere near as enlightening as in his previous works, as he only provides a brief explanation of the three different storylines within each video game.
The first-level storyline within a game is the developer’s story. This story is the one that talks about Alex and his quest to become a Dragonmaster (Lunar: The Silver Star), Alucard and his quest to vanquish his father Dracula (Castlevania: Symphony of the Night), or Kratos in his quest to stop Ares from destroying Athens (God of War). The second-level story is the unique trajectory taken by the players. Although this might not be a story in the traditional context of the word, Gee argues that this is, in fact, a story, and one that, according to Gee, is more important than the first-level story. The variations in this story include which guild the player chose to join, what path did the player take to get to a certain destination, and in general what decisions did the player make to reach the end of the game. This ‘story’ can be perceived more clearly in open-world games like Morrowind and Grand Theft Auto than in close-world games like God of War and Valkyrie Profile, although variations on tackling the problems within each game are always present and also, according to Gee, a part of this second-level story. The third level story is composed of the story of ‘the gamer as a professional’. In an FPS WWII game, the gamer as a professional would be the player taking the role of a WWII soldier, while in Morrowind the story would consist of taking the role of a knight / thief / archer. This story is more evident in some games than in others, while a fair amount of games do not have this story at all.
Whether what Gee calls second-level story and third-level story are actual stories or not is up to debate. Nonetheless, the ‘three storylines’ concept is one that gamers have been aware of throughout all of their gaming lives, and that game researchers quickly become aware of; Gee has merely stated the obvious, and given examples as to how these ‘stories’ of different levels work. This book could have been a good addition to the essentials game theory if it were not because of the way in which Gee chose to develop his three-storylines theory.
Gee begins his book with an introduction and a short reflection of what the terms ‘video games’, ‘good’, and ‘soul’ mean. The first two terms are accurately described, but when describing ‘soul’ he seems to be at a loss of words. The fact that the soul itself is intangible makes Gee look for definitions in poetry as well as mystic and religious notions, and at times it almost seems like he is preaching. During the rest of the book, Gee treats the reader to an insider’s view of how his brain works as he plays specific games, and how the ‘three stories’ concept fits in each.
His first chapter gives the reader a rather disturbing look at Tetris and a distorted view of what Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is. He begins his discussion on Tetris stating that people like Tetris because it is simple and complex at the same time, and people like to solve problems and recognize patterns. He talks a bit of evolution and how humans have evolved to like solving problems and finding patterns, but this argument seems more like speculation based on general knowledge than a scientifically proven fact. His appraisal of Tetris is somewhat accurate until he tries to give the symbols meaning. He says that the symbols could be seen as men and women, or more accurately, kings and queens, and that when they link it can be seen as ‘bonding’ or ‘marriage proposals’. This, Gee believes, results in a formation of a narrative. Most gamers, however, would disagree. Rene Estevez, game player of 18 years and casual reviewer in IGN.com, commented that this “only makes sense if you’re smoking. If you apply the same logic, then the Rubik’s Cube is a metaphor for racial relations in the modern world”, while Carlos Encarnación, gamer of 17 years, argues that there is no objective in Tetris, as it is and endurance test of the mind that never ends. Gee then moves on to Castlevania, and states that it operates like his “new fantasy version of Tetris” (18). He says that both games have rules, virtual objectives, and some measure of control, and are, therefore, similar. He compares and declares similarity between Castlevania’s zombie-slaying and Tetris’ line-removing mechanics. He then proceeds to analyze Castlevania as an actual symphony which the player creates. In Gee’s mind, objects have musical values, and the more actions the players perform, the more musical notes they unlock. This train of thought demonstrates that Gee, great scholar and linguist that he is, is still an extremely naïve and easily impressed newcomer when it comes to the actual gaming world.
After presenting what his mind interprets of Castlevania and Tetris, he proceeds to talk about the different levels of the stories. He says that Castlevania’s first level story is Alucard fighting against Dracula, but that the important ‘story’, the second level story, is the path each player takes in order to finish the game.
In order to present evidence about the ‘third story’, Gee talks about Full Spectrum Warrior, Thief, and Riddick. He talks about how in Full Spectrum Warrior players ‘learn’ to be pro-soldiers, as gamers get to control squads and make moral judgments. Similarly, in Thief the player has to decide whether they want their Garret to be an assassin-thief or just a thief. In these and other first person or strategy games, the third story is the enactment of the professional knowledge. He then hastens to add that in-game professional experience does not translate into real world professional experience. This much, at least, is a sound statement – playing Cooking Mamma or Cake Mania for weeks will not make someone into a chef, and playing Virtua Fighter 5 will not translate into martial arts expertise, just like playing a first-person shooter will not translate into real-life gun proficiency.
Gee then proceeds to talk about a fourth ‘story’, which he labels not so much as a story but as history. This is the background history of the game world and of your character. Although Gee makes this a separate entity from the developer’s story, it is the developer who, in the great majority of games, originally decides the history of the world, as well as the important aspects of the history of the character.
One game that holds all of these stories, Gee argues, is Morrowind. In Morrowind there is a main story where the player sets out to defeat Dagoth Ur, a second-level story which consists of the paths the player takes, the guilds he joins, and the characters he interacts with, a third story in which the player acquires and puts into practice in-game professional knowledge of being a knight, thief, or warrior (amongst other classes), and the fourth level story which consists of the main character’s past, which the player is free to make up.
His reflections on learning are disappointing for game theorists and educators alike, as they never go beyond a superficial ‘learning should be fun and games make learning fun’ level. He essentially recycles, summarizes, and tones down the ideas found in his two previous game-related works and mashes them into a few pages.
The book is written in a non-academic manner, and the style constantly assumes that the reader agrees with his statement, often using lines like ‘we agreed on the previous section that…’ In the eyes of some, this may take away from the credibility he enjoyed in his previous works. It is very likely that the biggest problem with the book is Gee’s lack of experience as a gamer. Having discovered games at a late age, he seems to be easily impressed and very enthusiastic about things found in the gaming world, which results, like in his analysis of Tetris and Castlevania, in an over rationalization of the content and context of the games. Even though Gee states that the target audience for the book is ‘anyone interested in games’, video game scholars and researchers will likely not find a lot of useful material, with the exception, perhaps, of the ‘three-stories and a history’ concept, gamers are likely to scoff at his ideas, specially at his views on Tetris, and non-gamers will get a wrong impression of what video games are, as some of Gee’s statements might be misinterpreted.
In the end, the main concern of the reader, specially those who enjoyed Gee’s previous works, it is not about whether this book is a good read or not, or if it’s useful to some or not, as this book should never have seen publishing at all. The main concern to many readers after having suffered through it is that this work is Gee’s lowest point is whether Gee’s next work can live up to the standards set by him in the past, or if it will be another gaming theory flop.