Book Review: Good Video Games + Good Learning
James Paul Gee’s fourth video game-related work, Good Video Games + Good Learning, is, in essence, a summary of all his previous work done in video games. At times, Gee dazzles with brilliant analogies and impeccable reasoning, while at others bores with repetitive arguments (some successfully put forth, others that seem like loose ideas), sometimes copied verbatim from his previous works.
Gee opens this work of mixed quality by stating that games help players learn them. This is a point that is presented in his first seminal piece of video game scholarship What Video Games have to Teach us about Learning and Literacy (2003) and further explained in Situated Language and Learning (2004). “Good games get harder as technology evolves” and “good video games are learning machines” are ideas that Gee’s readers are by now familiarized with, and largely accept.
Ideas of video games as instructional machines are then linked to the idea of situated learning, a concept that Gee’s readers have been familiar with since 2004. He restates that applying textbook theory is situated learning, that video games give players the opportunity to engage in situated learning as well as to play reflectively (think about the design of the game), and that school programs should model video games.
This work is divided into chapters which are more like a series of essays glued together by an introduction. Some of his essays are marvelous pieces of thought, while others are nothing more than rehashed ideas from previous works, at best.
The first chapter of the book is nothing more than the introduction to his previous work Why Video Games are good for your Soul (2006), his worst piece of academia regarding video games. Readers would be wise to stay away from this chapter.
In chapter two, Gee gives readers his long-awaited statement on violence. In all of his previous works he addresses the topic of violence in a few sentences, usually saying statements resembling “television is more violent than video games” or “I don’t think video games influence violent behavior”. In this work, Gee cites studies, theories, and works considered ‘masterpieces’ that contain far more violence than video games. Gee mentions that the only scientific studies currently available regarding video games and violence show that “under controlled conditions, people who play Wolfenstein 3D will blast someone with noise for .21 seconds longer than someone who played Myst” (Gee, 2006, p. 13) This is hardly evidence to say that video games influence violent behavior. He also talks about the effect-size of video games v.s. television, and talks about how The Bible contains more violence than video games and no one sees it as a means of evil, on the contrary, they see it as a means to keep youth in the ‘right’ path. Gee argues that, similarly, video games can be used to show different perspectives and critical thinking, and that video game debates focus too much on violence instead of other merits.
The next chapter deals with how the mind works and how a video game like Morrowind can be seen as the best analogy to describe cognitive functions. He reflects on how three hundred years ago the mind was seen as a blank paper to be written on, and with the arrival of computers it was seen as a series of relationships inside a hard drive-like structure. He proposes that now that technology has evolved, video games should be the new brain analogy, as he sees the mind as an open simulator. These ideas are certainly interesting for people studying cognition, but not for academics from other fields, and they certainly do not hold appeal to the casual gamer. The only truly disagreeable statement in this chapter is that Gee believes gameplay to be the sole factor in determining a video game’s worth. Although gameplay is certainly an important part of the game’s overall experience, likely the most important, it is not the only factor to take into consideration. In traditional role playing games (lately called JRPGs) like the Final Fantasy series, the elements of literature (plot, characters, setting, etc.) play as much of a role, if not a bigger one than, gameplay. In music games like Dance Dance Revolution, music selection weights as much as gameplay when determining the game’s worth. In sports games, the game’s physics take the main role. Although some might argue that these are all elements of the gameplay, they are not. Gameplay, meaning how a game is played (what strategy should I use? What path should I take? How do the controls work?) focuses more on the interaction between the player and the game than in any other aspect of the game. Furthermore, any gamer will agree that a game may have the most appealing gameplay ever, but lack of adequate visual elements and horrid music will turn them all to the overall gaming experience. It will be nearly impossible five years from now to find someone who will grow up with Crysis (2007) and Call of Duty 4 (2007) as their visual standards wanting to go back to Deus Ex (2002). These are games that focus on gameplay, but rely heavily on visuals of the time. It will not be too hard, however, to find someone who is absorbed in whatever plot Final Fantasy XIII offers wanting to go back to play previous Fantasies, games that rely on plot and character development.
In chapters four through seven, he talks about several of his ideas previously stated in other works. He talks about how games allow gamers to be immersed in a professional role and, therefore, acquire professional knowledge. This means that by playing America’s Army, players are supposed to learn what it is like to be a real soldier, as well as their way of communicating. He often makes comparisons between learning systems implemented in games and modern education, more often than not video games coming out on top, in order to explain how video games apply learning principles. This he does in an excellent manner, worthy of his earlier works. However, when he does this he focuses on the game Rise of the Nations. Using other games as examples would have improved his argument further. Sadly, a large part of these chapters is nothing more than copied material from his previous work.
In chapter eight, Gee returns to his usual academic perspective and redefines the concept of ‘community of practice’ as an ‘affinity space’. He states that a ‘community’ has a connotation of belonging, while ‘space’ refers to a place, virtual or otherwise, where people gather. With the notion of community of practice, one would have to belong to the group to practice, wile the idea of affinity space allows for anyone, belonging to a community or not, can join and participate. It is in this chapter, however, that Gee makes a mistake when addressing the issue of content in video games. He begins by talking about how some people say that games have no content, then proceeds to state that video games do have content. His mistake is in labeling the design of the game (meaning the world, the interactivity, and the gameplay) as content. To say that how the game is played is the content of a game is like saying that how a book is read is the content of a book. Furthermore, saying that the game worlds, or characters for that matter, are the content of a game is like saying that the setting or characters of a book are the content. Setting and characters, just like game worlds, are only a part of the content, not the whole. Video game content involves the stories told and the ideas expressed through the game above any other element. In Soul Nomad and the World Eaters, for example, content includes the game world, the game system, and the characters, but the majority of the content revolves around the plot of the game. Without a story the game would just be another tactics game. The plot, cleaver character design, and ideas expressed, however, set it apart from other games of its ilk. In a sports game, the main part of the content would be the characters and their stats. Many sports games released yearly are nearly identical to the one released the year before, with a small graphical update, perhaps, and an updated roster. If the content was gameplay alone, then people would not buy the title every year. The updated roster gives new appeal.
Chapter nine presents more of Gee’s idea on cognitive development and how the brain is organized into islands of expertise. He talks about how pop culture allows for specialist language development, and how this is what allow students to become accustomed to reading specialist texts in the later years of their education. This chapter is a must read.
Even though Gee claims that chapter 10 is the main piece of the book, all of the ideas and notions presented in it have been previously presented in other chapters. Chapter 10 seems almost like a summary of the rest of the book. Sections 1 through 5 are summaries or excerpts from previous parts of the book, while section 6 is a direct excerpt from pages 113 and 114, section 7 from page 123, section 8 from page 126, and section 9 from chapter 4. Still, this chapter offers an insightful reflections on skills acquired through gaming, and offers a rather worrisome equity gap theory in which Gee suggests that video games will give more power to people who can acquire and play video games over the already poor and undereducated who do not have access to them.
In this book, Gee shines when he speaks of the educational and cognitive aspects of games, but seems to lack knowledge about games themselves as a medium, and this is the main flaw of his work. Gee argues that short games are bad games that are easily forgotten, and that a long game should span around 50 hours; however, going by this standard games like Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, Viewtiful Joe, and virtually any fighting game would be ‘bad games’ worth forgetting. Furthermore, in this book the player becomes truly familiar with Gee’s lack of gaming expertise. Whenever he talks about specific games he always goes back to Rise of the Nations, Full Spectrum Warrior, Deus Ex, and a handful of other games which he has mentioned since he began his incursion into the field of game studies. The final arguable practice worth mentioning is the use of FAQs and strategy guides in order to play games. Even though gee only advocates this when the player is stuck at certain parts of the game, the use of FAQs is nothing more than cheating. Gee’s comparisons to the school life, where he imagines students writing and using FAQs on biology lessons, make it even more of a looked down upon practice. A child using an FAQ written by another child in, say, a test, would warrant an F in part of the student. Of course, gaming and academia are distinctly different practices. The use of FAQs is entirely optional.
Final Verdict: To someone who has never read any of Gee’s previous work, this book is an ideal starting point, but those who have read his previous works will feel as if they are simply re-reading his previous pieces of writing.