A Review of What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy

by Jason Craft

  1. In a fairly recent blog post about massively multiplayer online gaming, Constance Steinkuehler claims that "MMOGaming is . . . a whole constellation of literacy practices. It's not replacing literacy practices; it IS a literacy practice." Steinkuehler, a student of James Paul Gee, applies to massively multiplayer online gaming a point that Gee makes of video games in general in his What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy: games are contexts of literacy practice, and gameplay is a process of achieving literacy.
  2. Gee deals with "video games--yes, even violent video games" (1), but his interest in video games in this text has more to do with the medium than with the content. He argues that an immersive, interactive digital environment (Gee is not really talking about Space Invaders, nor Yahoo! Cards) provides opportunities for education in three key contexts. First, situated cognition argues "that human learning is not just a matter of what goes on inside people's heads but is fully embedded in (situated within) a material, social, and cultural world." Second, New Literacy Studies states "that reading and writing should not be viewed only as mental achievements going on inside people's heads but also as social and cultural practices with economic, historical, and political implications." And, third, connectionism "stresses the ways in which human beings are powerful pattern-recognizers" and argues that people "think best when they reason on the basis of patterns that they have picked up through their actual experiences in the world," not when "they attempt to reason via logic and general abstract principles detached from experience" (Gee 8).
  3. Within these contexts, Gee asserts, video games teach very well . . . indeed, better than our decontextualized, skill-and-drill classrooms. If meaning is situated within, and literacy occurs within, the context of semiotic domains (the term Gee uses for distinct and embodied contexts, matrices of environmental attributes and, crucially, social practices in which signs are given a distinct meaning, and in which a person can be literate), then video games present simulated semiotic domains and give information an embodied and contextualized presence that lends itself better to how we are psychologically structured to learn.
  4. This learning is situated not only within the game but around it: the practice of learning a video game is an enculturation practice that involves not only learning the mechanics of gameplay, but learning how to negotiate the context of play, the terms and practices of a game's players, and the design choices of its developers. These levels of engagement are what Gee calls, respectively, internal and external design grammars for a given domain. These design grammars are present in any given semiotic domain--from a basketball game to an archaeological dig--and video games, according to Gee, allow gamers to simulate, learn, and manage design grammars in a way that traditional teaching practices do not.
  5. This foundation allows Gee to maintain two key threads of argument throughout the work. The first is that kids who learn about video games are learning and developing a literacy, though a different kind of literacy. This argument is well-made here, but it is an argument about learning and literacy in general, and could potentially be as well made using a different semiotic domain--Yu-Gi-Oh, marching band, historical reenactments, etc.-- as with video games. Gee is using a popular and controversial form, one that has a fraught relationship with "the children," to make some general points about how both children and adults learn. Fortunately, he does so with a compelling understanding of--and respect for--gaming as a distinct practice; video games here are not just a frame on which to hang a general argument about learning, or a provocative placeholder in a lineage of anxiety-laden popular forms (comics begets television, which begets video games), but a semiotic domain that Gee approaches with an engaging and thoughtful specificity.
  6. This points to Gee's second argumentative thread, which is, I believe, the more compelling: video games "situate meaning in a multimodal space through embodied experiences to solve problems and reflect on the intricacies of the design of imagined worlds and the design of both real and imagined social relationships in the modern world" (Gee 48). Video games simulate identities, experiences, contexts, and social relationships in designed spaces. A player learns to think critically about the simulation while at the same time gaining embodied knowledge through interacting with it: taking on new avatarial identities within it, solving problems through trial and error within it, and gaining expertise, or literacy, within it.
  7. Gee is not arguing that video games are ready to replace standard classroom instruction. At this point in time, video games primarily teach themselves: a player learns how to navigate the game's territory, how to solve game-specific puzzles, how to kill the "boss" at the end of the game. But Gee stresses that his argument pertains to "the potential of video games" (9), and believes that the method of instruction embodied in video games has potential for non-self-referential disciplines, particularly science. In this moment of potential, Gee's book is a valuable resource; though he clearly has a lot of enthusiasm for the possible futures of educational gaming, What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy does not portray a free-wheeling technological utopia. Gee directly and thoughtfully engages his subject material, and provides a cogent analysis not only of current and possible learning practices but also of the experiential and formal qualities of video games.

Works Cited

Gee, James Paul. What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

Steinkuehler, Constance. "John Seely Brown: The Online Social Life of Narratives." [Weblog Entry.] Terra Nova. 27 April 2004. (http://terranova.blogs.com/terra_nova/2004/04/john_seeley_bro.html).