What Video Games Have to Teach us About Learning & Literacy – Part 1

Last night was the inaugural discussion for Book Club 106, the loosely organized online book club that I formed last month with the goal of forcing me to actually read a book, while enjoying a nice weekly chat with other curious educators. Despite the power being out at my place for more than two hours, and the Google+ Hangout for the event starting almost half an hour late, it was a terrific conversation! Two of the other book club members attended, and while L Patrick Brewer had to duck out early due to a finicky satellite Internet connection, Johnathon Beals and I carried on a great conversation that touched on video games, Huizinga’s Homo Ludens book, social context needed for critical learning, and a host of other topics from the book.

If you’d like to watch the 60 minute discussion between Johnathon and myself below (and can spare the time), I’d love to hear your feedback, otherwise a much more condensed version of my thoughts about the book thus far are below. Johnathon Beals had some great points to offer in this discussion.

What I Think Thus Far

After having read both the introduction chapter to Gee’s theory of gaming as a metaphor for learning, and the second chapter in which he explains the underpinnings of his theory of semiotic domains, I have the sense that this book, while certainly playing on the hook of video games, is written for a much more academic crowd than the average “gamer” or teacher. That’s not to imply there’s anything inherently wrong with writing for a more collegiate crowd, but Gee misses many opportunities to spend more time talking about concrete examples and references to both video games and other elements of how we learn as individuals. A good amount of time is spent explaining how various domains exist within any given set of practices and modalities, and video games are no exception. Besides that fact that gamers comprise a rather large semiotic domain, bound together with both terminology and functioning literacy of how games work and how gamers relate to one another, there are also many sub groups within the larger gamer population, similar to the way that students have many sub groups within a particular learning environment.

While I appreciated the time that Gee spent describing how semiotic domains function, and more importantly how one can participate in a particular domain (i.e. playing a first person shooter game), but not actually be able to function on a higher level (i.e. talk intelligently and reflectively about a first person shooter game), I feel a great amount of time could have been spent by using much simpler terminology such as “literacies”, although I’m sure Gee would disagree, as he references his own previous work, among other’s work, to support this. My point is that when Gee uses concrete examples from both video games, and other areas of life, his theories and observations make a lot of sense, and help drive home the connection he’s trying to make between learning and play. Unfortunately, he doesn’t spend as much time on those examples as I would have liked.

A Few Thoughts That Stood Out

I was particularly taken with a few thoughts and questions that Gee posed in the second chapter of his book. While I’m reading the revised issue, I’m hoping that they were present in the original version as well. While describing “design grammars” he asks a question about identities which I found to be very intriguing, “can you recognize the sorts of identities such people take on when they are in their domain?” I really dig this question, because it spoke to who I am, not just as an educator or a gamer, but as a human being. I find myself constantly shifting identities depending on which domain I find myself in. I would use the word “persona”, but it’s basically the same idea. My professional domain illicit certain aspects of my being that don’t always exhibit themselves at home or our with friends, and while playing a game or enjoying family time at home there are certain actions and “design grammars” that I get to use that wouldn’t always fit well in my professional life. The shifting identities that we employ as human beings to successfully co-exist with one another fits nicely with this question and exploration of different identities in video games.

Towards the end of the chapter comes perhaps the most powerful thought. As Gee recounts to us the story of a young gamer playing Pikmin, and how he seeks to help and advice about how to play the game. When the young learner goes online to seek advice from websites and forums he claims it as doing “his own thinking.” However, when Gee attempts to help the gamer out, the response is a very curt plea to stop “bossing hom around.” This rings so true for so many educators, regardless of whether learners are struggling with technology, content matter, or other learning goals. Quite often our students want not just advice from their peers, but the validation from them that they can “walk the walk”, and show to their fellow learners that they’re capable of achieving what others can, and that help is seen as shared work and thought. When that help comes from an adult however, there’s something lost in that accomplishment because we as adults are seen as having “all the answers”, and when we offer advice it’s not some collaborative group effort, it’s not a shared sense of discovery, it’s a “we’ve been there and done that, this is what you should do” sort of statement that to many learners robs them of that self-discovery.

Want To Join the Conversation?

I’m hoping that the rest of this book club goes as well as last week, and I’ve heard from a number of individuals that they’re excited to read along and even participate in the discussion for chapter 3. If you’re able, I’d love to have you join us, or if you’re reading this after the fact, please consider using the resources below or the video discussions and questions on the Book Club 106 site for this fascinating book.

A Few Resources to Figure Out Gee’s Thoughts on Learning & Video Games






What Video Games Have to Teach us About Learning & Literacy – Part 2

What Video Games Have to Teach us About Learning & Literacy – Part 3


  1. Thank you for the information. I think this is a book worth getting. It’s nice to see that the idea of connections is being made in games and life.

  2. I wish I’d gotten into this discussion a few years ago. I’m interesting in continuing discussion on shifting identities in different domains, and how this relates to video games in the context of literacy. I’m going to read through your other posts here, but I just wanted to take a moment to thank you for the food for thought.

    1. This is a conversation that continues to fascinate me, so feel free to poke around, ask more questions, or even leave some responses on the videos themselves. James Paul Gee has a rather interesting perspective on the intersection of education and technology; one that I think more educators should consider when reflecting on their own practice.

Comments are closed.