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

As part of my ongoing attempt to force myself back into regular reading habits (academic, fiction, or otherwise), I was excited to have a new voice added to the Book Club 106 discussion last week of James Paul Gee’s What Video Games Have to Teach us About Learning & Literacy. Ben Harwood, a technologist with Skidmore College in upstate New York joined me to talk about chapters 3 and 4 of the seminal title from 2002 that explores the effective structuring of learning environments through the analogy of video game design. Our Google+ Hangout was cut short due to our schedules, but I’m looking forward to an excellent video discussion this evening of chapter 5 after last week’s exploration of learning theories and just how effective we can expect learners to be if there isn’t “play time” built into regular instructional practice.

You are more than welcome to watch the 45 minute discussion Ben Harwood and I had about the chapters on Youtube, or the embedded video below. If you have suggestions, questions, or thoughts to add to the discussion, please do so using the comments below!

What I Think Thus Far

At the end of chapters 1 and 2 I had a deep seeded belief that this was going to be a rather dry and heavily academic book. I lack a large amount of background knowledge in the areas of metacognition and learning theory that this book makes reference too, however, chapters 3 and 4 began to show a much broader examination of Gee’s Learning Principles that he builds upon at the end of each chapter. Having spent so many years away from academic texts, I forgot that quite often there is a great deal of time that must be spent on laying a foundation for the argument an author will be making, so that the reader has the proper context with which to consider the arguments and postulations.

If anything, the new direction that the text is taking is making it much more accesible to the average educator (or dare I say casual reader). As more time is spent on exposition of the various scenarios and intricacies of specific game mechanics, giving the mid section of the text a much more narrative feeling. I would still not recommend this text to the average “gamer” or someone interested in using video games in learning. This book presents itself as a bridge between great game design and great instructional design through Gee’s learning principles. Gee is not advocating that educators use games in their classroom, but rather ask us to examine the deliberate nature of how we structure our learning environments, activities, and ways in which we can focus our students’ learning to be meta-cognitive (the hallmark of many great learning theories) and help them be aware of the various roles they move through throughout the learning process.

As a gamer, the nice long passages in which Gee describes actual game play of popular video games is an often humorous (as he explores games as a “noobie”), yet poignant reminder that many great video games contain an amazing amount of carefully calculated design that feeds many intrinsic motivations that lead many people to play games. Whether or not Gee can successfully complete his argument of excellent game design being translated over to excellent instructional design remains to be seen as I finish up the middle of this text.

A Few Thoughts That Stood Out

I appreciated the way the Gee breaks down the identities we take on or are subjected to while playing video games. Gee makes a case for 3 separate, yet co-dependent identities within most games; Me as the gamer, the Character and it’s limitations as programmed by the gamer, and Me as the Character and the limitations we both experience due to programming and inexperience as a gamer or influence from past experiences. It’s easy to make this connection to the learning spaces within K-12 institutions as learners can be seen taking on the same 3 identities; the Student as an individual, the Student as an active learner, and the meta-cognitive Student looking at the learning process and exploring what past experiences influence how he learns in the present space. I’m sure that’s not exactly the analogy Gee was going for, but it’s the one that I’m currently clinging to to make sense of the book until I can develop a better analogy. Gee does make an excellent point about the reflective nature in which he goes about playing games, and I think it’s important to mention that like all endeavors, playing any video game can be done in a passive way, and very much like a passive student in our classroom, the results are similar; little engagement with any over-arching ideas, and a lack of critical thought regarding the game or learning goal. What Gee doesn’t point out is that both situations can still lead to an enjoyable experience for both gamer or learner, although most educators would hope passive learning isn’t our goal.

This is why I read so infrequently…my mind goes into “learning nerd” mode.

Very infrequently do I read anything in a book and create a sticky note that says “blog about this!” but I do find that I’m attracted to lists in a very Pavlovian way, and when Gee outlines three basic conditions that he sees as a “must” for truly effective critical teaching and learning, I had to both sticky and highlight it.

1. The learner must be entice to try, even is he or she already has good grounds to be afraid to try.

2. The learner must be enticed to put in lots of effort even is he or she beings with little motivation to do so.

3. The learner must achieve some meaningful success when he or she has expended this effort.

These conditions resonate with my quite deeply. If there’s no attempt on the part of the learner to even try and accomplish something meaningful that will develop a deeper or new understanding of a concept, then I’ve failed as an educator. It was quite refreshing to see something like this, in quite plain english, written in a rather academic text. Gee continues in chapter 4 that learners who have only a verbal understanding of a concept (the idea that students could talk about the various parts of the water cycle without actually understanding how the water cycle is impacted by outside factors) have an almost useless understanding of the concept. Those learners be pushed to experience some form of embodied action that puts the application of their knowledge to a test, not just the regurgitation of that knowledge. Video games present a unique opportunity in that everything the “gamer” learners through various encounters and tutorials within a game are constantly being applied, transferred, re-worked, and then re-applied to an ever shifting set of variables, enemies, obstacles, and goals. That is of course, if the game has been designed effectively.

I can’t help but wonder how many great learning opportunities educators could craft for their students if only more embodied actions (opportunities for students to apply knowledge, possibly fail, and then redevelop new understandings based on that failure) were present throughout the learning environment. Far too often we ask students to regurgitate information rather than apply it, and Gee makes excellent analogies and pushes for this type of learning through the text. Academic reading aside, the Common Core State Standards are pushing for this same experience throughout the K-12 continuum and within all of the subject areas. This might explain why so much in chapter 3 and 4 resonate strongly with me, as I believe that the Common Core Standards, if applied properly, will mark a significant shift in the way teachers provide learning opportunities for learners.

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

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