Review: What Video Games have to teach us about Learning and Literacy

As you may infer from the title of his book, James Paul Gee isn't an elegant writer. Gee's effort to redeem videogames isn't as punchy (and possibly as problematic) as Steven Johnson's Everything Bad is Good for You, but it's not supposed to be. Despite the subject matter, this is a dry, very serious account of a distinguished scholar's attempts to understand videogames and criticize contemporary American educational institutions. Gee's basic thesis is that good videogames do a really great job of teaching kids how to play them. The best games aren't simple passive enjoyments, either--these things require complex thought and make substantial intellectual demands on their players. They also allow players to indulge themselves in make-believe realities and identities. Throughout the chapters, Gee distills 36 learning principles of videogames that American pedagogues should implement in schools.

Though he has many interesting and intelligent things to say about videogames, Gee's experience playing games (at least as suggested by his book) is limited to a few popular titles--Deus Ex, Tomb Raider, and Arcanum. Gee's account would be strengthened if he'd played more and a wider variety of videogames--particularly adventure games (even though I realize these aren't as popular as the genres Gee focuses on). Nevertheless, Gee studies the games he does play very closely. The best parts are those sections where he offers us a thoughtful, insightful description of his gaming sessions.

I don't know much about the linguistics and cognitive science Gee uses to build his theoretical framework, but what he writes seems quite logical and convincing. I suppose this would make an excellent introduction for someone interested in how social linguistics can contribute to educational theory. Don't let jargon like "semiotic domains," "affinity groups" and "interior grammars" frighten you away. Though Gee is working with three different discourses (situated cognition, new literacy studies, and connectionism), he explains all these theories and their implications very clearly. I've seen several blogs and articles popping up that make use of Gee's learning principles, which are obviously meant to be broad and thus widely applicable. I know that I will have the list handy when I start prepping for my spring courses.

It's important to note that Gee's book isn't primarily about videogames. It's a book about reforming American education according to a set of abstract learning principles. The videogames just provide fodder for examples and discussion. I get the impression that Gee could even have taken the videogames out and still had a workable text--but, at any rate, I enjoyed the book, as did the students in my Computers and English class, where it filled a vital niche.

If you'd like to hear more about my thoughts on this book, you might want to check out these Powerpoints and mp3 recordings:
* Professor Pixel (View PowerPoint) (Download mp3)
* I'm too Situated (View PowerPoint) (Download mp3)