Jim Gee on The Use of Video Games for Learning About Learning

Filed in: Games

Filed by Kelsey Herron


3.29.12 | Ever since video games found their way into arcades and homes across the country, the debate over whether they hold any educational merit or learning opportunity has been a fervent one. Today – with approximately 56 percent of households owning at least one gaming console – it has become more essential to assess what and how kids learn while playing video games, and if these tactics can be applied to other areas of education.

According to games and learning expert James Paul Gee, they absolutely can.

“Digital media, video games in particular, work just like we know books work. All the stuff that you know about literacy is true of digital media,” Gee said in a talk he gave at the Buck Institute for Education’s annual meeting last fall. Edutopia recently posted a video of his discussion, featured above.

John Larmer, director of product development for the Buck Institute for Education, and David Ross, the Institute’s director of teacher professional development and dean of national faculty, shared their thoughts about gaming both before and after hearing Gee speak. Larmer said this of Gee’s lecture: “What surprised me, and I think many of the people who attended, was that James’ message was not ‘video games can be used to teach science, history, math, etc.’ but ‘education should be more like a well-designed video game.’”

Gee, a longtime proponent of bringing the learning model used in video games into the classroom, explained how educators often complain that although kids use critical thinking skills and learn difficult concepts while playing video games—the first-person puzzle-based game called “Portal” is based on physics, for example—they are unable to verbalize these concepts and explain them to others.

“Educators say, ‘Well, you can’t articulate your physics, so what good is it?’” he said, adding that many educators are not taking into account that much of the learning takes place beyond the game.

Far from there being no articulation and language of the knowledge being developed in the game, there’s a whole community devoted to doing just that.

– James Paul Gee

Gee described what he calls “affinity spaces” – websites and wikis created by avid gamers used to deconstruct the science, mathematics and other areas of problem solving in video games. Most of these sites are run by a large number of people who research and discuss all aspects of the game and, in turn, learn more about, say, the laws of physics behind them.

The validity of these sites lies in the “specialist language” utilized by the players, who clearly comprehend the concepts of the game enough to explain them to other players.

“Far from there being no articulation and language of the knowledge being developed in the game, there’s a whole community devoted to doing just that,” Gee said.

Gee also gave examples of other important life skills found in popular games such as “World of Warcraft,” in which a core unit of five people must possess fluency in different fields of expertise in order to survive. Each person must be deeply skilled in one area, but also able to understand the “big picture” so they can use their own skills to work with other players.

“In the world of high-tech work, this is called a ‘cross-functional’ team,” said Gee. “If you go look at the new capitalism and the high-tech workplaces, they are almost all organized in cross-functional teams, which means every member of the team has to be an absolute expert but able to understand everybody else’s role, so they can integrate with it and even replace them if they’re gone.”

This idea of collaborative problem-solving is just one area of real-life experience that can be gained by playing video games. Another method of learning that can be applied to formal education lies in the relationship between game and manual—a point Gee discussed at length.

Video game manuals only make sense once you’ve actually started playing the game, said Gee, because you then have images, dialogue and a distinct goal to represent the language. The same idea can be applied to textbooks.

“When human beings understand anything , whether it’s a text or the [game] world, they understand it not by abstract generalities, but by literally being able to run in their head a simulation of images and actions and experiences that the words refer to.”

Some would argue that if two students are given the same textbook, they are given the same opportunity to learn – a concept with which Gee strongly disagrees.

“If one kid has 10,000 hours of experience with the stuff the book’s about – like 10,000 hours of playing ‘Portal’ – that kid has a much better opportunity to learn than the kid that has 14 minutes,” he said. “Opportunity to learn is not the book – it’s whether you can bring experience to the book.”

Gee suggested that the key problem in U.S. school systems is that they contain “manuals” full of verbiage and theories that students are completely unfamiliar with and have had no previous practice using.

“We could level the playing field for the first time in American education if we brought the activities, the problem solving, the ‘living in the worlds’ of chemistry and algebra,” he said. “If we brought those to school, they’d like it as well as ‘Portal.’”

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