Thursday, October 16, 2008

Book Review

Title: What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy

Author: James Paul Gee

Published in 2003

Cited by 1,088 in Google Scholar

I just finished this book last night and I highly recommend it to any librarian, whether or not you have any interest in video games. It is more about how people learn and why video games engage people more than traditional education systems do. It discusses active learning, critical learning, and is closely related to or even part of inquiry-based learning.

Gee has a background in theoretical and social linguistics. The book is heavy on theory after a lot of reading and playing games. However, even for people like me who don't always get theory, it's easy to read and there is much to learn from him. Indeed, I took eight pages of notes, but I will condense them for this post.

A "semiotic domain" is a set of practices that communicate distinctive types of meaning. You can learn facts without learning a new semiotic domain. This involves a) learning to experience the world in new ways b) potential to join this group/affiliation c) gaining resources to prepare for future learning in that and related domains. These three things make up active learning, but you can go beyond active learning to critical learning. This involves thinking about the domain at a "meta" level as a complex system of interrelated parts, and how to innovate meanings within the domain.

Identities are very important to learning. Students bring in their identities including what type of learner they are (i.e. "I'm not good at science), you strive to make them see themselves as a type of mini-scientist or historian (etc.), and there's the relationship/transition between the two. This is like a gamer's real-world identity, the virtual identity, and the relationship between the two. This last one is called the "projective identity," and is how you project your real-world identity onto the virtual identity, or how you project your past identity onto your identity as a scientist. If the learner can get to the projective identity, they learn they have the capacity to make the virtual identity part of their real-world identity. He points out this is more magical than any video game. All learning involves taking on a new identity.

Video games are good at creating "psychosocial moratoriums," which are important to learning. They are spaces where the real-world consequences of mistakes are reduced while they learn how to move or interact with the new material. Learners must be enticed to try, put lots of effort into learning, and achieve some meaningful success. Video games offer lots of opportunities to practice, while schools don't. This practice is often repetitive, but it forces players to apply knowledge to new situations (called "transfer"), and punishes players who have a "routinized mastery." Learners should always be required to operate at the outer edge of their resources, that way the tasks will be doable, but very challenging.

Good games offer and accept multiple solutions to each problem. Players get clues, make hypotheses, test them out, then reform their hypotheses and apply them to new situations. This is how they form patterns, which is what all learning is.

Practice needs to be carefully mixed with overt telling. You can't just let the students go off on their own and expect them to learn. You can do this by periodically assessing their progress, give feedback/lecture, then let them continue.

Learning is a very social activity, just like gaming. While seeking patterns, a person asks other people, reads books, interacts with tools/technologies. They usually share what they have learned, eventually with a group. Otherwise that person has no way to know if the patterns they have formed are real. who will normalize or police their views if they deviate too far from the norm of the group. When there is a disagreement, there is a dialog (more social sharing of information). This interaction and ability to use tools is important in the real-world, yet our schools test what's in the learner's brain rather than what they can do when the use the tools.

Good video games not only allow for consuming, but producing as well. Players can modify worlds, create maps, post on online bulletin boards, and communicate tips and opinions.

Instead of saying video games are a waste of time, we should be looking into why people will spend so many hours learning how to play a game without feeling the same enthusiasm for school. In video games, "hard" is often good, while "easy" is often bad. The argument in this book isn't that good things are necessarily being learned, rather that good learning often occurs during video game playing.

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