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What Video Games have to teach us about learning and literacy

games and learning

“What Video Games have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy” is a book about how video games motivate players to learn how to play them, despite or even due to their complexity and difficulty. James Paul Gee compares how players learn video games to how people learn in school, and discusses how schools and other learning environments would benefit from imitating these aspects of video games.

In that way, the book reminds me of Jane McGonigal’s “Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World”, which also takes the tack of discussing how video games motivate players to take on difficult challenges, with the idea of applying these tactics to other domains (see my review of Reality is Broken). One difference is that where McGonigal focuses on forming personal habits (like weight loss or cleaning the house), James Paul Gee is more interested in school learning.

For me, the most interesting sections of this book dealt with the importance of identity. James Paul Gee argues that learners take on an identity with regards to a field of study. The identity can very well be positive- someone who is good at the subject, who learns quickly, performs well, etc. But they just as easily be negative, in which case the learner will be scared and put off by taking on the subject in the future. The author says that such a learner is “damaged”, and that such damage is difficult and time-consuming to repair.

This rings true of my own experience. I always did fine in school, but definitely formed negative relationships with certain subjects. In particular, despite five years of studying Spanish in junior-high and high school, I never really learned enough to converse. I therefore decided that I was a “language idiot”, and that I was forever handicapped in that area. I suppose that this demission was comforting, since it meant I didn’t have to try. When I ended up in France, it was so frustrating to not be able to understand and relate to those around me that I was extremely motived to learn. And the reality is that I can learn languages just fine. I still wouldn’t say that I’m “talented” in languages, but putting in hard work over a long enough period of time is likely the secret to learn anything at all.

The author show how the notion of identity extends to the people who work in the field. For example, doing science effectively makes the learner a scientist. The closer the learner associates themselves with the values of a scientist, the easier this learning becomes. Once again, the opposite is also true. A person could be easily put off a field by not wishing to associate themselves with the a negative identity they associate with it.

This now makes a few books that I’ve read which make this argument that school teaching techniques should import game design principles. But though I accept that video games mentioned do teach something, and may teach them very well, it is hard to find an example of an existing game that teaches something of value outside the game itself (besides side-benefits such as hand-eye coordination, willingness to experiment, or positive self-esteem). May it be that not enough games are built around real systems? Or is it fundamentally harder to get people to play a game about physics or language than it is to get them to jump on platforms, associate colors, and aim at zombies? Could it be that games mostly motivate people to learn intuitively, and not formally? Is school just not playful enough, or is it just harder to make certain subjects both playful and meaningful at the same time?

Ultimately, both educators and game designers are asking a person to invest their time and effort. If you don’t believe that the benefits are worth the investment, than why put in the time? Many (perhaps most) games offer some kind of immediate benefits of pleasure, both spectacular and of solving problems. Could school subjects offer the same?

Written by Jesse Himmelstein

Jesse Himmelstein did his undergraduate work at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, USA before moving to France. He did his Masters at INSA Toulouse, followed by a PhD at the LAAS in robotics and motion planning in the context of industrial design and manufacturing. He has coordinated several European research projects in live simulation and training, using virtual reality, web services, and mobile devices. His passion is for educational video games and interactive systems.

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