Gaming the Classroom

This past Friday, I had the chance to listen to a remarkable man for about three hours at the CUNY Graduate Center. His name is James Gee and he occupies the Fulton Presidential Chair for Literary Studies, Curriculum and Instruction at Arizona State University, having followed the lure of the sun belt from the University of Wisconsin where he was a central part of the Games, Learning, and Society group located in Madison.

Before his talk, Gee spent about two hours discussing his views with the CUNY-wide Writing Across the Curriculum group. His topic, in both venues, was “Literacies, Learning, and Video Games.” The auditorium was packed for the talk, with people sitting in the aisles.

I had to leave a little early (though I was able to return for the reception), for I had a phone interview for a position that could conceivably take me away from CUNY (I don’t know how I feel about the idea of leaving, for I don’t think I would ever again find as interesting a bunch of students as those at City Tech—we’ll see; most likely, I’ll stay put). My head was so filled with things Gee had said, however, that I don’t know that I gave the best responses to the patient and perhaps too perceptive questioners.

Gee’s book What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy is not one I am familiar with, but I have now ordered the revised edition that is due out next week. I wish I had known Gee’s work earlier… and I probably should have. However, in terms of scholarship, I tend to dive into pools I know nothing about, learning the depth and width of the water even as I learn to swim. In other words, I don’t write about what I already know, but about what I want to learn.

Much to my delight, Gee said he operates in much the same way. It carries danger with it (missing someone as significant as Gee, for example), but it generates a level of enthusiasm and attention that “expansion” over and from the same old ground never will. There’s a place for both types of scholarship, but I’m always delighted to find that I am not alone.

It has only been six year, Gee said, since he turned his interest to video games (I think he should use the term “computer games” as well, for problem-solving and strategy games don’t fit well with the public conception of the term “video games”—but, hey, I’m not the one who wrote the book).

Though I wasn’t able to bring it up with him, Gee is moving towards a new conception of literacy (which I call “neteracy”) that encompasses a great deal more than pre-Web (and video game) literacy. He also understands that a lack of physical activity is not a sure sign that no learning is going on: watching can also involve learning.

What fascinated me most was that he is seeing possibilities in video games in ways similar to what I am seeing in hand-held communications devices. In both cases, the initial reaction is to keep such things out of the classroom. Yet they may prove the most valuable aids to education we’ve seen in a long, long time.