Gaming the System

It’s a huge world out there—even bigger, now that we have the Internet expanding its boundaries and hoarding its history. So vast is it that we all miss things. Nobody, no matter their field or narrow specialty, can any longer say that they are on top of all that’s going on. Anyone who believes otherwise will sooner or later be hit by a gigantic surprise, will be forced to discover that what they thought was an entirety of a discourse was merely one small clique.

As a dabbler, someone who looks into a number of fields for my primary research (the intersection of culture and technology), this doesn’t bother me particularly. In fact, I like it, for it assures me that my work will never be finished, let alone up-to-date, making it an endless game. And I love playing.

One recent surprise was a man called James Paul Gee, newly ensconced as the Mary Lou Fenton Presidential Professor of Literary Studies at Arizona State University. Once a linguist, he is a founder of the Games, Learning, Society group based in Madison, WI (where Gee used to teach).

Immediately after hearing him speak at the City University of New York Graduate Center last December, I ran home and ordered his most recent book, a “revised and updated” version of his 2003 What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy (New York: Palgrave/MacMillan, 2007).

This is one of those “duh” books. That is, there’s nothing startling in it, just things that many of us teachers will say, on reading, “I should have thought of that.” Thing is, we didn’t; Gee did.

He writes, in his Introduction, that:

you cannot play a game if you cannot learn it. If no one plays a game, it does not sell, and the company that makes it goes broke. Of course, designers could make the games shorter and simpler. That’s often what schools do with their curriculums. But gamers won’t accept short or easy games. So game designers keep making long and challenging games and still manage to get them learned. (3)

How could that obvious, though generally unnoticed, fact not say something about how and why we learn—and how we design our classes? But few of us have been paying attention. Rather than steeping ourselves in studies and pedagogical theory, we should have been watching what young people actually do when they want to learn something. And, today, of course, one of the first things they want to do is succeed at the video games they play. After all:

learning is, I would argue, learning to play “the game.” For example, literary criticism and field biology are different “games” played by different rules. (They are different sorts of activities requiring different values, tools, and ways of acting and thinking; they are different domains with different goals and different “win states.”) To learn either one at any deep level requires learning to play the “game” or, at least, to appreciate the sort of “game” it is. (7-8)

Gee organizes his book around what he identifies as 36 ‘principles of learning’ that he has drawn from the design of video games. He ties these in to current research on “situated cognition,” “New Literacy Studies,” and “connectionism,” but his is not so much a work for scholars but for teachers, most of whom (being too old) haven’t had the pleasure of learning to learn through video games.

As I do in Blogging America: The New Public Sphere, Gee believes that we are now dealing with a new type of literacy—which I call “neteracy”—based on “multimodal” (mixing words, images, and (I would say) sound) texts. Gee takes his definition of literacy in a direction that I have not explicitly followed in talking about “neteracy,” except when I speak of the cultural signals that the literate or neterate pick up, clues they have learned to spot through becoming literate or neterate. Gee expands far beyond my signals of value and significance:

Because literacy requires more than being able to “decode” (words or images for instance) and because it requires people to be able to participate in—or at least understand—certain sorts of social practices, we need to focus on not just “codes” or “representations” (like language, equation, images, and so forth) but the domains in which these codes or representations are used, as well. (18)

This requires, Gee argues, the ability to take on (and link to) new identities for the sake of learning (and succeeding in) new situations, be they games or otherwise:

if children cannot or will not make bridges between one or more of their real-world identities and the virtual identity at stake in the classroom… —or if teachers or others destroy or don’t help build such bridges—then learning is imperiled. (57)

One of the most important of my tasks when I teach freshmen at New York City College of Technology, where the students rarely have a developed identity as “college student,” is to build just these bridges, between identities in the community and in high school and the ones students must build to succeed in college. Children of the college educated begin to build such identities—with the help of their parents—as early as their junior year in high school, when they begin to think about college, begin to watch their elders already in college, begin to visit campuses, and (often) are even introduced to the ways of college classrooms in the Advanced Placement courses. My students lack this advantage. So, a part of my job is to help them build the new virtual identity that will take them through four years of college and to a degree. If an understanding of the building of identities in video games can help me in this task, then I would be a fool not to turn to them. After all, I am introducing my students to an environment as alien as that of any game.

As Gee writes:

One good way to make people look stupid is to ask them to learn and think in terms of words and abstractions that they cannot connect in any useful way to images or situations in their embodied experience in the world. Unfortunately, we regularly do this in schools. (72)

My students, when they enter City Tech, are completely open to such abuse. It is our duty, as teachers there, to insure that this doesn’t happen, that they quickly get the experience in the world of academia that will keep them from looking—and feeling—stupid. Which they absolutely are not.

Gee makes a good case for using video games to teach one how to understand “cultural models” through those the players assume in order to negotiate the universes of the games:

Certain circumstances can… force us to think overtly and reflectively about our cultural models. We certainly don’t want or need to think overtly about all of them. But we do need to think about those that, in certain situations or at certain points in our lives, have the potential to do more harm than good. (154)

In other words, video games help us to think flexibly, and to examine the assumptions we generally act on without thought.

There is much, much more in this book, including depiction of the video game as more than an individual pursuit. One of the most interesting points that Gee makes has to do with the breaking down of communications barriers, the old media-coming-at-passive-consumer model:

Good video games allow players to be not just passive consumers but also active producers who can customize their own learning experiences. The game designer is not an insider and the player an outsider, as in school in so many instances where the teacher is the insider and the learners are outsiders who must take what they are given as mere consumers. Rather, game designers and game players are both insiders and producers—if players so choose—and there need be no outsiders. (208-209)

Clearly, video games, as much as any of our other techniques, can be an important tool in moving us away from what Paolo Freire described as the ‘banking model of education.’ They can also help prepare students for operation in the non-hierarchical environment the Web may continue to generate—or even help them learn to negotiate the vertical structures of our corporations by showing them that passivity, in most any situation, isn’t going to get them anywhere.

Though it would have been useful to me to see this book five years ago, when the first edition appeared, I can’t really complain. What Gee has done, even if it needs updating every few years as games and technology changes, is present a challenge for us teachers that will be ongoing for quite some years. If nothing else, he is showing that simply putting technology in the classroom is never going to be enough. We need to learn from the technology (and from our students) even as we begin to adapt the technology for our own narrow definitions of “learning.”

Maybe, with Gee’s help, we can even broaden that.

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