Understanding Video Games text-book
Review of James Paul Gee’s What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy

Date posted: May 11, 2006
Updated: Oct 24, 2006

Reviewed by Simon Egenfeldt-Nielsen

Author: James Paul Gee
Title: What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.
ISBN: 1403961697
Price: $18.87
Pages: 225

I have been looking forward to this book, as I believe we need an introductory book for computer games and learning with a solid grounding in scientific literature. Although the earlier book Digital Game-based learning by Marc Prensky is comprehensive it is very oriented towards business issues, implementation, and does not dig into more theoretical issues. There have also been several books within the simulation and learning tradition but they are quite dated, and mostly they are made up of previously published journal articles.
No author has yet dared to give an account of the research into the area of computer games and learning. My hope was that Professor James Paul Gee would give it a go but this book takes a more personal approach to the subject. The book is aimed at the interested reader, and does not assume much prior knowledge about games or learning. This review will look at the book from an academic viewpoint, although this might not be entirely just. Still, the book is written by a professor and uses at least a semi-academic approach.
Overall the book is well worth a read for its originality and ambition to approach computer games from a new perspective. The problems with the book is the lack of referencing to important contributions in the field, and the fact that the empirical evidence is mostly made up of James Paul Gee’s own playing experience, and observation of his son’s interest in computer games. There seems to be some other data lying behind the book but it is quite undocumented and unclear what the nature of this data is. It seems to in the form of interviews but these seem to be basically informal talks with youngsters about computer games.

The book covers different aspects of games with a special focus on learning although in places the focus gets quite loose. It takes a positive view on computer games and tries to explore, what games have to offer by listing 36 learning principles found in games. The closeness and relevance for learning is shifting but all principles are in some way related to learning. This is mainly done through existing theories on learning and how we form our identities. Below I have outlined the content of the different chapters, which all draw on theories on learning and education.

Semiotic Domains: James Paul Gee argues that like other activities in life computer games is a semiotic domain that you slowly learn. Like other areas of life you learn to make sense and navigate in the domain of computer games. The domain of computer games according to Gee points to other interesting domains like science. Computer games can also work as a place to reflect on the engagement and processes in domains of practice. Gee believes that computer games are definitely not a waste of time, and is a relevant domain. Furthermore computer games offer better opportunities for critical learning and problem solving.

Learning and identity: The chapter explains how computer games give new opportunities for learning experience, where the student is involved with the material. Computer games are quite good for creating agency and identification, and this sparks critical thinking and learning that matters. The learning experience in computer games becomes more effective because you identify with environment. You can make mistakes without real consequences, and you are encouraged to continue trying. Also the game is customized in difficulty so you get a balanced challenge.

Situated Meaning and Learning: Here Gee argues that computer games are well-suited for new forms of learning, where you can interact with the game world through probing, choose different ways to learn, and see things in a context. You can interact and challenge computer games, and over time build up a more accurate picture of an area.

Telling and Doing: Games can amplify areas, and represent subset of domains so you can practice. According to Gee, games also lend themselves well to transferring between domains. It is possible to transfer what you learn in computer games to other contexts.

Cultural Models: Here the focus is on the content in games in the sense that computer games represent some ways of perceiving the world, and use a lot of information implicit in the game universes. This content also has bearing on other domains of life, and can be both good and bad content depending on your values and norms.

The Social Mind: The last chapter explores the rich social environment around computer games, and players who use networks to become better game players. Gee points out that this form of peer learning would be very beneficial in schools.

The book is quite ambitious in its attempt to analyse the learning structure of computer games but it seems odd not to draw on relevant work like Janet Murray’s theory on agency and identity in games or Thomas Malone’s work on motivation in games. These are the most obvious but the problem is that Gee is not really a game researcher, which he also states in the introduction. The book is built on theories from his field and a quick read of the most popular overall books on games. Therefore the theories in the book lack a real connection to existing research, which is a real shame. The book would have benefited from a closer look at the literature on computer games and learning - although the research is scattered in journals, books, and web sites, it is there.
From an academic perspective it is also annoying that a lot of points are not backed up except for general comments at the end of each chapter. A lot of times I wanted to know more or dig deeper but didn’t have the chance. Some of the argumentation is also quite subjective in places, and doesn’t really get in-depth. It also seems that the stance towards computer games is perhaps overly optimistic, and could have benefited from a little more critical sense. In places the book seem to be a bit long-winded, things are repeated and examples are long and make repetitive points.
There are many interesting discussions in the book. One example is the relation between identity and computer games. Gee argues that the identification with the avatar and the player’s agency gives you a completely different experience than in other media. An experience that enhances learning as things becomes relevant and important on a concrete level in the game. It not something you ‘just’ learn in school more or less, and then move on. Here it is tested and perceived as important. It is also used in different settings and becomes more fully integrated into the student’s way of understanding the world. I believe this to be one of the most interesting properties of computer games. The idea that learning material in computer games is approached on different levels gives a fuller experience. Furthermore, the structure of computer games solves a problem that at least in Nordic countries is becoming more widespread. We need to justify learning if it is to have an impact. We can’t simply tell students that statistics are important to know when they go further in the educational system. They do not just accept us as authorities but have there own perception of, what is important and why. Here games can perhaps be a way to put learning in a broader context, and make clearer, how it works in daily life.

One of the problems in the book is that Gee only to a very limited degree approach the difference in the perception of a game experience, and experiences in other areas of daily life. The experiences and impressions are not uncritically transferred between these domains, and do not gain the same status for a person. The connection between game domain and other domains is crucial for a lot of the assumptions he makes about computer games’ potential for other areas. However the transfer of experience and knowledge between different areas is quite controversial, and Gee fails to convince me that the stuff that goes on in games will have bearing on other domains. Related to this problem is Gee’s use of the word cultural models, which in game terms seems to overlap with the genre definition. In his example on Metal Gear Solid Gee states that you have certain assumptions about warfare. These are then challenged in the game. However, I doubt that these assumptions would go much beyond the game genre. Also, he seems to make a direct link between what we do in games, and that this feeds into our cultural models - again ignoring that games are constructed as make-believe. In fact he is making a pretty good case for the frequent attacks on games for building up certain cultural assumptions - a claim that is to my knowledge unsubstantiated.
Another thing I stumbled on were his argumentation about reflection and games. He seems to use his own playing style as model for all players. But I would think he is highly unrepresentative. I would say that gamers do often not go to the higher levels of learning (analysing, reflecting, and evaluating) because you do not have the time to step back from the game. This varies with genre but to a large degree analysing, reflecting, and evaluating is not part of the game experience. On the other hand these things are often present around the play experience. In magazines, on web sites, and in discussions with friends, however these are not given if you simply try to use games alone for learning.

He seems very eager to find relations between learning and games but what he is really addressing I would call education in a broad sense - to become a member of a certain society and culture with special ways of acting and perceiving the surroundings. In computer games (and all activities) you learn something - this is hardly news but I guess this is an important point to the general public. As a researcher you end up a bit disappointed. I was sitting with the feeling that he took up some very interesting discussions and theories but never quite made it to the end. The argumentation is not really convincing and could have stronger ties to other research into computer games. The book, though, is definitely worth a read.

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