What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, by James Paul Gee
While this is indisputably a book about game design, it is not a book for game designers or even for gamers. At least not expressly so. Gee, a professor of linguistics, psychology and education, is writing for teachers and education theorists, describing the many learning principles (36 in all) that can be found in modern video games — and are often lacking, he claims, in our schools. So while in a sense the book is telling designers what they are already doing well, it is valuable to have this implicit wisdom analysed and set out as a set of explicit principles.
Gee admits to arriving late and old on the video game scene, but his credentials as a gamer are not to be scorned. He has played an impressive number of landmark games (System Shock 2, Deus Ex, The Sims, WoW and more) and shows all the passion of an avid gamer. Unlike many presentations for a non-gaming audience, this book should not make you cringe. Nor will you get lost in academese. While he uses some technical terms from linguistics, he always grounds them clearly in examples of common experience.
So what, in Gee’s estimate, are we doing right? Well, without wanting to reiterate all 36 principles, his argument is that games support active, critical learning. Learning is always applied immediately in its relevant context, not passively recorded and reiterated. While the application is real, it is done in a context that encourages risk-taking and experimentation, structured to allow skills to be learnt incrementally but always pushing on the outer edge of your competence. Not only is this kind of learning effective, it is also engaging and fun.
In a game we take on the goals and values of our protagonist avatar, often pursuing those goals unreflectively, not considering whether they are right or wrong, but Gee suggests that this power could also be used to encourage critical thinking if the avatar’s goals and understanding of the world are different to our own, or if we are able to play the same scenario (eg a Middle East conflict) from the points of view of different participants.
A good game doesn’t just make learning fun, rather we have fun because we are learning. Raph Koster has argued that this is the essence of entertaining gameplay. If this is the case, then we should pay attention to those understand how we learn best, and Gee is an excellent teacher.