Provocation on James Paul Gee’s What Videogames Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy

First I apologize for my belated provocation. James Paul Gee’s What Videogames Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy is inspiring to me in ways I cannot even articulate – I guess I can say, in a joke that, after reading his theories in chapters 1, 2, 4, and 7, that I have gone through a “tacit learning” process, the results of which are very valuable to personal learning and growth in spite of their underappreciation in traditional education, where the evaluation and assessment are based on students’ explicit performance, according to Gee. Having grown up in a small conservative place in China, where playing games is a sin for students, whose only task is to study hard and do well in standard tests. Video games were seen as an evil monster by parents as “a waste of time”, as was said by the grandpa in Gee’s book, because first, in their opinions, it is “playing” and has no function of “learning” at all. This binary thinking stems from a very special historical background in China. It was only in 1977, a year after Mao had passed away, that the Chinese government restored the College Entrance Examination system, which completely came to a halt during cultural revolution, when the “extreme leftist” claimed that the educational system was “capitalist” and educators were tortured and beaten to death because they were “rightists” and “capitalists”. A small group of people were admitted to universities in China, where only “revolutionary students”, which was a synonym of “economically poor students with ancestors who were all peasants”, could be accepted through “recommendations” from people in power in the communist parties. This small group and students who were accepted through the College Entrance Examinations in the following years later became the most successful and influential in China and a lot of them are still playing very important roles in various fields domestically and internationally. Common Chinese people then suddenly found their path to success other than becoming a faithful Chinese Communist Party member and climbing a social ladder set up by chairman Mao and his entourage, which had no clear path at all. Then kids around China were expected to perform extremely well in standardized tests, which were seen as the most “fair” way of social mobility. All things related to “play” were seen by “good” parents and educators as the enemy of their children’s academic and ultimate “success” in life. Arcades were deemed by them as places where “bad kids” went and there was never a lack of stories of such kids stealing money from their parents to play videos games in the arcades, where they were picked up by “bad people”. Video games were also considered “addictive” and conducive to lower academic performance of academic performance and decreasing moral standards in children. Seldom had anyone associated video games with “learning” and until when I went to in college,  when online games became popular with the development of the internet, media coverage about such games were still very negative: gamers of online games were always so addicted to online games that they died in “internet cafes” from exhaustion caused by excessive sleeplessness. Nowadays, there is a tremendous turn of the attitudes toward “gaming” in China because after neoliberalism has gained control of people’s lives and pressure for making money has made everyone as exhausted as playing games too much, games have become not only a tool for releasing tension and anxiety in their daily life, but also have become a wealth-generating industry that has produced rich CEOs of gaming companies as well as winners of international game contestants. However, it seems like such change of attitudes for the general public is influenced mostly by the counterforce of “capital”, which happens to be balancing the negative impacts caused by excessive political dictatorship reigned over China. A book like What Videogames Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy that thoroughly analyzes “gaming” from the perspectives of learning and education is very inspiring to me because it is calm and rational articulation of what some of the values and advantages games have in learning and education and how we could use those features to improve the deficiencies of the modern education system. In Chapter 2, Gee uses the concept of “semiotic domain” to as a basis of qualifying video games. I think this is a great concept because it neither demonizes nor glorifies video games. Rather, it sees video games as every other “semiotic domain”, which has its own “content”, “design grammar”, and one needs sufficient “literacy” to understand and use it, like one learns the language system. The biases towards games, be it positive or negative,  stems from failure to recognize this commonality that games share with other “semiotic domains”. To be literate in games, one has to learn to “read” multi-media sources and how they interact to function in the gaming environment, and thus the principles behind such literacy. Therefore, it is not only “playing”, but also “learning”, in its unique way that is different from traditional learning. According to Gee, games are advantageous compared to traditional learning because it encourages active learning through creating embodied experiences that enable game players to participate in a process in which they are interested. In order to achieve their purposes, which can be multiple in the games they play, they will need to learn actively how to use the tools provided in such games to solve problems through their own experiences. And they are willing to articulate the results of their “tacit-learning” – how they solve those problems- in communities through writing strategy guides, which will be learnt critically by other gamers who may have similar experiences, and whose feedbacks may strengthen the existing theories of playing the games, and thus, a “probe-hypothesize-reprobe-rethink” process, which is a process similar to conducting scientific research, is formed naturally and organically. This process helps a child to become a “self-teacher”, and it is significantly different from traditional learning, where students learn passively about knowledge in which they have very limited embodied experience, and memorizes the answers they don’t understand because of the reasons mentioned above to complete standardized tests consist mostly of multiple choice questions, which seriously ignores the precious fruits of students’ tacit learning and instead focuses on the “performance” of answering questions testing imposed knowledge that they can hardly digest because of a lack of embodied experience. Above all, I love the analysis of the educational features of gaming and I highly recommend the learning principles summarized through the author’s experience of playing games at the end of each chapter of this book because not only are they useful for understanding the educational features of video games, they are also useful in instructional design with or without video games because they are essentially about how to activate students’ agency to engage them in participating in an active, embodied and communal learning experience that will kindle the fire for learning and they will be motivated by a burning desire to learn for the rest of their life.

2 thoughts on “Provocation on James Paul Gee’s What Videogames Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy

  1. Thanks for this thoughtful post, Jing. Your description of how gaming was ans is perceived in China is fascinating. The challenge in Gee is how we can apply his insights in the semiotic domain of pedagogy.

  2. Hi Jing, thank you for this provocation. I agree with Prof. Brier that your description of how gaming is/was perceived in China is indeed fascinating. I also appreciate when you wrote that you’re inspired by Gee as a “calm and rational articulation of what some of the values and advantages games have in learning and education” because as both an educator and parent to a teen myself, I’ve observed my child using many video game-like tools in our public school district since 1st grade, in our local library and at home since she was a toddler. Sometimes the outcome in her learning is amazing and her digital media skills set is quite fantastic from all this training. But other times I’m quite like the anti-video game play Chinese citizenry you describe. I look forward to the discussion in class!

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