OK, I’ll admit I’m clueless when it comes to video games. When I was young, our neighbors across the street acquired the revolutionary game of Pong, a version of tennis played on the TV screen. Awed by the sheer majesty of two moving lines and a little ball (along with the weird little “boop” sound effect), I tried once, twice, thirty times to volley the ball back to my opponent – and failed. (Auth. note: I suck at video games, even prehistoric ones.) So I opted out of the video game world, puny as it was back then, and never got back in as it grew more vivid, violent, clever, profitable and deeply engrossing (for others) than I could have ever imagined. Today, anything I know about video games stems from my teenage son’s love for them.
That said, I’m not hostile to the games or dismissive about their potential to help kids gain useful skills beyond eye/hand coordination. I thought the vast majority of Gee’s points about the ways video games address key principles of learning and literacy were valid. I especially liked his point about the “psychosocial moratorium” principle, wherein students can take risks in a low-consequence environment. I like the idea that learners can try out new ideas and approaches to problems, but also know that they can “save” a game if they get stuck, think about it and come back anew, hopefully with fresh ideas. And the committed learning principle, I think, is an incredibly important aspect of video games’ contributions. By virtue of their appeal to a large number of people, utilizing the games in some kind of learning capacity increases the chance that learners might stick with a subject longer and with great focus (one can hope). I like the way taking on an identity in a game and learning the semiotics involved parallel adopting an identity in the classroom (as a junior scientist, mathematician, psychologist, etc.) and learning the language, processes and behaviors that are employed.
Where I think Gee fell short is not making his book about the case for the educational value of video games … well, fun. That’s the place where the motivation to play video games comes from, isn’t it? Certainly, Gee’s work would have served its readers even better with some illustrations from the games he discussed and some more concrete suggestions of how video games might be employed inside a classroom environment (or outside, as part of an assignment). Beyond being aware of how their design and content aids learning, I think it would be great to use them as learning tools. I realize that Gee notes that this was not the primary goal for this book – I would argue that it should have received significant attention.
For my part, I am fully in favor of marshaling as many different kinds of media and entertainment pastimes as possible in the pursuit of learning: books (fiction, nonfiction, graphic novels, comic books, etc.), websites, Facebook, Twitter, music, movies, television, radio, video games, board games, card games, and whatever else we can get our hands on. Far from Gee’s fear of “co-opting” youth culture, it is an acknowledgement that this is the world our students – and we – live in. When we find ways to approach learning that capitalize on learners’ interests, we can make lessons more immediate, meaningful and, yes, fun.