On The Fence

I have always been on the fence about video games. I personally never ventured off further than an occasional game of Pacman with friends in the 90’s. I watched others in my family discuss the dangers of kids losing themselves in video games and their parents losing their wallets over purchasing those games.  The topic of video games was never a big issue to me until I had my children.  I tried my best to veer my son, Dylan, away from the world of video games.  I only chose the games that were “educational” and “healthy”, like the Smart Bike. I warned Dylan about becoming like his cousins, my sisters’ sons, who locked themselves in their bedrooms for hours playing their Xbox 360 and PlayStation.  I was doing very well until Dylan was hospitalized. He had to have an open-spine surgery, which rendered him in the hospital bed, flat on his back, for days. My family and I did not know the seriousness of his medical condition, which left us all in a panic mode. My sister ran off and bought him a Wii system. I went to BestBuy to him purchase a 3DS and an Ipad. My nephew drove up from Charlottesville to deliver his Xbox 360 for Dylan.  Thank goodness, Dylan’s surgery went well, but now I was faced with a recovering kid at home who was glued to these games.  I wish I had read James Paul Gee’s book, “What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy”, earlier.  I would have had many restful nights considering video games from an academic viewpoint. Clearly, Gee takes a positive view on computer games and tries to explore contribution of games by listing 36 learning principles found in games. He outlines the different chapters, which all draw on theories on learning and education.

Like Gee, I tried to share my son’s world by watching him play his video games.  Over time, Dylan slowly learned to improve his gaming skills.  Learning was not easy for him since he failed a great deal.  Unlike his school homework, Dylan did not give up on achieving the next level of the game. He started over again and again immediately after failing. He was relentless in his efforts to complete each game.  During his breaks he insisted that I played in his place.  Like Gee, I was not prepared to “learn and think in ways at which I was not then adept.” (Page. 4) Unlike Gee, I gave up! I shared the frustration experience with Gee, but I did not feel the “life-enhancing experience” that Gee underwent.  Maybe if I did not give up, if I spent hours playing the game, I too would refer to the game as “pleasantly frustrating”. That said, I do find Gee’s statement to be true, “The key is finding ways to make hard things life enhancing so that people keep going and don’t fall back on learning only what is simple and easy.” (Page 3)  Why is it that I gave up on transforming a difficult game into a life enhancing experience when Dylan does not stop to even question his option to quit the game or to buckle down and win the game?  Is it due to our age or generational difference? Is it due to our different social environment (Most of Dylan’s friends are engrossed in video games whereas none of my friends even think of playing games.)? Or, is it due to our different levels of interest and purpose?

In the chapter on Semiotic Domains, Gee argues that like other activities in life, computer games are a semiotic domain that you slowly learn over time. Gee believes that video games offer better opportunities for critical learning and problem solving and that computer games are definitely not a waste of time, because they are a germane domain.  Since Dylan began playing video games about a year ago, I notice an improvement in his reading skills (he is forced to read the instructions during the game and the communication between the characters in the games), in his thinking skills, and in his ability to sit still and focus on an assignment.

In the chapter on Learning and identity, Gee explains how computer games give new opportunities for learning experience and student engagement with the material. Computer games spark critical thinking and learning that matters. Since Dylan identifies with his environment in the game, he is that much more engaged in the learning experience. In the games, there are not real consequences for failure; if Dylan fails a level, he is encouraged to continue trying.  How can we create a learning experience for students keep them engaged in learning without the fear of failure?

Gee asserts in Situated Meaning and Learning chapter that video games are encouraging new forms of learning. Dylan interacts with the game world through exploring different ways to learn and to perceive things in a context. He builds on his prior knowledge (other games he played, reflecting on his successes and failures) with each new game he encounters. Learning cannot be complete without touching up on the Social Mind. Dylan is becoming a better gamer because he networks with better game players – his friends. This rich social environment around computer games, as Gee points out, is a form of peer learning that would be very beneficial in schools.

Gee attempts to analyze the learning structure of computer games, but he builds on theories from his field and does not dive deeper into real connection to existing research. For example, Gee is overly optimistic in his views of video games in relation to the violence in our society. I understand that the book was written in 2007 and is perhaps a bit outdated on some new research, but I am still on the fence about video games and violence. I believe that video games, such as the Grand Theft Auto, does impact our youth – they can become desensitized to violence if they are engaged in these types of games on a regular basis.

2 thoughts on “On The Fence

  1. cbrown30

    I’m not sure about desensitizing from playing violent games, but playing Grand Theft Auto probably teaches about police response times and the expected outcome for committing a crime. I played GTA and remember ‘dying’ many times, it did not make me think I could steal cars and get away with it.
    Hopefully your son is getting similar lessons from any violent game he plays.

    1. ssexton2 Post author

      Thank you for your input. I too hope that Dylan will realize that “playing” the games (he will not be playing any violent games anytime soon) does not translate into actually committing the crime. That said, desensitization occurs at a subconscious level, which makes it dangerous for some of the more emotionally unstable population. I personally have not played any of the games mentioned, but I have concerns as a parent where the violent video games are concerned – just as I would be concerned about my children watching R-rated films or TV shows.
      I have to say that today’s kids are much more technologically literate than I was years ago. My 22-month-old baby knew how to operate my IPhone and IPad months ago. That is a great thing!

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