To live the experience vicarious: gaming, reading, and the reading of games

I am not a gamer.
As a child of the 80s, this has always been a significant self-identification for me. In terms of its descriptive value, it ranks right up there with “child of divorce,” “coffee over tea,” and “lover of cake” as a way of communicating my identity. When I was younger, I thought there was something wrong with me for failing to appreciate the games that held universal appeal to members of my generation. I’ve had my hands on the controls maybe a half-dozen times in my life, though I’ve spent countless hours watching, with varying levels of engagement, my friends play video games. For some reason, it just never took. I could recognize that certain games had great visual styles and graphics or that others followed an interesting storyline but I never had any desire to play the games myself. I was pleased to note, then, that Gee’s What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy not only helped me understand how video games encourage learning but also helped me to connect the experience of gaming with an interest more relevant to me personally: reading.

Early on in the book, Gee convolutedly states: “[Video games] situate meaning in a multimodal space through embodied experiences to solve problems and reflect on the intricacies of the design of imagined worlds and the design of both real and imagines social relationships and identities in the modern world” (40-41). Blah blah blah. What he means, in essence, is that if people learn best through experience, what better way could we learn than by experiencing for ourselves a variety of identities, actions, and events? If we learn best through experience, the most intelligent among us will be those who have had the most experiences and who have been able to reflect critically on both the situations and our own role within them.

This notion, which I caught myself thinking of as “vicarious experience,” is the basis for Gee’s defense of video games and it has helped me to recognize part of the reason why these games never appealed to me. I am not immune to the charms of vicarious experience: rather, I have used (and continue to use) reading as a way of indulging in multiple different personas and experiencing situations and events deeply removed from my everyday life. Although there are many differences between the execution of these skills, reading and gaming both offer vicarious experiences and the opportunity to reflect on both content and form in a way that leads to metacognitive understanding.

While I have never really considered video games a waste of time, I am guilty of failing to recognize their appeal. By connecting the basic goals and skills of gaming with the textual literary skills I am more familiar with, Gee has enhanced my understanding of the value of both interests.

3 thoughts on “To live the experience vicarious: gaming, reading, and the reading of games

  1. mdavidow

    I’m thinking of a Kenneth Burke quote stating literature is valuable because it gives us an opportunity for “imaginative rehearsal.” Maybe vicarious (or virtual) experience takes this idea a step further.

  2. Joy Wagener

    I am not a gamer either and, like you, I have always failed to understand what the appeal is all about. Instead of using ones thumbs to play, why not use one’s whole body and go outside? Why not build a fort instead of place an avatar inside one and look for “points”, or whatever. However, I do see the value in this “vicarious experience” business. It is very similar to getting lost in a book. I hadn’t thought like that before. Thanks for bringing it up!


  3. eallen5

    I, too, am not a gamer, but am reasonably familiar with the concept of simulation as it relates to training military personnel. I think where video games part with books as vicarious experience is in the realms of decision-making and working through solutions to problems or challenges. While books offer us countless opportunities to interpret, discuss and argue meaning and significance, video games help hone problem-solving approaches. Both skills sets are extremely valuable. What they do have in common, as Lindsay points out so well, is that they present forms of alternate realities for players and readers.

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