Category Archives: Week 7 – Gaming

fads and trends

About five years ago, I had an Asian student in my English 111 class at Nova.  He was a quiet, attentive student, who occasionally dozed off, but generally, started the semester strong.  After a few weeks he started skipping class and stopped turning in work.  When I finally saw him, I kept him back for a few minutes after class and asked if everything was ok.  He was failing the course and I wanted to see whether he was willing to get back on track, or if he would drop.  He confided to me that he had an addiction – a video game addiction.  He never slept, instead he played games all the time – all night, all day.  He had already failed out of VCU and he was mortified to admit this.  Worse, he was in danger of failing out of Nova – which would multiply the humiliation dramatically.  Given his ethnicity, and the pressure from his parents, as he explained it, he was in big trouble.  In his words “An Asian kid failing Nova is pathetic”.

This left a really strong impression on me and I’ve never forgotten him.  Before that I hadn’t encountered the truly debilitating impact that gaming can have on young people.  This young guy had no control over his life.  While I’ve bought my fair share of games and own the latest gaming system, I just don’t buy the connections that Gee is trying to make:  teachers could be capturing students by incorporating elements and strategies of gaming.  I see socializing via the Xbox, but I see it in real life too.  I see scaffolding and planning a strategy in Xbox, but they are already there in real life too.  I creativity in Xbox, but it’s already there in real life too.  My point is that whatever skills kids are using in their games, they are already using them in life – in fact, they learned them in their real life.

I am not going to use video gaming ideals in my college teaching.  And I’m not sure I would want to even see an elementary school teacher using gaming.  It all seems a bit trendy to me – and many of these would-be trend setters don’t address the negative impacts of gaming.  Now the newest trend is figuring out a way to apply some of the strategies kids are already employing in their gaming, to the classroom.  However, I think the classroom should push students out of their comfort zone, out of their virtual worlds if need be, and engage them meaningfully in the real.

I am very much in favor of using different technologies in my classrooms, but all assignments are intentional acts of creation, with editing and revising, team work and presentation.  These are also acts that students might be using in their favorite video game. But I don’t see that it’s necessary for me to draw those parallels for students – it seems quite unnecessary, to me.  And I feel absolutely no compulsion to join the trend.

Shallow End of the Pool, but No Floaties, or: Robert Talks At Length About Videogames

Foreword: I would just like to say that it has been extremely hard for me to write this blog post without geeking out over the particular videogames that were used as examples. This is primarily because many of them are my absolute favorite games, and because the arguments about video games being a “waste of time” are almost verbatim what I experienced growing up. The Tomb Raider (particular TR1 and TR4/Last Revelation . . . the whole Von Croy sequence was a long-running inside joke between my friends and me), Sonic the Hedgehog, Half-Life, Elder Scrolls, and System Shock (and their spiritual successors, Bioshock) series pretty much defined my childhood and adolescence. So please forgive me as I try not to ramble.

One of the most interesting synch-ups Gee makes between videogames and the learning process is in “Telling and Doing”, Chapter 5, regarding tutorial levels. He explains that the videogames he played and observed contained either explicit or implicit tutorial sequences that taught the player the rules of the game and essentially put them in the shallow end of the pool to muck about before pushing them toward deeper water. They begin relatively easily, even as they set up the premises of the game and its characters, plot, and atmosphere, and gradually give way to more and more challenging levels and tasks that assume your accumulated expertise. That doesn’t mean that the tutorials are always necessarily cakewalks (though some certainly are, as in Half-Life, where the tutorial is entirely separate from the main game), or that they are always necessary (if you’re an already experienced player, why can’t you just skip the “how to play” bits?), but they are always there for first-timers or people who have fallen out of practice, and they ultimately help a broader audience connect with the game.

So too do we have “tutorials” for teaching literature. Even the best English student in 9th grade will be lost if you stick Ulysses, or even A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man, in front of him. You have to give him “Araby” first. And then “The Dead”. And so on, and so forth. That doesn’t mean that “Araby” is an easy piece to work with by any means, or that it is lacking in quality; quite the contrary, it’s one of the best stories ever written, and it’s relatively dense and difficult compared to, say, Animal Farm by George Orwell, which is dense and difficult in relation to other things, etc. But generally speaking, I’ve noticed a trend, at least with my education, of teachers prefacing longer, more difficult works with shorter, more accessible ones that contain the same qualities and patterns as those we might be expected to look for in the longer work (think: game controls and environments). It is important to challenge a reader, but not to destroy them. Don’t give them Orlando first; give them Mrs. Dalloway. Don’t give them Ninja Gaiden first; give them Super Mario Bros. They will surely have trouble with anything you give them if they’ve never read a book/played a videogame before, but some things act as tutorials that challenge without the intimidation of failure (even though failure is definitely still possible).

It is interesting then, to note that games in the 80s (and before) often did not have tutorial levels or tutorials of any sort at all. If you happened to play on an arcade cabinet, they would have a “demo” screen showing some pre-programmed circumstances in the game, and labels for the controls in front of you, so you could get some sense of what you would be expected to do. Beyond that, they threw you straight into the deep end, and you got better by continually putting quarters into the machine every time you died; obviously, this was done to make as much money off of the cabinets as possible, and (I would hope) is nothing like how we would want to approach teaching literature and reading skills. Conversely, we now have a phenomenon where games essentially refuse to end their tutorials; rather than escorting the player through the basics in the context of the game at the very beginning, many games now are guilty of “hand-holding”. For example, a game might continually prompt players to press the ‘E’ key in order to perform an action that they’ve performed thousands of times before, all the way up until the very end of the game, even though the player has known how to do that since 5 minutes into the game. It’s seen as “dumbing down” the games for a wider audience, and that could be analogous to teaching literature as well: if you assign students to read Hamlet, you should not expect to have to walk them, step-by-step, through the entire play. Ideally they’ll have had a “tutorial” of some sort with a previous play, and then a “refresher” with the beginning of Hamlet, but after a certain point, they can be expected to lead themselves, and have the game/instructor simply provide the framework and occasional game over/correction when necessary. Arin Hanson, an online game reviewer, voice actor, and comedian who goes by the name “Egoraptor”, famously criticized games for hand-holding and analyzed (in an effective, nuanced, hilarious, and extremely profanity-laden, adults-only manner) the phenomenal implicit tutorial of the first level of Megaman X, a game for the Super Nintendo, and used that analysis to point out flaws in newer games that “hand-hold” players through the entire game, depriving them of the challenge and learning experience that the game might otherwise provide, which in turn deprives them of the fun and enrichment they would have*.

What I’m trying to say with all of this is that there seems to be a balanced approach to teaching literature, the same way there is a balanced approach to setting up a videogame. Not every book requires the same style of tutorial, nor the same depth or length tutorial, but generally speaking, we should be able to provide one as instructors. Feeding answers and interpretations to students beyond a certain point becomes “hand-holding”; it defeats the purpose of reading in the first place, and prevents students from coming up with their own skillsets for a particular work and transferring those skillsets to other works.

*For those of you wondering, the review is called “Sequelitis: Mega Man Classic vs. Mega Man X”, and it’s great but, once again, it’s incredibly profane, so viewer discretion is advised.

Video Games and Different kinds of Literacy

The most interesting idea that James Paul Gee mentions, for me, is the idea that ‘literacy’ extends beyond reading and writing; that there are different kinds of literacy. This is not a new idea to me, but one that I was happy to encounter here, as it is not an idea seen very often. Video games have their own kind of literacy, a system of operating and language unique to them as both a semiotic domain and as individual games.
On a broader level, we encounter any number of different ‘languages’ in our daily lives and manage them with very little trouble because we’ve learned to be literate in them: the ability to understand road signs is a great example. TO someone who’s used to driving (or just encountering on the road) American signage, the system of symbols is perfectly clear and requires very little thought because it’s become second nature. But put the same person in a foreign country (Japan, for instance), and the signs are different and confusing. Some look similar and mean the same thing, some are completely different, and some look the same but mean something else; you become functionally illiterate in an area you thought you understood.
We’ll probably encounter more on this as we get into Nat Turner but reading comics is an entire language in and of itself, requiring a completely different style of reading from, say, a novel. The way information is presented and processed works differently, and someone who had never encountered a comic before might not be able to follow the action from panel to panel.
Getting back to video games, I was literate in them maybe twenty years ago. I could do fairly well at games on the NES or Sega, or in an arcade. I now own an XBox and find myself struggling to master any of the games that I have for it. There are three times as many buttons on the controller, the games are all more complex and expansive than anything I played as a child, and the skills that I learned then have atrophied. These all become factors in my frustration with modern video games, but I continue to try because I value the entertainment they give me, and maybe I just might learn something else while I’m at it, too. Many of the games require complex problem-solving skills, something I’ve always been fairly good at and a skill that is nothing new to video games. Years of playing the various King’s Quest games on old desktop computers taught me the kinds of solutions that are often required in similar games, and that’s knowledge that does transport over to newer games. Similarly, those lateral thinking skills have also served me well in the real world, helping me to “think outside the box” and find creative solutions to problems that I face in more mundane circumstances.

Now What?

I really wanted to like this book, What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, and in some ways I did, but in other ways I felt like I was left asking, “Now what?”  Maybe this is a problem with my expectations about the book rather than any real problem with it.  I can buy into one of James Paul Gee’s premises: video games are not necessarily a waste of time, they can actually provide a powerful learning experience that is, in some ways, more authentic or valuable than a lot of school learning experiences.
I hadn’t really ever thought about video games and the power of literacy, so Gee does push me to give credit where I previously hadn’t in the arena of video games.  I particularly found myself doing this in the early chapters of his book, and I was on board with what he was saying in Chapter 2—“we can say that people are literate in a domain if they can recognize and/or produce meanings in the domain” (20).  I’m certainly not literate in the domain of video games, and that’s likely how some of my students feel about arenas where I expect literacy.  Gee’s learning principles for this chapter, which deal with understanding and thinking critically about a subject and the necessity of knowing how to be literate in a certain domain are solid educational principles.
In fact, all of his learning principles are solid principles, and that he makes a strong case for the way they are all found in video games.  But, this is where I have the problem: what do I do with that information?  I don’t think that Gee is advocating the abandonment of any kind of traditional literacy by replacing it completely with video games.   I don’t even think he’s necessarily advocating bringing video games into schools so that all students are required to play them.  I think he’s making solid points like: “[Video games] lower the consequences of failure…players are encouraged to take risks, explore, and try new things” (216).  I would not argue with this being a sound educational principle or that video games do this.  What I’m struggling with is this: most educators would already agree that we need to create a safe environment for students to take risks.  It’s what Blau talked about extensively.  Gee makes many good points about what video games can do: create strong identities, allow students to make choices, encourage them to explore and go back and do recursive thinking.  And he says that schools should do this too, and he’s right.  But here’s where I get stuck: how? This is where maybe I want something out of this book that it was never trying to provide.  Maybe it is intended to be largely theoretical rather than practical, but I’m struggling with that too because of the many, many specific examples Gee provides about specific video games without specific examples of how to translate that to the classroom beyond just the idea that we should translate it to the classroom.

Learning – Or Not Learning – How to Drive (What Would Lara Croft Do?)

The fact that at age sixteen I failed to learn how to drive a car has handicapped my life activities and my mobility. To friends and associates, I apologize awkwardly, “I’m afraid this is a phobia. Behind the wheel, I have no coordination. I can’t do it.” All over the world, I have paid the price for taxis and often risky public transportation, and blamed myself for my shortcoming. (You’re a weirdo, Mimi. Everyone drives, even the Micronesians do it on their little Pacific islands. Why can’t you do this?)

Suddenly, James Paul Gee turns on the light, particularly with his chapter on “Telling and Doing.” He illuminates how a flawed learning experience can impair one’s self-identity and ability to integrate knowledge and skills; he shines a light on another model. Instantly, like in a video game, I can peel back the years (rather, the decades) and better understand what happened to my driving. Video heroine Lara Croft, who pushed back on her mentor Von Croy and figured out other ways to gain the competencies she needed, had not yet appeared when I was learning – or not learning – how to drive.

In my high school, the Drivers Ed program piled on “overt information” about road signs, car signals, speed limits and how to calculate distance between vehicles and change a tire. Then we did two scary sessions behind a wheel among some orange stanchions. I knocked them down. With a laminated Learner’s Permit in my wallet, it was time for Dad to take me out on the road.

“You’re an idiot!” he hollered. “Driving isn’t difficult. Don’t you understand how to make a left turn? Slow down, slow down!” My father was a scientist, a superb driver and a very logical and intimidating man. Maybe he didn’t realize I hadn’t learned the basics, like steering, accelerating and applying my foot progressively to the brake. At the end of our second lesson, Dad took the wheel to drive home. “I can’t take any more of this,” he said. I agreed.

Mom told me not to worry. Somehow we would get through the driver’s test together. In fact, the written test was a breeze. It was easy to memorize all that stuff in the manual. Unfortunately, I failed the operational segment three consecutive times. On the fourth try, an angel seemed to guide the wheel, as I glided through a parallel parking exercise within an inch of perfection. “That’s the way she always does it,” Mom declared to the policeman. “She was just nervous all those other times.”

With my driver’s license in hand, I took my Mom’s Pontiac (my Dad had banned me from his Cadillac) and proceeded to suffer three accidents in the next two months, including a fender bender at the Hot Shoppes drive-in, a failure to check the mirror before changing lanes on Rockville Pike, and damage to another vehicle in the parking lot of Montgomery Mall.

It never occurred to me, especially as a tearful adolescent, that I needed other learning strategies, that I might challenge my parents, or return to the basics and transfer theories into better driving practices step-by-step. I was no Lara Croft. My “projective identity” became that of a lifelong pedestrian.  Stepping back now and considering innovative ways to engage learners actively, in context and from the bottom up, I realize that the way we learn can make a profound difference in our lives. Frankly, that is why I want to be a teacher – even if I have to walk to school.


Videogames, Identity, and Learning

Response – Week 7

Robb Garner

I found James Paul Gee’s book to be absolutely wonderful.  I say this as a person who would certainly not identify themselves as a gamer.  I (still) believe video games are a massive waste of time, but I admit I do, on occasion, get a big kick out of beating my friends at a game of virtual soccer and then lecturing them on my manifest greatness.  At any rate, there are a number of passages I’d like to respond to and I’ll try and limit myself to a few and be concise about it.

To me, Gee’s learning and identity section (chapter three) was the most profound.  I found it to be the most crucial to his argument (identity being an essential element—if not indistinguishable from—a person’s relationship/indebtedness to their culture) as well as the most illuminating.  His description of playing Arcanum had such a direct parallel to learning: “Your adventures in Arcanum start with catastrophe… Your quest begins… By the time you finish, your character is very different” (p.48).  In the classroom, you have a problem, the assignment is to finish it, and hopefully a conclusion that alters your thinking / knowledge in some way.  Gee expands this concept into the four-stage “probe/hypothesize/reprobe/rethink” education process, which applies to both children and “expert practitioners” (p.92).  As an undergrad I studied the epistemology of Lonergan (in Catholic circles he is a famous philosopher) and much of his theories on how and why a person acquires knowledge are a facsimile of this same basic formula.  I found this really impressive.  I remember reading that Gee is Catholic, so maybe this is not by mistake.  I was also very taken with the insight that students want to—or can be encouraged to—take on the identity “they are playing” in the classroom (p.62).  I wonder if any studies have been done to test whether or not a student’s ability to assume the role of “scientist” (to use his example) increased if the student were to don a white labcoat every time he/she engaged in some scientific activity.  I feel like I would have liked that very much as a child; it would have been like playing scientist rather than doing biology (ick).  Maybe we should just give kids cloaks and tell them that grammar is language magic?

For a book with such a radical title, Gee’s method and argument were balanced and self-aware.  His notes on progressive pedagogies (p. 137-138) that do not “set a good foundation for later learning,” is a good example of this.  For me, though, he glossed over the fact that a great number of gamers are not “good gamers,” that a lot of people who play video games play them “the wrong way.”  An example of this might the latent gamer who enjoys video games solely and arrogantly as a competitive platform.  But it seems to me that if video games do indeed recreate the learning process in such a profound and direct way than the development of the “bad gamer” must have some greater insight as well.  In particular, I wish Gee touched on the addictive nature of videogames.  Gamers become (and have a reputation for becoming) possessed—they become inundated in their games in a way that is normally reserved for eccentrics like the mad scientist or self-destructive writer.  When Gee says that the potential for video games is as great as our awareness of their cognitive impact is small, I wonder what kind of a response research into the latter would make to Gee’s claims about the former.  Is learning addictive?  Or is only this hyper-visual split-second powerfully-created-fantastical-world of magnificent stimuli addictive?  Can we reduce their possessive capacity to identity?…  If I had to, I’d posit that good video games create an environment where our inherent “desire to know” (this is Lonergan) is indeed stimulated in a way that facilitates learning along the staves our cognition is inherently tuned to—but that this stimulation engages us at some cognitive level (I lack the proper vocabulary to shape / articulate this thought) that is disturbingly similar to addiction.  The relationship between videogames and THC is also a phenomenon that needs to be researched.  Ask a 16 year old about being high and assuming the role of whoever the character is in the latest GTA.  I mention all this because even the “poor video player,” the one that doesn’t learn, explore, or build—but does repeatedly (the ubiquitous Call of Duty player)—nevertheless engages in the virtual, social, and personal identities that a videogame presents.  Even the “bad gamer” takes pride in his virtual virtuosity, an interest in his character, and displays an effort to enter the virtual by way of the physical.  For many young men, this is putting on a gasmask that has been converted into a bong or some other small teleportational amulet.  I don’t know why I find this so fascinating, but it seems an insight worth harking on: Interest and identity seem to be the inextricable core of Gee’s theory on learning.  Finally, I think you could take a lot of Gee’s study and rethink it in regards to lifting weights.  I think Gee would agree with this.  There’s a brilliant universe there too, and it is one populated by a stereotype which oddly parallels that of videogames.

I appreciate that Gee points out that gamers, far from being social recluses, are extremely social individuals who simply operate within a society separate from the one that identifies them as antisocial.  Gee calls gamers an affinity group, I believe, but “the group” is too large and the dedication too great for either “affinity” or “group”; gaming is a society and it has a language, practice, and economy to verify it.  My mother’s best friend’s son (I know that is a mouthful) is one of these guys; I’m pals with him, and I have to credit him with opening me up to not only this reality but to a number of different perspectives.  Unlike my friends who spend a massive amount of time playing videogames—most of it high—and who are part of this culture passively, Jake is involved in all the ways Gee praises; he builds, comments, refines, reflects, and most importantly engages.  The exchange between cultures when one of my friends and Jake get to playing online is hilarious.  Like most male banter, it is largely profane and occasionally endearing.  To me, it serves as further evidence of Gee’s claims on identity and culture.  Like high school though (and I totally agree with Gee’s “pessimistic” description of America’s public education), I’m afraid most people are too fucked up to get the message.

I am not a gamer.

At the height of “cool” amongst my friends, I owned a Gameboy in the 90’s and had three games—Super Mario, something involving Krusty the Clown from The Simpsons, and one of the Kirby games.  I played Mario to the end, but never got into the other two.  I played this handheld game for maybe two or three years, then never touched it again.  I couldn’t even say where it is now—somewhere in a dusty retirement.  Just two years ago, my husband and I received a Wii for Christmas (regardless of the fact that I was vocally opposed to receiving one as the holiday season ramped up).  I can count on one hand how many times we’ve turned it on in the last two years.  We are not gamers—nor are we interested in spending any time on them with friends or family when we attend parties. So, when I started reading Gee’s book, I was very skeptical that video games had any power to teach, and honestly still am.

While I don’t disagree with Gee  that video games have a very large capacity to teach and reach players through developing skills such as role playing, critical thinking, multi-modal literacy, and exploration, I think there are equally legitimate ways of learning that don’t involve children (or adults) sitting inside on their behinds, and getting dizzy with too much screen time.   Gee says, “learning encourages exploration, hypothesis testing, risk taking, persistence past failure, and seeing ‘mistakes’ as new opportunities for progress and learning” (37). He references in this part of the book that a game called Pikmin is perfect for teaching these skills; however, wouldn’t going outside and using one’s imagination also practice these skills (and  be healthier)? How about meeting up with a few friends and building a fort, pretending to be knights of the highest order?  Sure, video games can offer a different environment to learn and grow, but I think Gee is a little one-sided. He says his argument on video games is “a plea to build schooling on better principles of learning” (9), which seems to assume that schools have no pedagogy, no idea what all this teaching is building up to, or how to effectively reach students.  This offends me.

But this is not to say that I disagree with everything Gee is arguing.  He convinced me that students who spend many hours playing games – even violent ones—are NOT wasting time.  I now understand that there is a lot of value in playing games, many of which are more complicated and thoughtful than I had originally believed. The story lines encourage multi-modal learning.  However, what bothers me about these students playing for hours on end or even all night is that they then come to school without their homework completed or without enough sleep to keep their eyes open in my class.  This, I think, is why I came into this book with such a negative attitude towards video games.  I couldn’t see beyond the games as obstacles to learning what I wanted them to learn.  Instead, I need to figure out a way to incorporate gaming into my classroom.  But how?