Friday, April 15, 2005

Thoughts on Gee's Theory Of Educational Values of Video Games

In thinking about our game lab, it might be of interest to read some of James Paul Gee’s work.
Seeing as I did a presentation on him a couple of weeks ago, I thought I would share some of it in altered format.

Gee predominantly approaches video games through cognitive science, with the idea that humans are powerful pattern seekers that they base upon a shared understanding of their social surroundings. For Gee, video games engage learners in more effective ways than traditional learning methods, such as in the classroom. In What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy (Palgrave/Macmillan 2003) James Paul Gee’s main argument is therefore based on the idea that video games have intrinsic properties that allow for the development of newer, more intimate ways of learning and literacy. For Gee, video games use symbols, graphics, text and space in multiple ways, and are therefore better equipped to provide us better forms of learning and literacy in multimodal contexts.

More importantly, for Gee video games are “semiotic domains” – domains of learning in which we are given the opportunity to learn the rules of and be an insider to a specific lifeworld. Gee remarks that much of our learning based on the “problem of content” – the idea, passed down from Plato onward that knowledge is to be possessed first before any action can be undertaken, and the ensuing philosophical tradition of foundationalism which has sought to deny praxis over foundations of knowledge. (Harry already mentioned this in his post)

For Gee, the idea of content is important because it is the most leveled criticism at video game – that they do not teach us “content”. Gee says this is the wrong way of looking at literacy and learning if we are asking people to operate in the world as social actors. Gee says that video games are not so much concerned with teaching us content, but teaching us flexible strategies to read into social practices and engage with them as actors. For Gee video games are important, because they allows us to inhabit and interact with the rules of a semiotic domain as an insider. This decreases our dependency on “specialist” knowledge that denies us access to social power and instead makes us active producers within such semiotic domains..

According to Gee's theory, video games as semiotic domains encourage both “active learning” and “critical learning”, which he distinguishes as…
Active Learning – the ability to engage in a social practice/semiotic domain and learn from it.
Critical Learning – the ability to develop critical ways of thinking about the social practice/semiotic domain

In turn, Gee mentions three characteristic elements of semiotic domains in general that encourage “active learning”:

1-Experience – we experience the world in new ways and learn to operate in new ways
2-Affiliation – we gain a sense of affiliation with groups of people within a semiotic domain (i.e. we identify and joining up with the social practices of a semiotic domain)
3-Preparation – we are prepared to learn about the structures and rules of this and other semiotic domains, and apply the knowledge in future endeavors in flexible ways.

For “critical learning”, we need to develop a metalevel knowledge that encourages us to not merely instantiate the semiotic domain and its rules, but to innovate and produce new meanings and practices. This means that we need to develop an awareness of semiotic domains on an external – meaning the social practices associated with a specific domain of knowledge and internal level – the particular content and meanings attributed to a specific domain of knowledge – which influence each other.

Throughout his book, Gee develops the argument of how video games encourage us to be active producers versus passive consumers. Because video games demand our participation, they also encourage us to become a “producer” of their meanings – we have to make sense of the game before we can play it. This quality of a video game, in turn, will make us more critical consumers – we can make sense of the “social practices” of the game and become active producers as insiders/players.

Though Gee sees this as a great benefit, he wants to strike a balance between situated meaning and critical distance: “One key question for deep learning and good education, then, is how to get producer-like learning and knowledge, but in a reflective and critical way” (Gee, 2003, p.16). Because semiotic domains encourage us to inhabit them and reenact them, we are at risk of unquestioningly reifying their practices. Gee’s point is that video games allow us more latitude in interacting with social structures and practices.

In thinking about these issues, it’s good to connect this to the “how” of the work that we will be doing with the Learning Games Initiative. Can we encourage kids to engage with a video game, but recognize the social dialogues that have structured/produced it? Can we make them produce their own narratives of learning, social meaning making, all the while asking for critical distance? Can we encourage insider knowledge and identification while incorporating learning awareness? Can we promote literacy practices that prepare them well to enter a most likely multimediated and multimodal workplace? Moreover, can we bridge the gap between cyber-“insiders” and cyber “outsiders” without alienating the latter?

I believe part of the kids’ practices will need to be reflective, so in evaluating games we will need to ask them to write narratives about how they experience the game, “who” they are when they play the game, what connections they make between the gameworld and what they are doing in the “outside” world, as well as write on these experiences in a way that engages them to look beyond “just learning the rules” of the game. In a sense, we need to move them away from habituated thought and “twitch-based” gaming and towards conscientious engagement and questioning of game rules. Getting kids to write blogs will be a good idea, but also, giving them the opportunity to adapt a familiar story into a video game will allow them to construct and see the various elements of a video game as connected to elements of their social surroundings: agents/ actors, scene, environments, metanarratives etc. Hopefully we’ll have enough ways of doing so with the new lab..


At 10:09 PM, Blogger Barbara said...

You do a great job of summarizing Gee here, and raise great points about implementing strategies in the games lab. We need to pay attention to the many ways to evaluate games in an educational way -- beyond "did they learn the content" to include "how were they transformed?"


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