Book Review: What Video Games Can Teach Us About Learning and Literacy

literacySometimes it’s good to read something outside your area of expertise and comfort zone. WHAT VIDEO GAMES HAVE TO TECH US ABOUT LEARNING AND LITERACY is first about the academic study of learning and education, second about linguistics, and a distant third about video games. I’m only knowledgeable about one of those things, but I still got a lot out of it.

The author, James Paul Gee, is as of now a 67 year old linguistics professor at Arizona State University and he essentially writes what the book’s title promises: an exploration of what good game design suggests for improving classroom education. He explores how the way players tackle new identities is similar to what they need to do to learn from texts and classroom lessons, for example. He explains how video games take players through tutorial levels illustrates the best kind of contextual learning of new material. He describes how cultural norms and models of “good” behavior vary from group to group the same way they do in some video games. He describes how learning and problem solving in video games is distributed and social in nature, just like how it is in real life but unlike how it usually is in classrooms.

Gee, by his own admission, came to appreciate video games late in life and that colors some of his discussion of games. All his examples are dated at this point and there’s little perspective on recent changes in the gaming landscape, such as casual games, mobile games, or serious games. As such, you shouldn’t come looking for any examination of games as a larger cultural force or a discussion of how their design has evolved. Gee is firmly focussed on the topics of pedagogy, often viewed through the lens of linguistics. The terms and models he uses are highly academic and usually took careful reading on my part to grasp. But Gee spell is all out if you’re willing to pause and mouth the words to yourself when needed.

So while not for a casual or general audience, it’s a book that’s full of interesting ideas that I may take and borrow from, especially as they relate to identity, roles, social learning, and communication in video games. But what you won’t get is a recipe or checklist approach for gamifying learning or any other activity. It’s all theory and very little practice. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I enjoyed the book, but I am glad I read it.

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