Moving to Japan
Cold jungle

Gee whiz

Gee2 Jim Gee loves video games because they're fun. That's the first thing you should know about one of the nation's leading voices for school reform and the foremost scholar on games and the lessons they have to teach us about learning and literacy. Of course, games are more than just fun (and "fun" is a big little word), but fun is where we start.

Gee visited Wabash College, where I teach, for three days last week and met with all comers: students, faculty, administrators, writing tutors...and, of course, gamers who simply wanted to shoot the breeze about games.

He's a 60-year-old whirlwind of erudite passion; an evangelist, of sorts, who believes that if we don't change the way we teach our kids soon, the world is headed to a very dark place. Games aren't the answer (and he spends a fair amount of time dispelling misconceptions of his work), but they do help point the way toward a system of engaged learning that clearly works, and he has loads of persuasive data to prove it.

Gee is a voracious gamer. His eyes light up when he talks about them, and he peppers his lectures and casual conversation with references to games that taught him to sit up and pay attention to this extraordinarily powerful and persuasive form of communication - games like Deus Ex and System Shock. And he points to games like Portal, Civ IV, and World of Goo to suggest that many of today's games are pedagogically more progressive and effective than the teaching found in most public schools.

Gee enjoys provoking listeners to examine their assumptions. He began his public lecture by asserting that Plato distrusted writing and would, perhaps, have preferred video games. "(Plato) had two major criticisms of writing in general. First, he believed that people learn through dialogue and through interaction, which is something writing is inherently unable to provide. Second, writing can get away from you, it can be interpreted in ways you didn't mean. You can't protect it. I feel that way about my writing at times." He went on to explore the interactive nature of games and noted, "Video games should be like a good conversation; they should talk back and interact with you, and that's how you learn from them."

On the other hand, Gee noted, players can mod many games, altering the "conversation" and even replacing the creator's content. Plato might not have liked that so much. :-)

The very best games, Gee observed, are extraordinarly effective teachers. He recalled reading the manual for Deus Ex and finding himself utterly flummoxed. The text read like gibberish, and nothing made sense to him. But when he played the game, he discovered the game itself taught him how to play, and it did so elegantly and efficiently. The game taught him what he needed to know at precisely the times he needed to know it, and his learning was immediately put to the test. The game itself assessed that learning and incentivized improvement. Later, when he picked up the manual, everything made sense to him. A surprisingly complex system was contextualized, and the manual elaborated and reinforced his in-game experience.

Gee claims we reverse this system to the detriment of our students. We say "read this textbook," and then we test students or try to illustrate its contents with exercises or experiments. Students have little motivation to read when they see no personal or practical motivation for doing so. Smart kids and teenagers, many of whom are marginal or failing students in public schools, are able to process complex systems of information in games like
Pokémon and World of Warcraft because they see a connection between learning and meaningful progress (Gee calls this "empathy for a complex system"). What's more, this kind of learning sticks; it doesn't evaporate after the exam.

Gee believes the form of schooling that dominates American public education, which privileges people who know a lot of facts but can't solve problems with them, is on its last legs. Video games offer a way of thinking about teaching that effectively combines learning and assessment. Gee addresses the subject like this:

All a video game is, is problem solving. If you think about it, in some weird way, a video game is just an assessment. All you do is get assessed every moment as you try to solve problems, and if you don't solve it, the game says "You've failed" and "Try again," and then you solve it and you have a boss, which is a test, and you pass the test.

I mean, games essentially are a form of assessment - the thing that is the most painful, ludicrous part of schooling - but in a video game it's fun because it's handled in a very different way.

Games don't separate learning from assessment. They don't say "Learn some stuff, and then later we'll take a test." They're giving you feedback all the time about the learning curve that you're on. So, they're not the only solution to this problem by any means, but they're a part of the solution of getting kids in school to learn not just knowledge as facts, but knowledge as something you produce; and in the modern world you produce it collaboratively.

I'm terribly grateful to Jim Gee for sharing his ideas with me, my colleagues, and students here. This wasn't one of those arrive, lecture, depart sort of visits. He graciously devoted himself to us, visiting classes, sharing meals - including a wonderful dinner with my RPG seminar students - and generally lighting a fire I hope we'll kindle for a long time to come.

If you'd like to see and hear Gee discuss his ideas in more detail, I recommend this recent interview on Edutopia.