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

By Abel Lopez

What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy by James Paul Gee, provides a 21st Century view on learning principles that “good” video games encompass and how gamers learn to play the game in a manner that facilitates real learning and meaning within a given context.  Gee identifies 36 learning principles that facilitate gamers (more importantly students) to be actively and critically immersed in the learning process and provides detailed examples of how “good” video games incorporate the learning principles into their storylines and implies that educators parallel what game designers are doing in their instruction in the classrooms.  Throughout the book Gee argues…that reading and writing should be viewed not only as mental achievements going on inside people’s heads, but also as social and cultural practices with economic, historical, and political implications (Gee p.9).

Gee does not attempt to define what “good” video games are by how society views them in terms of violence and ratings, instead Gee defines them as “good” if they encompass the learning principles that allow the gamers to learn without knowing they are learning within a given embedded situation.  For example, the game Deus Ex embodies what Gee calls the Multiple Routes Principle in which the player can decide…on multiple ways to progress with in the game, rely on their own strengths and styles of learning and problem solving, while also exploring alternative styles (Gee p.105). Teachers can use this principle by conducting lessons that allow the students to learn there are multiple means to an end and not solely rely on how the textbook explains it. Another game Gee identifies as “good” is System Shock 2; this game encompasses what Gee calls the Transfer Principle, which allows the gamer (more importantly students) to transfer knowledge from what they have learned earlier to situational problems that will occur in the future as well, adapting and transforming what was learned earlier in a given context.  Gee succeeds in explaining his 36 principles using “good” video games by providing excellent prior knowledge for each game he identifies as “good” and then explaining how the game encompasses the specific learning principles.

Gee uses “good” video games along with what schools are doing today as a catalyst for creating an awareness of how policymakers are structuring the curriculum to keep the elite in power.  Unfortunately, such children are often the ones who get literacy in school completely detached from anything otherwise meaningful to them, as they are skilled-and-drilled to death (Gee p.90) Gee cleverly uses the game Deux Ex in several of his examples and the game’s story line, coincidentally or not, have the elite in power administering the cure to the Grey Death only to politicians, dignitaries and billionaires, keeping the minorities in the dark and allowing them to die.

In summation, What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy by James Paul Gee, provides an excellent source of information directed to educators, parents, policy makers, and schools in order for them not to view the act of playing video games as a waste of time. Policy makers and educators need to understand how the games are designed and how they allow the players to actively and critically participate in learning to play the game without any fear of failure!

 Works Cited

Gee, James Paul. What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.


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