James Paul Gee, Video Games, and Support for Learning

Here is the bit I’ve composed today on what Gee had to say about using video games as learning support.

In addition to be interested in the way good games can provide a context for learning, opportunities for inquiry, and a framework for collaboration, Gee is also interested in the additional support games can offer for active critical learning.

Motivation is one of the key support elements games can provide, and Gee (2003) called good teaching and learning a matter of three things: enticing the learner to try, to put in lots of effort, to achieve some meaningful success (p. 61-62). He began Why Video Games are Good for Your Soul with a discussion of the motivating pleasures even simple games such as Tetris can bring a player (Gee, 2005, p. 13). He went on to say that “cognitive science… has shown quite clearly that feeling and emotion are not peripheral to thinking and learning” (p. 30), and that “if learners are to learn… deeply… then they need to feel and care about the world… in which they are playing” (p. 30). An interactive game space can offer “rewards from the beginning, customized to each learner’s level, effort, and growing mastery and signaling the learner’s ongoing achievements” (Gee, 2003, p. 67).

A game space, as opposed to a real space, may also allow learners to take risks where consequences are lowered (p. 67). Gee wrote about a “Regime of Competence” (p. 71) when he explained that good games allow learners to “operate within, but at the outer edge of, his or her resources, so that at those points things are felt as challenging but not ‘undoable’” (p. 71). Later he reverted to Vygotsky’s term, the “Zone of Proximal Development” (Gee, 2004, p. 66), and illustrated how games can “help learners (players) pull of more than they could on their own and yet still feel a sense of personal accomplishment” (Gee, 2004, p. 66). Gee even expected a game to be “pleasantly frustrating” (Gee, 2005a, p. 26) such that “learners feel – and get evidence – that their effort is paying off in the sense that they can see, even when they fail, how and if they are making progress” (p. 26). Also, because “people don’t like practicing skills out of contest over and over” (p. 27), good games allow learners to “see a set of related skills as a strategy to accomplish goals they want to accomplish” (p. 27).

Gee (2003) was also interested in the ability of games to provide early learning situations that lead to “generalizations that are fruitful for later stages” (p. 137). He later wrote about the need for well-ordered problems that lead learners “to solutions that work well, not just on [the current] problems but as aspects of the solutions to later, harder problems” (Gee, 2005a, 26). In contrast, he also expected good games to allow learners to practice skills “until they are nearly automatic, then [to have] those skills fail in ways that cause the learners to have to think again and learn anew” (p. 27) in cycles of expertise. In addition, virtual contexts can provide a greater amplification of input for the learner; in other words, “for a little input, learners get a lot of output” (Gee, 2003, p. 67). Because of these elements, and because of the tireless replayability of a game (as opposed to a teacher who may quickly tire of explaining things more than once), games can offer learners “a context where the practice is not boring” (p. 71) so that “they spend lots of time on task” (p. 71). Learners should also be given “ample opportunity to practice, and support for, transferring what they have learned earlier to later problems, including problems that require adapting and transforming that earlier learning” (p. 138).

Though one of the benefits of games is that they can provide an authentic context for student tasks, they can also provide support within this context, such that “learning even at its start takes place in a (simplified) subset of the real domain” (Gee, 2003, p. 137). This Gee (2003) called the Subset Principle (p. 137), and later “fish tanks” (2004, p. 61 and 2005a, p. 27), “supervised fish tanks” (2004, p. 65), “supervised sandboxes” (p. 66), “unsupervised sandboxes” (p. 70), and simply “sandboxes” (2005a, p. 27), but this might have been called a microworld by Papert and others. In a well-designed microworld, learners will see, “especially early on, many more instances of fundamental signs and actions than would be the case in a less controlled [context]” (Gee, 2003, p. 137).

Because “human beings are quite poor at using verbal information (i.e. words) when given lots of it out of context and before they can see how it applies in actual situations” (Gee, 2005a, p. 27), perhaps the most obvious form of support a game world can provide learners is the availability of “information both on-demand and just-in-time, when the learner needs it or just at the point where the information can best be understood and used in practice” (Gee, 2003, p. 138).

Thanks for reading.


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