Context-Embedded Learning Part VIII: Indentity

This is part of the Context-Embedded Learning section of my dissertation lit review. It seems to me there should perhaps be even more of Gee in here…


As students develop situated and distributed understanding within a learning context, they are essentially exploring an identity within that context – a way of acting and thinking that is specific to the context and problems at hand. Constructivist educators purposefully and explicitly support the development of educationally beneficial identities by their students. Some modern constructivists strive to help students develop professional identities that may be useful in their adult future, particularly professional identities that emphasize sophisticated or innovative ways of thinking, doing, and problem solving.

Shaffer, Squire, and Gee (2005) believed that “the virtual worlds of games are rich contexts for learning because they make it possible for players to experiment with new and powerful identities” (p. 106). Shaffer articulates this well, with respect to his epistemic games:

“the ability of students to incorporate epistemic frames into their identities (or portfolio of potential identities) suggests a mechanism through which sufficiently rich experiences in technology-supported simulations of real-world practices (such as the games described above) may help students deal more effectively with situations in the real-world and in school subjects beyond the scope of the interactive environment itself.” (Shaffer, in press, p. 19)

Gee (2003) was most interested in the way that good games can facilitate learning by requiring players to take on a new identity and form “bridges from [their] old identities to the new one” (p. 51). He felt that “all deep learning – that is active, critical learning – is inextricably caught up with identity” (p. 51), and he tapped into the tradition of Piaget’s little scientists when he offered the example of “a child in a science classroom engaged in real inquiry, and not passive learning, [who] must be willing to take on an identity as a certain type of scientific thinker, problem solver, and doer” (p. 51). This concept he extended to the many roles that students might play in good role-playing video games, which he reported made him “think new thoughts about what [he as a player] valued and what [he] did not” (p. 56). He suggested that game designers and teachers “need to create a game-like biology world in which learners can act and decide as certain types of biologists” (Gee, 2005, p. 85) in order to help students become “authentic professionals [with] specific knowledge and distinctive values tied to specific skills gained though a good deal of effort and experience” (p. 51). Gee felt that good games can facilitate learning that “involves taking on and playing with identities in such a way that the learner has real choices” (p. 67).

Citing Gee, Shaffer (in press) identified three levels of identity that can be developed in a game: “the real identity of the player… the virtual identity of the character or role the player has in the game… [and] a third projective identity, which is the kind of character the player wants to be in the game” (p. 19). He also discusses the importance of developing possible selves in a game; “possible selves give form to a person’s hopes for mastery, power, status, or belonging, and to a person’s fears of incompetence, failure, and rejection” (Shaffer, 2006, p. 158). With his epistemic games, Shaffer aims to “give adolescents new possible selves that are based on authentic experiences with innovative thinking that matter in the world” (p. 158). This experience can also extend to selves that are impossible in the real world. As Lahti illustrated, “this becomes a safe way [for players] to try on being a different race or sex” (p. 168). Steinkeuher (2006a) studied the nuanced development of such new identities in MMORPGs in particular (both in and out of game identities), suggesting that MMORPGs too might be a medium in which students might develop meaningful new identities.

I’m seeking feedback on this writing, so please let me know what you think in the comments.