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Good Video Games and Good Learning: Collected Essays on Video Games, Learning and Literacy

reviewed by Angela McFarlane - September 25, 2007

coverTitle: Good Video Games and Good Learning: Collected Essays on Video Games, Learning and Literacy
Author(s): James Paul Gee
Publisher: Peter Lang Publishing, New York
ISBN: 0820497037, Pages: 173, Year: 2007
Search for book at Amazon.com

There can be no doubt that if one thing distinguishes contemporary childhood in the English speaking world from that experienced by contemporary parents, it is the variety and availability of leisure and communications technologies.  While parents grew up in a world where radio, TV and movies where commonplace, the PC was rare and the games console unknown. The phone was a thing wired to the wall and guarded closely by parents.  How different is the experience of the 21st century child. In a recent UK survey, children asked to define poverty suggested that this meant not owning a mobile phone.

The vast majority of children and young people have taken to digital technologies like the proverbial ducks to water, and one of their favorite pastimes is playing video games.  This is not, however, a practice entirely restricted to younger age groups – the ESA annual survey of the games market shows the average age of players increasing by about a year, each year and it is now well into the mid-30s. Nevertheless, many teachers and parents are not avid gamers, and may be wary of the time children in particular like to spend engaged with games.  Popular media repeatedly refer to computer games as ‘mindless’ and focus, often exclusively, on the issue of violence in games. Both these factors contribute to a general lack of understanding of an increasingly important element of youth culture.  

James Paul Gee has been engaged with digital game play for the last five years, introduced to games through his young son.  Gee is both an avid and adept gamer and an internationally renowned scholar.  Not only does he enjoy a reputation as a leading thinker and writer in the area of language and literacy, but he has now published his third book on the subject of computer games and learning. Good Video Games + Good Learning is a collection of 10 essays on aspects of games as important and powerful contexts for learning.  Each essay is an independent piece, which makes this a great book for dipping into, or for identifying readings for students.  The topics range from the importance of pleasure in learning and what we mean by good learning, to games as a new art form and the online affinity spaces created in and around digital gaming practices.  As always, Gee’s writing has a strong narrative which makes it a very satisfying read, while dealing with complex and sometimes controversial issues in a stimulating and thought-provoking way.

One of the first myths Gee challenges is that playing video games is easy.  Anyone who still believes this has clearly only been exposed to a very narrow range of the genre.  The games Gee concentrates on here are hard and complex, often requiring hours of play to complete – if indeed they have an end state which not all do.  As a result, the games themselves must be designed as good learning environments.  This is a theme Gee reprises here, having developed the idea very fully in an earlier book, What Video Games Have to Teach us about Learning and Literacy (Gee, 2003).

However, as with other potential learning experiences, whether game play is in fact good for you or not depends on the contexts in which you play as much as whether you play.  “Good video games are good for your soul when you play them with thought, reflection, and engagement with the world around you” (p. 8).  In order for this critical engagement with gaming, players clearly require access to and contact with people who can give them the stimulus to think and reflect, and a response to the sharing of the resulting ideas and observations.  This is one of the most compelling reasons that teachers and parents need to understand the world of game play. Without some understanding they can neither have these discussions with children themselves nor support them in their forays into the affinity groups of fellow games players.  

The most compelling chapter of this book for me is chapter 8, Affinity Spaces. Here Gee addresses one of the most recent developments in game play, the online game and game related experiences enacted in virtual spaces. Spaces inhabited not only by machine generated characters but also by characters that represent and are operated by other people.  These game environments, such as Second Life and World of Warcraft, are as varied as the off line game environments in their style and purpose.  The thing they have in common is that they are all massive, involve thousands if not tens of thousands of players, and have the added complexity and richness that human actions add over and above anything that can be pre-programmed.  A second form of game-related virtual space is that created by or for gamers in order to communicate with one another about their game related experiences.  In both types of space, people are getting involved because they have a common interest – to play the game, improve their play, or simply share their experiences.  Gee challenges the conceptualization of such spaces as ‘communities of practice’ in the Lave and Wenger sense of that term, and points out how they in fact differ from such communities quite starkly.  Given how widespread the use of this theoretical perspective has been in the scholarship of online learning generally, this critique is illuminating and helpful to any student of e-learning.  As Gee points out, “while Wenger has tried to be careful in delineating just what is and what is not a community of practice……the notion has been used by others to cover such a wide array of social forms that we may be missing the forest for the trees” (p. 88).

Such affinity spaces are undoubtedly sites of learning, and one with which many young people are very familiar. They are therefore well placed to compare and contrast their experiences in these spaces with those in school, and schools do not always come out well from the comparison. Gee argues that educators ought to make the same comparison.  This will of course require them to have or develop familiarity with the affinity space form, and to take a reflective stance to the way they manage learning in their own classroom or school.  Whether or not you accept Gee’s weighting of the merits of affinity spaces, the analysis alone is likely to be highly valuable.

For anyone still in doubt as to the relevance of video games to educators, they would be well advised to start this book by reading chapter 10. This chapter is based on a series of seminars looking at games and learning.  It is striking that the issues dealt with here have more to do with fundamentals of schooling than with games per se: Should we be instructing or guiding learners? Should we be modeling thinking and learning in knowledge building activities? Should we be re-examining the whole structure of schooling in the light of the demands of a knowledge society? So what does playing games have to do with any of this? Perhaps most compelling, given his standing in the world of literacy, is Gee’s call for games as a vehicle for promoting literacy that is relevant in an interconnected, multimodal world.

As Gee himself says, there is no substitute for actually playing the games, and simply reading about them is not enough. Any educator who wants to understand the experiences of young people in the world of games would be well advised to find the nearest available child, and get them to show you how to play their favorite game. But before you do that, it may be as well to dip into Gee’s admirable book to find out why you are doing this, and why it is so important.


Gee, J.P. (2003) What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy. New York: Palgrave/Macmillan.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: September 25, 2007
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 14621, Date Accessed: 1/20/2022 12:08:40 PM

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About the Author
  • Angela McFarlane
    University of Bristol
    E-mail Author
    ANGELA is currently Head of the Graduate School of Education at the University of Bristol. Her research interests include the role of e-learning in professional development, personal and mobile computing, computer games in learning and in particular the creative online learning communities they spawn. Angela is a member of the board of the UK government funded Teachers’ TV and Futurelab a blue skies research centre with the mission to innovate in education. She has experience of educational software development from concept to market and has designed and directed national UK research and evaluation projects on ICT and Learning. Angela also has a visiting chair at the University of Oslo. Current projects include a long term study of the effects of mobile computing in primary and secondary schools for the UK government agency for learning technology, and a study of learning in online communities with the BBC. She is a co-author of the TEEM report on games and learning, and a contributor to the Sage Handbook of E-Learning Research.
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