Women and Gaming: The Sims and 21st Century Learning

reviewed by Heather Mendick - September 21, 2010

coverTitle: Women and Gaming: The Sims and 21st Century Learning
Author(s): James Paul Gee and Elisabeth R. Hayes
Publisher: Palgrave/MacMillan, New York
ISBN: 0230623417, Pages: 216, Year: 2010
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In Women and Gaming: The Sims and 21st Century Learning James Paul Gee and Elizabeth R. Hayes focus on women engaging with The Sims computer games. They primarily do this in order to make some larger points about learning. They look at detailed case studies of women, young and old, “playing” The Sims and contrast what and how they learn there with what and how people are supposed to learn within formal schooling. Gee and Hayes characterize all of these women as “typically untypical” which, they suggest, we will all have to be if we are to succeed in a complex, globalized world.

In Chapter 3 we meet Yamx and are introduced to the idea of modding (adapting or modifying) a computer game. Yamx read Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Nickel and Dimed in which the author describes her attempts to live on low wage labor in the United States. Inspired, Yamx mods The Sims to convey the difficulty of being poor in the U.S. As The Sims is directed toward pleasure, wealth, and consumption, Yamx’s endeavour takes much ingenuity. Yamx publishes her game and interacts with her audience. Within these interactions she combines the roles of player, expert, and mentor. This, Gee and Hayes argue, involves emotional and social intelligence as well as the cognitive variety. In the future we will increasingly need such “soft skills” as well as tech savviness in order to secure creative jobs or, for the 80% of people for whom there will be no such job, in order to find value “off market” creating for fun not profit.  

In Chapter 4 we meet Jade, a member of a school-based Tech Savvy Girls Club that was started as part of the research on which the book is based. Although, Jade was unsuccessful in school, she rapidly develops skills as a Sims designer. Like Yamx, she is modding the original game, but this time by creating clothing for Sims characters. Jade uploads her designs to a Sims fan site and so gets feedback and requests for custom-made outfits. Gee and Hayes introduce the idea of grit, defined as passion plus persistence, to capture the quality that enables learners like Jade to stick with something long enough to develop mastery in it. I found Jade’s story engaging and useful in countering two common fallacies of teaching and learning: that teachers need to know about the things they teach and that students have fixed abilities that constrain their learning.

In Chapter 5 we meet three additional Sims designers: Tabby Lou, Izazu and EarthGoddess. Housebound Tabby Lou begins by making a virtual purple potty for her granddaughter and ends up an internationally renowned Sims designer, part of a community of like-minded people. In Chapter 7 we move into the world of fan fiction: stories based on television shows, computer games, and other cultural products. Vampire teen romances have emerged as a subgenre of The Sims fan fiction. Gee and Hayes parallel the career of Stephenie Meyer, professional author of the Twilight Saga, and Alex, the amateur teenage author of a popular Sims vampire romance serial, arguing for a convergence between the roles of producer and consumer. Finally in Chapter 8 we encounter Jesse who creates families in The Sims Online and then in Second Life, getting married several times and adopting and supporting a plethora of “children.” After three years of intensive time spent in Second Life, Jesse’s virtual wife Misha is moving in with her in the real world. Interestingly, Jesse took on a male persona in Second Life. Thus Misha, who initially understood herself as in a virtual heterosexual relationship, has ended up in a real-life gay relationship.

In the middle of this collection of stories, Gee and Hayes develop the idea of passionate affinity groups to describe The Sims communities that involve Yamx, Jade, et al. Within these, “a common passion-fueled endeavor---not race, class, gender, or disability---is primary” (p. 107). In passionate affinity groups: people of all ages and stages occupy the same space; people occupy multiple roles as producers, consumers, experts, leaders, mentors, novices, and learners; knowledge is shared; “There are many different forms and routes to participation [and] lots of different routes to status” (p. 111). Schooling contrasts starkly with passionate affinity groups.

This book is accessible and engagingly written, albeit with rather too much repetition of ideas. However, it is a book on a mission rather than a scholarly text. It is completely lacking in methodology, and I found some of Hayes and Gee’s claims overstated and lacking in nuance. First, when they say, “It is easy to miss how modern and new this all is” (p. 87), I thought of the cultural studies work that shows how people have always made things with popular culture. Paul Willis (1990) called what people do with popular culture “symbolic work” describing this as:

the application of human capacities to and through, on and with symbolic resources and raw materials (collections of signs and symbols-for instance, the language as we inherit it as well as texts, songs, films, images and artefacts of all kinds) to produce meanings. (p. 10)

This seems to describe what Gee and Hayes’ participants are doing with The Sims. Second, the book relies on too rigid a distinction between production and consumption in which playing a game is consuming, while modding the game is producing. The people we meet are identified as a new breed of pro-ams (professional-amateurs), each is a “prosumer”: “a consumer who produces and transforms and does not just passively consume” (p. 79). But once again, cultural studies have long argued that all consumption is, and always has been, production, and vice versa (see, for example, Fiske, 1987). While the Internet has changed things, I do not see, in either case, the radical discontinuity that Gee and Hayes do.

I also wanted to see more discussion of power issues. The Sims communities are presented as idyllic spaces, refuges from the power relations and inequalities of the real world. The role of The Sims Mafia families (who mark people as enemies and so make it difficult for them to play), the centrality of violence to many computer games, and the corporate power behind the gaming industry are mentioned, but they are quickly dismissed as peripheral to the main issues. Similarly, Gee and Hayes suggest that passionate affinity groups have “to be built around something worth having a passion about” (p. 119), without considering how things are given or acquire value or worth and with what consequences. Having said that, the examples and ideas in this book provide much food for thought for anyone interested in education, and it is hard to argue with the central point that schooling is a dismal failure at its stated aim of encouraging learning and has much to learn from people’s online engagements.

Humans do not learn anything deeply by force. Humans do not learn anything deep without passion and persistence (i.e., grit). That is just the way humans are made. That, too, is why, for most people, what they learn in school is highly transitory unless they practice it in work or other settings after school. It is also why so many people, children and adults, learn more important things in their lives out of school than in it. (p. 114)


Fiske, J. (1987). Television culture. London: Routledge.

Willis, P. (1990). Common culture: Symbolic work at play in the everyday cultures of the young. Buckingham, UK: Open University Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: September 21, 2010
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16155, Date Accessed: 1/21/2022 9:26:23 AM

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