How Learners Can Be On Top of Their Game: An Interview with James Paul Gee (Part Three)

The part of your arguments for affinity spaces which get the most push-back from my students are your claims that “a common passion-fueled endeavor — not race, class, gender, or disability — is primary.” To many, these seems like a very utopian claim for these spaces, which you have been careful to describe as not “communities” in the way that term is most often used. Yet, surely, inequalities impact participants at all levels, from access to the technology to access to basic skills and experiences, to access to the social networks which support their learning. How can we address these very real inequalities while recognizing that there are indeed ways where class, race, and gender matter differently in the kinds of spaces you are describing?

The statement that passionate affinity spaces are focused on a shared passion (and shared endeavors and goals around that passion) and not race, class, and gender (while allowing people to use such differences strategically as their own choices) is not an empirical claim, it is a stipulation. Something is not a passionate affinity space if it does not meet this condition. So perhaps there are none. But, then, such spaces become a goal and an ideal and we can talk about how close or far away from that goal and ideal we are.

On the other hand, it does little good to follow the standard liberal line that race, class, and gender are always and everywhere one’s determining identities. This, for example, locks an African-American child into always being “an African American”. A white kid can be a “Pokémon fanatic” or an expert modder, but the African American kid is always “an African-American Pokémon fanatic” or an “African-American modder”.

We are never, none of us, one thing all the time. Sure, the world continuously tries to impose rigid identities on all of us all the time. But it is our moral obligation–and one necessary for a healthy life–to resist this and to try to create spaces where identities based on shared passions or commitments can predominate.

In reality, the real identities that count in life most–that define us and make us who we are–are rarely named. They are identities like “a person who would never kill someone because they did not share his or her religion” or “a person who would rather love and be loved than be rich” and a great many more such as these. These sorts of identities constitute our most significant form of human sharing and bonding. And such identities are where the deepest divisions among people occur.

It may be here that I diverge from some others. I have repeatedly seen people who are pissed off because someone said they or their work were not “mainstream”. If someone called my work “mainstream” or called me “mainstream” I would be insulted. If I discovered that my work or myself was “mainstream”, I would retire or find something else to do. Note, by the way, that NO good academic wants to be mainstream. If something–say, what they teach in high school–is called “mainstream history”, you can bet no good young historian wants to do it and you will find next to no one, old or young, in a good history department with such a sign on his or her door.

Chibi-Robo, Ico, Psychonauts, and Shadow of the Colossus are not mainstream games. They are however great games and their designers will be long remembered when many mainstream designers are long forgotten. Remember, too, that 19th century America had only two world-class poets (Emily Dickenson and Walt Whitman) and at the time neither was remotely close to mainstream. One never published and the other published his own book himself and reviewed it under various names. The monk Mendel wanted to be a high school biology teacher, but he failed his state teacher’s test and was relegated to the monastery’s garden. He was unknown in his time, entirely non-mainstream, and yet also the only man in his time who actually knew biology (including Darwin, who knew less than nothing about genetics), though no one knew that until much later.

Throughout the book, you celebrate “grit” as a key virtue of these new forms of cultural participation. How are you defining “grit”? Is this a skill that is valued as much in contemporary schooling?

“Grit”–originally used by Angela Duckworth in a somewhat different way–is passion plus persistence. Human expertise is a practice effect, it requires hours of effort, practice, and persistence past failure. This is unlikely to happen without passion. School has a very hard time producing grit because different people have different passions (and school is about everybody learning the same thing) and passions are something people choose (and school is often not about choice). Furthermore, interest is kindled into passion inside things like passionate affinity spaces and related sorts of social formations and these are hard to come by in schools.

In modern developed countries, only grit will lead to work or lives that are rewarding, given that most jobs will be service jobs. The passion one develops may well be in an out of work space and off market. But there has to be some space where a person has a sense of agency, intelligence, control, and creativity.

Some people have a good deal of grit at school because they believe that putting up with even badly designed schooling will lead to a good college and a successful career. It will lead to a good college, but no longer necessarily to a good career.

The world is full to bursting with educated and talented people, many of whom can compete for the same jobs across the world. Being just good at what others are also good at, in standard ways developed in standard sorts of education, will just put one in competition with millions of well-trained Chinese and Indians and many many others across the globe. In my own view, one needs to have a passion for something and master it in a creative way–it almost does not matter what it is. It could be, for instance, carving art out of avocado pits.

Whatever it is, avocado pits included, you will find via the Internet a critical number of people across the world with whom you can join with for social learning and among whom one can rise to status, respect, and a sense of real contribution and, in some cases, profit (there is not a lot of competition, at least yet, for the top places among avocado artists and, thus, a whole area is waiting to become “hot”).

Many of the projects coming out of the MacArthur Digital Media and Learning Initiative embrace the importance of passion-driven or interest-driven networks. Yet, increasingly, we are being asked to think about young people who do not have or have not yet discovered driving passions of the kinds the book discusses. How do you respond to critics of “geeking out” as an educational ideal? What can we do for kids who “just don’t care”?

A person who cannot find a passion is going to be in trouble in our modern world as far as I am concerned. Many people will gain status, respect, control, and creativity off market (since not everyone can gain these things on market for profit in a world where, in developed countries, only 1/5 of people will be well paid). But all people need to gain these things.

All our schools and institutions are set up very poorly to help kids find their passion. We want to teach “what every citizen should know” in things like science and math (and we succeed, all Americans pretty much know the same things about science, mathematics, and geography, which is nothing).

We think we can force people to learn things. We treat collaboration as cheating. We do not give kids the time–and places where the cost of failure is low–to try out a variety of interests and identities in an attempt to discover passion or passions. We do not let kids engage with professional-like tools and activities in areas like urban planning, game design, or journalism.

Rather, we define everything to be learned in terms of content names like “algebra” or “civics” even when this “content” might be best learned as a tool set for other activities like 3-D design. We let rich kids experience what passion and practice can bring one in the world and what the routes to success are, but we do not let poor kids have this knowledge. We treat certifications and degrees as more important that actual talent and achievements.

Now what about people who just “don’t care”? Barring serious illness, there are none. Every baby is born as a passion-seeking being. That is why children acquire their native languages and master much of their cultures without formal schooling.

One day, when my son Sam was a mere toddler, I found some plastic figures at the grocery store. I had no idea what they were. I brought a couple home and gave them to Sam. They were Pokémon and they led to interest, passion, and practice that made him a passionate gamer. That passion for gaming led, in ways no one could have predicted, to his current passion for acting and theater, on the one hand, and for Africa, on the other (since Age of Mythology hooked him on mythology and then on cultures beyond his own).

School is defined around outcomes it knows in advance, but does not meet for many children. Real learning kindles passions that make new kinds of people–and people capable of making themselves over again when they need to–but does not know or predict the outcome and does not, by any means, insist on the same outcomes for everyone.


James Paul Gee is the Mary Lou Fulton Presidential Professor of Literacy Studies at Arizona State University. He is a member of the National Academy of Education. His book Sociolinguistics and Literacies (1990, Third Edition 2007) was one of the founding documents in the formation of the “New Literacy Studies”, an interdisciplinary field devoted to studying language, learning, and literacy in an integrated way in the full range of their cognitive, social, and cultural contexts. His book An Introduction to Discourse Analysis (1999, Second Edition 2005, Third Edition 2011) brings together his work on a methodology for studying communication in its cultural settings, an approach that has been widely influential over the last two decades. His most recent books both deal with video games, language, and learning. What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy (2003, Second Edition 2007) argues that good video games are designed to enhance learning through effective learning principles supported by research in the Learning Sciences. Situated Language and Learning (2004) places video games within an overall theory of learning and literacy and shows how they can help us in thinking about the reform of schools. His most recent books are Good Video Games and Good Learning: Collected Essays (2007); Woman as Gamers: The Sims and 21st Century Learning (2010) and Language and Learning in the Digital World (2011), both written with Elizabeth Hayes. Prof. Gee has published widely in journals in linguistics, psychology, the social sciences, and education.


  1. LynnClark says:

    Thanks for an inspiring series of interviews with Jim Gee, Henry.

    I am wondering about this question of the kids who “don’t care,” especially since I have done some interview-based research with lower income kids who sometimes express this sentiment. I agree with Jim (and you) that helping students to discover their passion is an important mission in education, whether that’s among elementary or college students or anyone in between. And like you, as someone who’s into all things pop culture and art, I love it when students express an interest that’s unusual or “non-mainstream,” to use Jim’s words, regardless of what that interest is. What’s more challenging is when their interests are pretty mainstream.

    The one that challenges me the most is when disadvantaged young people have a passion for “making money.” Do we try to harness that desire? And how do we do that without buying into the view that education’s really all about teaching “skills” for the workforce?

  2. Such an interesting series of interviews.

    It is a shame that the school systems aren’t set up to let students truly discover what their passions are. Unless a student is lucky enough to be passionate about a subject they are getting with their cookie cutter education.

    Though I do think the educational system is seriously lacking, I think in many cases the parenting is lacking as well. I think more parents should really get involved and help their children experience as much as possible. This will allow children to discover what their passions are and develop into better adults. If kids aren’t stimulated and given an outlet to express themselves they get bored, stop caring and often get into trouble.

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