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

Despite your title, you spend less time here talking about “gender” than might be expected from other books which talk about women and gaming. What roles does gender play in your analysis? What claims are you making about the different kinds of experiences and identities female players construct around games?

For me, the book is not about gender. It is about women and girls who take gaming beyond gaming to become designers within well-designed passionate affinity spaces that change their lives and the lives of others. It about these women and girls because we believe that what they are doing, how they are doing it (e.g., combing technical modding with modding for emotional intelligence and social interactions), and what they are accomplishing is on the cutting edge of where all of us are going–male or female.

Women and girls are leading the way here as they are in many other areas of society. There has been lots about modding for games like Half-Life and its connections to technical skills–and indeed this is important. But much less has been written about modding the Sims to create challenges and game play that is simultaneously in the game world, in the real world, and in writing things like graphic novels.

Such modding is the force that sustains a passionate affinity space that builds artistic, technical, social, and emotional skills. We wrote the book because these woman and girls rock, not because they are women and girls.

Also I had a sin to expiate. I had left the Sims and women gamers pretty much out of my first book on games. Betty helped me see that The Sims is a real game and a very important one because it is a game that is meant to take people beyond gaming. She helped me see that how women play and design is not “mainstream” (see comments above) but cutting edge, the edge of the future. If it were leprechauns that were the cutting edge of the future I would have written about them.

In the case of The Sims, you have a designer — Will Wright — who has been outspoken in his desire to empower his users to construct community and build their own content around his games. How does this goal on the part of the designer impact the kinds of stories you can tell about these women’s relations to this particular game?

See answer above. Will Wright is doing in an extreme way what lots of game designers want to do: empower people to think like designers, to organize themselves around the game to become learn new skills that extend beyond the game, and to express their own creativity. Many say the Sims is not a game–and I myself used to believe that. But as Derrida would remind us, what we find marginal is often actually central. Out book argues that games like the Sims–and gaming beyond gaming–will eventually be the new center of gaming or maybe something eventually all together different.

As you get into forms of cultural production such as fan fiction, I start to wonder why is it important for you that this a book about gaming rather than about the much wider array of forms of participatory culture that have emerged in a networked society.

It is important to me because I do not want to compete with you for the participatory culture space. Further, I want to stress production, though I know well you care about production as well. There are some–not you–who in education celebrate participation in a mindless way. They argue that just because people are participating they are learning. But people can participate in ways that allow themselves to be “colonized” by a group or to gain much less than others in the group or even to be used as an example that makes others look good. I think a demand that everyone learns to produce and design–to be a “priest”–can mitigate these dangers, though I am sure that dangers remain.

I know you have expressed in the past great skepticism that our current schooling system can adjust to the potentials of this more participatory culture. Without school involvement, how do we insure a more equitable access to the kinds of formative experiences you describe in the book? On the other hand, how does a school culture so focused on standardized processes and measurements maintain anywhere near the flexibility to respond to personal passions that you’ve identified in The Sims?

What I have called “situated embodied problem-focused well-designed and well-mentored learning” will either come to exist primarily for elites who will get it 24/7 on demand across many institutions and their homes or it will be given to everyone.

In the first case, the regular (“mainstream”) public school system will continue to teach the basics accountably and will exist to produce service workers. In the second case, we will have to reinvent a public sphere and transform our view of society, civic participation, markets, and what constitutes justice, fairness, and a good life. We are headed the first way right now, but there is always hope for the future. Both you and I are trying to push the train to the second future and not the first, though, in the end, in the future the real actors and activists in this “game” will be younger (and often browner) than we are.

The current accountability regime MUST be removed. It is immoral, stupid, and counterproductive. We define accountability around teachers failing to teach children. This is like doing accountability for surgeons by waiting to see how many people they kill and then getting rid of them if they kill too many.

Far better to have accountability back when teachers and surgeons were trained, which means radical changes in Schools of Education and universities. Surely we should not wait to see how many patients they kill or kids they screw. Teachers are punished if a kid’s test scores go down, but scores could go down for many reasons, not just what the teacher did in one year. This is like punishing a surgeon when a patient dies in back surgery because his wife poisoned him–and lots of things are poisoning our children, not, by any means, mostly teachers.

What we need accountability for is curriculum and pedagogies, not teachers per se (who should have been well trained and then held to high standards that most of them can and do meet, as in the case of surgeons). Today curricula and pedagogies are often politicized, seen as right wing or left wing. If we could agree on a common measure (say a NAEP test or some other test we can come to agree on), a measure that is given to a sample of students (not given to all), so that it cannot be taught to, then we can simply say which curricula and pedagogies correlate with strong or weak results on the common measure. This is what we do with drugs and surgical procedures.

In the end, though, we MUST change our assessment system or we will never have new learning, since assessment systems, in an accountability regime, drive what is taught and how it is taught. Today’s games and other digital media allow for learning to be so well designed that finishing the “game” means you have learned and mastered what it being “taught”. No one needs a Halo test after finishing Halo on hard and no one should need an algebra test after finishing an equally well-designed algebra curriculum.

Furthermore, games and digital media can collect, mine, and artfully represent copious moment-by-moment data on a great many variables. So we can, with such data, assess learning across time in terms of growth; we can discover different trajectories towards mastery and use this information to help learners try new styles; and we can compare and contrast learners with thousands of others on hundreds of variables tracked across time (as we already do with Halo for instance).

When the day comes where we can contrast such assessments (based on growth, trajectories, multiple variables represented in ways that inform and develop learners, and comparison among thousands of people sorted into a zillion different types for different purposes) with our now standard “test score”–one number taken on one day–the game will be over. The choice will then be stark. Either we will develop only some or we develop everyone. The bell curve will be gone. No one needs always to be “in the middle” (“mainstream”). Everyone can, in some places and at some times, be at the very top of their game.

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.

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