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

James Paul Gee from New Learning Institute on Vimeo.

On April 4, I will be respondent for the Pullias Lecture, being hosted by the Rossier School of Education here at the University of Southern California. The primary speaker is James Paul Gee, who is going to address "Games, Learning, and the Looming Crisis of Higher Education." For those in the Los Angeles area, the talk is being held in the Davidson Conference Center at USC, 4-6 PM.

I was delighted to be asked to participate in this exchange, both because I was recently given an honorary appointment in the Rossier School and because I have such affection and respect for Gee. We've known each other for the better part of a decade now. We've appeared together many times, often in informal conversational settings, I like to call "The Jim and Henry Show," where we talk about our shared interests in participatory culture, games and learning, and the new media literacies. Gee has been one of the key thinkers about the kinds of new pedogogical models represented by computer and video games, seeing them as illustrating alternative forms of learning to those represented by our current schooling practices. Gee has been one of the core contributors to the MacArthur Digital Media and Learning initiative, helping to inspire a whole new generation of educational researchers, who are doing serious work not only on games but also modding, machinema, fan fiction, virtual worlds, and a range of other new media platforms and practices.

This semester, I have ended up teaching Gee's recent book, Women and Gaming: The Sims and 21st Century Learning, in my New Media Literacies class. I was delighted when I first saw the book to see Gee expand upon his thinking about "affinity spaces" to think more deeply about what he and his co-author Elizabeth Hayes call "gaming beyond gaming." The term refers to the broad range of productive and social practices which have grown up around games, practices which strongly parallel what I've found in my own research on fan cultures. The book's focus on The Sims signals the importance of this game both as a breakthrough title which expanded female interest in the medium and as a model for all subsequent games which have encouraged players to build and share content with each other. Gee and Hayes are interested in the ways this game has become the jumping off place for lifelong learning processes for a range of women, young and old. It is a delightful mixture of compelling storytelling and thoughtful analysis, one which can easily be assigned to undergraduate students but which is profound enough to capture the imagination of advanced students and researchers.

As I was anticipating our mutual participation in the Pullias Lecture event, it occurred to me that I had never interviewed Gee for my blog, despite all of our other interactions through the years. What follows includes his reflections on the current state of games-based learning research, the state of American education, and the value of participatory culture. Gee was generous with his thoughts and so I am going to be running this meaty exchange over three installments this week.

We've both been involved in thinking about games and learning for the better part of a decade. What do you see as the most significant breakthroughs which have occurred over this time?

The breakthroughs have been slower in coming than I had hoped. Like many new ideas, the idea of games for learning (better, "games as learning") has been often co-opted by entrenched paradigms and interests, rather than truly transforming them. We see now a great many skill-and-drill games, games that do in a more entertaining fashion what we already do in school. We see games being recruited in workplaces--and lots of other instances of "gamification"--simply to make the current structures of exploitation and traditional relationships of power more palatable. We will see the data mining capacities of games and digital media in general recruited for supervision, rather than development. The purpose of games as learning (and other game-like forms of learning) should be to make every learner a proactive, collaborative, reflective, critical, creative and innovative problem solver; a producer with technology and not just a consumer; and a fully engaged participant and not just a spectator in civic life and the public sphere.

In general there are two "great divides" in the games and learning arena. The two divides are based on the learning theories underlying proposals about games for learning. The first divide is this: On the one hand, there are games based on a "break everything into bits and practice each bit in its proper sequence" theory of learning, a theory long popular in instructional technology. Let's call this the "drill and practice theory". On the other hand, there are games based on a "practice the bits inside larger and motivating goal-based activities of which they are integral parts" theory. Let's call this the "problem-and-goals-centered theory". I espouse one version of this theory, but, unfortunately, there are two versions of it. And this is the second divide: On the one hand, there is a "mindless progressive theory" that says just turn learners loose to immerse themselves in rich activities under the steam of their own goals. This version of progressivism (and progressivism in Dewey's hands was not "mindless") has been around a great many years and is popular among "mindless" educational liberals. On the other hand, the other version of the "problem-and-goals-centered theory" claims that deep learning is achieved when learners are focused on well designed, well ordered, and well mentored problem solving with shared goals, that is, goals shared with mentors and a learning community.

Like so many other areas of our lives today, the conservative version (drill and practice) and the liberal version (mindless progressivism) are both wrong. The real solution does not lie in the middle, but outside the space carved up by political debates.

What do you think remain the biggest misunderstandings or disagreements in this space?

Much of what I discussed above is really not about misunderstandings, but about disagreements and different beliefs and value systems, or, in some cases, different political, economic, or cultural vested interests. The biggest misunderstanding in the case of my own work has been people saying that my work espouses games for learning. It does not and never has. It espouses "situated embodied learning", that is learning by participation in well designed and well mentored experiences with clear goals; lots of formative feedback; performance before competence; language and texts "just in time" and "on demand"; and lots of talk and interaction around strategies, critique, planning, and production within a "passionate affinity space" (a type of interest-driven group) built to sustain and extend the game or other curriculum. Games are one good way to do this. There are many others.

The biggest misunderstanding in general is that technologies (like games, television, movies, and books) are good or bad. They are neither. They are good, bad, or indifferent based on how they are used in the contexts in which they are used. By themselves they are inert, though they do have certain affordances. Games for learning work pretty much the same way as books for learning. Kids learn with books or games (or television or computers or movies or pencils) when they are engaged in well designed and good interactions with adults and more advanced peers, interactions that lead to problem solving, meta-critical reflection, and connections to the world and other texts and tools. They learn much less in other circumstances. But we must humbly admit that humans have never yet found a technology more powerful than print. The number of people who have killed others or aided them in the name of a book (the Bible, the Koran, the Turner Diaries, Silent Spring) is vastly larger than those who have killed or helped in the name of a game, movie, or television show. Of course, this may change, but it does little good, in the interim, to pretend books are benign, but games are inherently perilous.

From the start, you were less interested in designing games for teaching than in using principles of game design that are grounded in educational research to reimagine the pedagogical process? To what degree do you think recent projects such as Quest to Learn have embodied those insights?

I see game design and learning design (what a good professional teacher does) as inherently similar activities. The principles of "good games" and of "good learning" are the same, by and large. This is so, of course, because games are just well designed problem-solving spaces with feedback and clear outcomes and that is the most essential thing for real, deep, and consequential learning. These principles include (among others): making clear what identity the learning requires; making clear why anyone would want to do such learning; making clear how the learning will function to lead to problem solving and mastery; making the standards of achievement high and clear, but reachable with persistence; early successes; a low cost of failure that encourages exploration, risk taking, and trying out new styles; lots of practice of basic skills inside larger goal-based and motivating activities; creating and then challenging routine mastery at different levels to move learners upwards; using information and texts "just in time" and "on demand"; performance before competence (doing as a way of learning and being); getting learners to think like designers and to be able themselves to design; encouraging collaboration and affiliation with what is being learned as part of an identity and passion one shares with others; good mentoring by other people, as well as smart tools and technologies.

These principles can be realized in many ways, not one. Chibi-Robo, Yu-Gi-Oh, and Quest to Learn all realize them, though Quest to Learn faces the vast stupidity of our current accountability regime and Chibi-Robo and Yu-Gi-Oh do not.

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.