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Videogame Nation

‘We run videogames in our heads’

James Paul Gee

It was a very great pleasure to welcome James Paul Gee to talk at school, shortly before we broke for half-term. James spent an hour in conversation with our students, examining what games and learning have to do with each other. He was in the UK to speak at Handheld Learning 2009 and this is his talk from there:

At the heart of both talks, besides his zest for life, learning and a passionate engagement with his subject, is the critically important idea of situated meanings and their role in learning: ‘Comprehension is grounded in perceptual simulations [of experience] that prepare agents for situated action’ — Barsalou (1999).

Some photos of slides James used at St Paul’s (which illustrate what he means when he says, around 5m 50s into his Handheld Learning talk, ‘Our schools don’t use the best principles we know about learning, but our popular culture does’):

James Paul Gee

James Paul Gee

James Paul Gee

Many students who came to hear James talk had read Steven Johnson’s Everything Bad is Good for You (2005) and will have recalled Steven’s discussion of James’s thinking. Here’s Steven on ‘probing’, that process in learning to play a videogame where the player ‘probe[s] the depths of the game’s logic to make sense of it’ — exploring the rules, yes, but also something subtler and more complex, ‘the physics of the virtual world’:

The games scholar James Paul Gee breaks probing down into a four-part process, which he calls the “probe, hypothesise, reprobe, rethink” cycle:

  1. The player must probe the virtual world (which involves looking around the current environment clicking on something, or engaging in a certain action).
  2. Based on reflection while probing and afterward, the player must form a hypothesis about what something (a text, object, artefact, event, or action) might mean in a usefully situated way.
  3. The player reprobes the world with that hypothesis in mind, seeing what effect he or she gets.
  4. The player treats this effect as feedback from the world and accepts or rethinks his or her original hypothesis.

Put another way: When gamers interact with these environments, they are learning the basic procedure of the scientific method.

It might be useful to summarise here James’s six headline slides from his Handheld Learning talk about what characterises videogames: an experience of being simultaneously inside and outside a system; situated meanings; action orientated tasks; lucidly functional language; modding; passionate affinity groups. From his talk to us, some points I jotted down:

  • 700 games design courses have started in US universities in the last six years.
  • “We’re a profoundly contradictory people”: we worry about violence and videogames and GTA is put in the spotlight, yet a very violent game like Postal goes largely unnoticed and America’s Army is free — funded with tax-payers’ money! (James talks about America’s Army here.)
  • Games are not like books: Doom has a poor story (and graphics), but very good mechanics and mechanics really matter in our appreciation of a game. Warren Spector thinks story is very important to games. The creator of Doom doesn’t. Of course, if it’s got good mechanics and a good story …
  • The modern world handles knowledge distinctively, working with large, broad, cross-disciplinary themes.
  • If education is only about standard skills, it will only get you a job with standard skills (probably off-shore). In the US and UK, three-fifths of workers are in the service industries.
  • Success at school may square with the job you get, but it doesn’t predict how well you’ll do in your job.
  • Games are about problem-solving. Our problems are now all complex ones — complexity and complex systems interacting. You must be able to think way beyond standard skills.
  • Cross-functional teams, a feature of games such as World of Warcraft, require very high order skills — greatly valued in high-tech firms. Working in such teams is exceedingly intense and demanding.
  • A game like Portal creates an embodied feel for physics and provides continuous assessment of your knowledge (performance). The game itself guides the experience.
  • James Paul Gee

  • Good games makes you feel smarter than you are. Play first, learn later (situated meanings). Where school fails is when it’s like a bunch of manuals without the games — and that’s also a very good way to make the poor look stupid.
  • Yu-Gi-Oh cards and their associated ecosystem are a striking example of geeking out with passion. Here’s a card James took from a seven year-old — who understood it completely (complex, technical language made lucidly functional by being married to action in the game) and explained it to him:
  • James Paul Gee

  • Modding: not only ‘How can I use what this game design has given me to my best advantage?’, but also ‘How can I improve/develop this?’
  • James Paul Gee

  • As Will Wright said, my games designers can make better stuff than 90% of players — but not the other 10%.
  • Recommendations: Half-Life; Deus Ex (1); System Shock; Flower (PS3); Braid. My colleague, OIly Rokison, chipped in with Fable 2.
Here’s an interview with James from Gamezone, 2007:

What is it specifically about video games that help people learn?  Does it have more to do with the gameplay than the story, the visual content or the characters?

My book covers 36 good learning principles built into good games like System Shock 2, Rise of Nations, Arcanum, or even Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation.  But there are many more.  Let me just give a few examples.  First, humans are terrible at learning when you give them lots and lots of verbal information ahead of time out of any context where it can be applied.  Games give verbal information “just in time” when and where it can be used and “on demand” as the player realizes he or she needs it.

Second, good games stay inside, but at the outer edge of the player’s growing competence, feeling challenging, but “doable.”  This creates a sense of pleasurable frustration.  Third, good games create what’s been called a “cycle of expertise” by giving players well-designed problems on the basis of which they can form good strategies, letting them practice these enough to routinize them, then throwing a new problem at them that forces them to undo their now routinized skills and think again before achieving, through more practice, a new and higher routinized set of skills.  Good games repeat this cycle again and again—it’s the process by which experts are produced in any domain.

Final example: good games solve the motivation problem by what I think is an actual biological effect.  When you operate a game character, you are manipulating something at a distance (a virtual distance, in this case), much like operating a robot at a distance, but in a much more fine-grained way.  This makes humans feel that their bodies and minds have actually been expanded into or entered that distant space.  Good games use this effect by attaching a virtual identity to this expanded self that the player begins to care about in a powerful way.  This identity can then become a hook for freeing people up to think and learn in new ways, including learning, or least thinking about, new values, belief systems, and world views, as the Army realized in building America’s Army.  If you stick with it, The Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind does this brilliantly and people play the game very differently depending on the different ways in which they have invested in their character.  We would do better at teaching science in school if kids really invested in a scientist identity.  But you have to make it happen, you can’t just say “pretend.”

You can read a recent paper written by James and Elizabeth Hayes, his wife, here: Public Pedagogy through Video Games.

‘Passionate affinity groups’. That stays in my mind when I’m thinking about school and how education works, doesn’t work … and is changing. Here’s James’s slide about the qualities these groups exhibit, from his Handheld Learning talk:

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