What teachers can learn from video games: Gaming is a Literacy

Note: This is Part One in a series of posts related to a presentation I gave on what teachers can learn from video games. My entire presentation can be viewed here.

Meet Isaiah:

Isaiah’s story is typical of many students who struggle in school or don’t enjoy learning. These students are experts in something – there’s something in their lives that they can joyfully devote hours to whether it’s gaming, skateboarding, programming, or athletics. However, when it comes to school, there’s a disconnect. As an educator, I often wonder if there is a way to delve into the things that motivate them most and bring those qualities to my classroom.

Video Games are something that nearly all of our students have in common. Besides eating and sleeping, what other activities did 65% of your students do yesterday? In fact, gaming is an activity enjoyed by 97% of American teens; an activity that transcends gender and cultural differences. Since this is such a pervasive activity among such a wide range of students, it’s easy to take for granted that gaming is a skill – a literacy even – that relies on some of the most fundamental principles of student engagement. If teachers can recognize this and begin to deconstruct what makes games such effective and addictive learning experiences, they can begin to reach their own students in more meaningful ways.

James Paul Gee, a leading scholar on gaming as learning, explains that when gamers learn how to play a game, they are learning a new literacy. That means that, in order to make sense of the game they play and the world in which the game takes place, they must interact with and learn through the use of;

  • Images,
  • Graphs,
  • Symbols,
  • Sound,
  • Artifacts,
  • Bodily Sensations (vibrating controllers and other things),
  • Movement (Nintendo Wii, Kinect, and PlayStation Move being real-world examples of this characteristic),
  • Music,
  • Diagrams, and
  • Texts.

In other words, Gee says in his book What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy, “They have to know, given the situated meanings they have given to each element in the pattern or combination, what the whole pattern means in a situated way useful to action.”

In order to test this theory and see it in action, I asked Kaelie, a student of mine who is one of the five percent of American teen girls who does not regularly play games to play Mirror’s Edge, a complex first-person game with an immersive environment. I was amazed at how similar Kaelie’s behaviors as she learned the game mirrored those of a typical struggling student. Kaelie is a student whom I’ve never seen struggle in any aspect of the structure of high school, so it was especially interesting to see her in this light and listen as she reflected on her experience.

Please watch the video below to watch Kaelie’s experience.

As Kaelie’s initial frustrations mounted, she turned to the teacher for help. When she didn’t receive satisfactory help, she looked to classmates, a behavior many teachers would label “cheating“. However, Kaellie soon learned to turn to cues and clues from the game itself to learn how to play in context to the world she was in. She learned skills, and then had to adapt those skills in order to meet increasingly difficult challenges throughout the tutorial levels and beyond.

In fact, learning as a gamer often involves employing expert reflective practices, something I strive to do more of in my own classroom. Gamers must probe, hypothesize, test their hypothesis, and then rethink their actions repeatedly throughout their experiences. After years of doing this, these gamers become expert pattern recognizers, sense makers, and self-teachers. However, they don’t often transfer these ways of thinking to the classroom. Is it possible to create situations or scenarios in my own classroom that will allow students to bridge their gamer selves with their student selves?

Watching Kaelie learn Mirror’s Edge sparked me to look deeper at how games teach students. Many of my students initially struggle with activities and concepts in my classroom. Most of them are able to learn the concepts through traditional teaching, but there are always a few that struggle in the same way that Kaelie did. Most students, especially the ones I fail to reach most often, learn very complex things through gaming, so I wanted to figure out how I could use these principles to reach all students in an engaging, effective way that leads to transfer to other disciplines and their lives outside of school.

The next posts in this series will examine some different ways that teachers can bridge the literacy skills students joyfully and willingly practice for hours at a time with the skills they employ in the classroom and recreate excitement in which these skills are applied to learning.  I found that these learning principles can be applied without making entertaining students the main goal of your classroom. In fact, these tools and strategies reflect expert instructional strategies and are the result of hundreds of millions of dollars spent on research.

In my upcoming posts, I’ll be focusing on the areas of;

  • The Role of Text
  • Story and Narrative
  • Failure and Psychosocial Moratoriums
  • Collaboration as Amplification
  • Assessment as Motivation
  • Identity Projection, and
  • Difficulty and Regime of Confidence

My posts will be told through videos of and interviews with my current and former students in addition to personal anecdotes backed by expert research voices. Please leave comments to help shape this discussion and to help me as I pursue further research in this area.

Posted under Games, Main Menu, Research, Technology by