Video Games as an Enabler of New Literacies?

I’ve been contemplating for a while about what to write in this blog post, because I’ve been faced with a bit of a problem: in the article that I read for this week, James Paul Gee’s “Pleasure, Learning, Video Games, and Life: The Projective Stance“, Gee doesn’t seem to be talking about literacy at all, and Certainly not literacy as defined by Lankshear and Knobel in their plenary address. Their revised definition in “Sampling ‘the New’ in New Literacies” fits a bit better, but literacies as “socially recognized ways of generating, communicating, and negotiating meaningful content through the medium of encoded texts within contexts of participation in Discourses (or, as members of Discourses)” seems so nebulous and hedged as to include almost anything within its purview (4). Even working from that definition (which uses Gee’s own research in discourse theory), I have trouble finding anything that remotely relates to what I would normally think of as literacy in Gee’s chapter. The closest he gets is discussing the sporadic text that happens in between all the action in video games. That isn’t literacy, that is just playing around, right?

What Gee is mostly writing about in this chapter is what exactly it means to play a video game, and what the ramifications of playing a video game might be. He makes a distinction between the player of a video game inhabiting the goals of a virtual character or, on the other hand, making the virtual character an instantiation of the player’s own personal desires. This distinction is important because in the first case the content of the game has already been made, whereas in the second case the player effectively becomes the author of the narrative of the game, and all the graphics and in-game mechanics and particle effects and whatnot effectively amount to an extremely technological, though constrained, typewriter. That also can make sweet explosions. But again, what does this really have to do with literacy?

About fourteen pages into the article , on page 108, I finally started to see what Gee is actually getting at. What he’s writing about here isn’t literacy per se, but a kind of metaliteracy. He is writing about how students learn the rules of not only how video games are played, but also the rules of how life is played, and he specifically delves into how, in many respects, video games are more authentic learning environments than schools are. Where I got hung up in this article was trying to figure out what this all has to do with literacy. But Gee isn’t talking about literacy, at least not in the stricter sense of the word. What Gee is talking about is learning how to learn, and learning how to be an active participant in a world, which he argues translates from virtual worlds to the real world, and vice versa.

This leads into the portion of the chapter that I find most interesting, and which might be most relevant to us as educators and teachers of writing. Gee hypothesizes that most education these days is missing one thing that games have in spades: authenticity. This isn’t the word he uses, but I think it captures his sentiment. By authenticity I mean a connection between knowledge and action which is reciprocal, where one informs the other. Gee contends that most schooling these days lacks this, because students are mostly just exposed to knowledge, without getting the opportunity to put that knowledge to use in actual and relevant situations.

In a video game, however, the skills that you hone and the knowledge that you gain are immediately actionable. There is no lag or separation between knowledge and action, and you know that things that you learn will have a payoff. In many ways this is similar to things we already do in composition departments, from authentic literacy tasks in IRW classes here at SFSU to the student projects Andrea Lunsford talked about at the colloquium. I guess the only questions I have now are how do we do more of this, and how do we do it better?

Additionally, these videos helped me get a better grasp of what Gee is trying to get at in this chapter, and I think they are a lot more accessible:



2 comments on “Video Games as an Enabler of New Literacies?

  1. Thanks for this post — very interesting stuff! I saw that Gee video on grading with games sometime back, too, and found it very intriguing. Late last year, I sat in on a talk by Jane McGonigal at a conference, where she talked about games as the future of learning — see her slides here:

    She brought up some fascinating stuff like, what if students “level up” instead of getting letter grades? She also talked about the potentials of using games for promoting and effecting real change in the world, as well as for learning in schools. Good stuff!

    • There is something to this — “leveling up”. Basically, leveling up is the same as working toward finishing a particular unit, or getting a better grade in a class or for a particular assignment but it’s all about how you package it. I see this a lot with my own kids — they really respond to the concept of leveling up more than they do if I use any other sort of language to indicate they have achieved any level of progress. A quick example would be this week when my four year old (who is well acquainted with online gaming such as tested out of his current level of gymnastics, he was unimpressed. Even when the teacher told him that he had never given that many stars on a star test for someone at this level, Kaherdin just took his ribbon and wasn’t sure what to do with it. I felt that he should be happier about his achievement and realized that the language we were all using to communicate with him was outside of his contextual understanding of the situation. So then I said, “K, you made it to the next level!” His demeanor changed instantly — he got it.

      As educators this is something we talk about a lot — how to keep things relevant for our students.

      The idea of using games to promote learning is something that has a certain level of effectiveness, although I have a sense that the skills do not always transfer to the “real world”. Think of the shy, inward kid that kicks ass and can trash talk as a certain character in a game but has no confidence outside that context, or my daughter who can do her times tables up to 12×12 if she is battling ogres in Timez Attack, but put her in front of a worksheet with the same problems and she draws a complete blank. Palo Alto Unified School District provides links to approved games ( and even recommends parents allow their children a certain amount of time at the computer to explore and even master these games. I can see the value of this at the elementary school level where children are learning basic skills, but how does that translate at the higher levels of education?

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