Personal confession: Freshman year of college, I dated a hardcore, serious, completely committed gamer. His life rotated around Counter Strike, and later on, MMORPGs. For Christmas, I didn’t get jewelry or my favorite movie; I got a year membership to Star Wars Galaxies. This isn’t a digression of bitterness, just an anecdote to prove just how dedicated he was to gaming.
Whenever I would tease him about his obsession (I swear I’m not longer anti-video games), he would tell a story about a father who saved his son because of the quick reflex skills he learned from Counter Strike. I can’t remember the context, and I can’t find the story online, but I do remember that whenever he would relate the heroics of the father, he would beam with pride. This story (fictional or not) served as evidence that the skills learned from Counter Strike could be applied to the physical realm. His urgency in retelling this cultural lore to an outsider (me) reveals a desperation for the world of video games to be taken seriously, but also for me to acknowledge the learning that takes place in what Gee calls gaming’s “semiotic domain.”
I relate this story of young love because I think it illustrates gaming culture’s desire to be taken seriously, not merely as a passtime, but also as art (you can witness this debate on Roger Ebert’s most recent blog post), as community, and as a space for critical learning. I get this same sense of urgency from Gee, who tosses around academic lingo in conjunction with video game anecdotes to demonstrate the validity of gaming as an academic interest and as a tool for learning. And I follow his arguments; by the end of the first Chapter, I am taking his claims about active, critical learning seriously. But in his urgency to justify video gaming as a valid learning tool, he disregards important questions about content.
In the introduction, he acknowledges the controversies surrounding gaming content, focusing on the violence and gender concerns. But decides to neglect the connection content has to the process, claiming objections to video game content are “widely overblown.” This is where he lost me, and where his urgency misses a pretty big concern for feminists and big sisters around the world.
In the first chapter, Gee shares a story about the critical learning of a young boy playing Pikmin and reading the environment. When the mood, coloring, and music becomes somber, the player realizes that his strategies must change and that the level has increased. He has learned that [dark]=[creepy]=[more challenging game play]. He’s learning to read the clues. But what about when the clues aren’t as innocuous?
Now, I’m thinking about my younger brother who just turned 15. A few years ago, he made me swear to secrecy, and then showed me his personal copy of Grand Theft Auto. When he played, he showed me how exciting it was to murder prostitutes, for which he gained points. He has learned that [killing women]=[gaining points]=[good]. He read the clues, and changed the strategy to assault as many women as possible. Active, critical learning, indeed.
I’m not sharing this family anecdote to suggest that Gee is completely off the mark. In fact, watching my brother and old college friends, I have seen how video games can create community, both online and off, and how it can teach transferable skills. When I worked at Hoover Middle School, I loved bringing out the Wii so students could learn coordination, social skills, and strategies. What disturbs me is how easily Gee shrugs off legitimate concerns about video game content. Perhaps he discusses these concerns in later chapters (he does mention a chapter on social issues), but the flippant tone he uses to dismiss concerns about violence and treatment of women in introduction reveals how scholars overlook pressing issues in their field because they complicate their argument. Furthermore, Gee’s urgency to be taken seriously prompts him to disregard serious anxieties about how video games teach players about gender and violence.
One could argue that his book isn’t the place for this discussion, but where else? Most critics of video games are cranky old parents who only see the bad. On the other side, most champions of video games are enthusiastic cheerleaders who will only openly discuss the positive. What I’d like to see is both, writing that resists these polarities and explores the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to video games and learning. I’m welcome to any reading suggestions.