When Urgency Misses the Big Picture

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.

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8 comments on “When Urgency Misses the Big Picture

  1. Very good points, Ruthie. I don’t think Gee was overlooking or denying the violence and sexism in video games, but felt it was out of the scope of his paper, but as you suggest, it does leaves his paper rather one-sided, definitely in the cheerleader camp. I am not justifying a game that encourages young boys to murder prostitutes, but our imaginary realm, including books and movies, has always been a place where we can play out our sickest fantasies, where we can indulge our violent and prejudiced sides. Usually in books and literature, such behavior is finally punished, as in Dangerous Liaisons, allowing the reader or viewer a chance to indulge in these dark fantasies and then distancing them (and the writer) from guilt by punishing the guilty. At the same time, I see this lack of punishment as very disturbing and more honest. I am unconvinced about arguments that violent games and movies make people more violent, but I do think sexist portrayals tend to reinforce sexism. All this said, I would like to read a feminist analysis of what video games are teaching gamers about gender. Gamer, by the way, seems to have a connection with game-player or player, a sexually promiscuous male.

    • I never even thought about the connections between gamer and player! Nice point.

      I guess I wasn’t clear because I’m not so much looking for a feminist analysis of video games; enough uptight parents have written about how video games are corrupting the minds of youth. I think it was appropriate for Gee to talk about learning social cues because that is what his whole paper is about. He talks about the young boy reading the setting of Pikmin, which was a fine example, but it was chosen, I imagine, partially because it didn’t contain any objectionable material. What do gamers learn from games that promote violence, rape, and murder? How are they reading the setting and plotline of those plotlines?

      I’m not even looking for a sharp condemnation of these games, but I do believe that in a discussion about active learning and reading video games, these issues absolutely must be discussed.

  2. I agree that it was outside the scope of his paper–I think because his type of analysis of video games was so rare, while there is ample public access to the debate about morality in video games.

    But you’re right that we also can’t completely divorce ourselves from talking about learning behaviors and the content of the behaviors that are being learned. For anyone who didn’t read it earlier in class, Gee’s article in A New Literacies Sampler talks more about how people use games as spaces to learn to negotiate different sets of values and goals, and how that can prepare people for adopting their own value systems to “real-world” scenarios. He still bypasses the moral content itself, but it is a more in-depth look at how we interact with games on a behavioral level.

    • Thanks for your reply! I’m definitely going to have to read that article in the Sampler. You hit it on the head when you said this: “But you’re right that we also can’t completely divorce ourselves from talking about learning behaviors and the content of the behaviors that are being learned.” I don’t want a debate about morality in video games; I think it’s tired and never goes anywhere. However, if you are writing about active learning and reading cultural clues, it feels cheap to ignore major themes presented in the genre. Just as child are learning that dark means somber means new strategies, they are learning cultural values and behaviors from the treatment of women.

      That’s what’s so scary about this active learning, which appears to occur below the surface: it can be used for political manipulation. Nate posted that video, which illustrates how the military has written video games to actively teach young people about the culture of military and the skills of warfare, but in an attempt to emotionally manipulate them into joining the military. It just feels lazy to be to ignore how content is taught in these forms when writing explicitly about learning, affinity groups, and video games.

  3. I should point out that Gee’s piece in the Sampler is also explicitly apolitical in terms of critiquing game values, but I think it is good background for a fuller understanding of how and why video games could be important in a composition or ethnographic classroom.

    And yeah, the notion of uncritiqued active learning is very strange because you’re not always aware of the ways you’re being manipulated. I think that’s where the Ian Bogost piece lays some solid groundwork for critiquing it.

  4. This is such an important point, and one that I too hope will be further addressed by Gee (I’ve ordered the book, so I’ll let you know). This does seem to me a perfect example of the potential intersection of gaming and composition/pedagogy. Here is an opportunity to have students evaluate critically the kind of information they are taking in. I think a great assignment could be built around a rhetorical analysis of such video game violence, an analysis that asks students to interrogate the game and its message(s), the effect on audience, the argument(s) the game is making about individuals and society. The truly generative possibility here, the chance for active learning, is not to condemn the violence and misogyny in the games, but to have students read them critically, to teach them to look beneath the surface of the game and make their own conclusions based on disciplined analysis.

  5. This is such an important point, and one that I too hope will be further addressed by Gee (I’ve ordered the book, so I’ll let you know). This does seem to me a perfect example of the potential intersection of gaming and composition/pedagogy. Here is an opportunity to have students evaluate critically the kind of information they are taking in. I think a great assignment could be built around a rhetorical analysis of such video game violence, an analysis that asks students to interrogate the game and its message(s), the effect on audience, the argument(s) the game is making about individuals and society. The truly generative possibility here, the chance for active learning, is not to condemn the violence and misogyny in the games, but to have students read them critically, to teach them to look beneath the surface of the game and make their own conclusions based on disciplined analysis.

    • Hi Mark! Thanks for the reply. You hit it on the head, and I’m so glad I didn’t come off as absolutely condemning violence in video games. Like you said, I see this as a giant missed opportunity in a great work about the intersections of pedagogy and video games. I’d love to hear what you have to say about the rest of Gee’s book, and I think the assignment you describe would be incredibly productive, especially in a high school classroom.

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