School is a video game. You have stages or levels (the different forms) with each containing a boss fight or test. You have to master certain skills to continue to the next level, you have fellow gamers within a same clan, which are called classes. You can, in many countries, choose a personalised path towards the end-game by picking certain subjects and leaving others. Finally there is the boss of the game in the form of a big test. When you have finished the boss fight, you have won the game and you receive rewards. So why do video games keep a gamer’s attention, whilst school has difficulty in keeping students motivated? The book What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy answers the first part of the question, though fails to explain the second part.
What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy is not about how to implement the 36 learning principles used in video games in a classroom situation or education in general. Some readers might therefore be dissatisfied, but that has more to do with their assumptions about the book than the book itself. Gee neatly explains how video games (those where you take on the role of a virtual character) work, not how to implement the principles. Some examples are mentioned, but they are too situational and merely scratch the surface. The problem is that classrooms and subjects differ as teachers and students differ. There isn’t a miraculous gamification cure to motivate students in every class, but Gee raises awareness and explains why the principles work in games. It is up to us teachers how to use them in our curriculum.
Some teachers think all teenagers are computer experts and know what the internet and computers are all about. They think every teenager has a smartphone, incessantly plays computer games and knows how to program a website. In my experience they are far from it. Yes, there are students who are so called whiz kids, but after a survey in some of my classes only 30% had a smartphone and most of them didn’t have internet (apart from Wi-Fi of course) on that phone. When I wanted my 15-year old students to create a WordPress account, a lot of them needed guidance in creating one, even though some of them were notorious Twitter users.
Children learn what they need to learn in order to reach a certain goal. This model of learning is what I call the ‘gamer’-approach: you learn something in order to get an immediate result or an explicit advantage later in the game. I buy an expensive hotel for Boardwalk/Mayfair¹ in order to get other players to pay me a lot of money if they will get there. Education goes beyond that kind of reasoning. It is often difficult to explain why a student should master certain skills and knowledge at school. It is the responsibility of the teacher to guide, motivate and sometimes even manipulate the student to let him or her master certain skills or master certain knowledge.
What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy offers guidance in methods to implement in the classroom: “The key is finding ways to make hard things life enhancing so that people keep going and don’t fall back on learning only what is simple and easy” (WVGTLL p. 3). No, we shouldn’t merely play (computer) games in class, but the learning principles should be considered. Some of them are easier to implement than others, but they should all be considered tools to help us teachers teach knowledge and skills to our students in a way that makes sense to them. Because ultimately it is about those students having mastered the knowledge and skills to take on the world and shape it.
However, we should be aware that not every learner is a gamer and learns like a gamer. The 36 gaming principles won’t work for every student, although most students will benefit from implementing some of them. Gamification is not the Holy Grail for education. It is another tool for the toolbox which teachers should take seriously.
I have decided to give my thoughts on every chapter of What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy and try to come with an answer to the question, if school is like a video game, why does it often fail where a lot of video games succeed? I will try to bridge the information of the 36 principles given in the book to a secondary school situation. Although I strongly recommend buying the book (ISBN 978-1-4039-8453-1), you will be able to understand the articles without it. I won’t mention all the principles and I will provide my own examples and situations to clarify Gee’s ideas. The articles are divided into eight parts corresponding the seven chapters of the book (except for number 7: Stories which I missed and added myself):
- Semiotic Domains
- Learning and identity
- Situated meaning and learning
- Telling and doing
- Cultural models
- The Social mind