James P. Gee’s What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy: A Review

A Review of What Video Games Have To Teach Us About Learning and Literacy


Gee looks forward to a time when students will say the same things about school as they do, today, about video games: “hard is always good, easy is not” (p. 175). Although he worked as a linguist originally, playing a video game called Pajama Sam with his six-year-old son was a catalyst for his research into the educational possibilities of video games. Since then, he has researched extensively, published books and numerous papers on the subject, worked with the MacArthur Foundation, and is currently the Chief Games Scholar at Arizona State University. Through his experiences in his journey from gaming immigrant to full-fledged gamer, Gee discovered what he believes are a set of learning principles embedded within video games that have the potential to guide us towards improved learning in our schools today. In his 2006 book Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, Henry Jenkins describes Gee as an education reformer who “hope[s] to break the stranglehold formal education has on children’s learning and to expand opportunities for children to practice literacy outside the classroom” (2006, p. 208). Gee continues to be outspoken regarding the need for change in today’s schools, and this text provides significant evidence to support his arguments.


Gee explicitly states his purpose for writing What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy from the first pages: to outline 36 learning principles inherent in video games; to inform readers of situated cognition, New Literacy Studies, and connectionism, three important areas of current research; and to convince us “to build schooling on better principles of learning” (p. 9). He believes the 36 principles of learning in video games are the better principles of learning upon which we should build schools.

Gee organizes his text into major chapters, each focuses on a few video games to illustrate several of his learning principles. For instance, to illustrate the concept of semiotic domains, Gee uses the game Pikmin and a young player who applies his understanding of the different colors of pikmin characters to problem solve and overcome challenges. Lara Croft and the Tomb Raider series demonstrates the importance of embedding learners within a domain, a concept Gee returns to frequently throughout the text.

Many common themes develop throughout the text. Gee thinks of schools as places caught up in passive learning: teachers give information and students receive information. Students can be successful in school regardless of how well they can solve real problems with the information they have learned. Rarely, he argues, are students actively participating in the construction of new knowledge – a stark contrast to the world of gaming in which gamers must build their own knowledge to achieve new levels of play, and understanding.

Gee asserts that video games can accomplish goals for which today’s schools are simply ill equipped and not designed to achieve. Unlike schools, which promote students to new grades (in games, these would be called levels) based on many external criteria and tests that may not be a true indication of a student’s learning, games stay on the edge of a player’s “regime of competence” (p. 67). Games offer just the right amount of challenge for the gamer – an idea, that, if applied to learning, would ensure that learners are receiving tailored instruction. Returning to his roots as a linguist and literacy professor, Gee explains how the idea of learning at the edge of one’s competence ensures that learning, rather than frustration, is achieved. However, in schools, students are often faced with challenges that exceed their level of competence or do not provide any difficulty, therefore inhibiting growth.

Gee also makes interesting points about games, identity, and cultural models. “People cannot learn in a deep way within a semiotic domain if they are not willing to commit themselves fully to the learning in terms of time, effort, and active engagement” (p. 54). For example, when students see themselves as “good at” or “bad at” specific skills in school, that identity impacts their success in those activities. In playing most video games, players rely on virtual identities and do commit themselves fully with time, effort, and active engagement. Furthermore, Gee argues that games provide opportunities to apply existing cultural models to experiences and gain new understanding from the disparities that arise. He employs the example of playing the part of the bad guy in Sonic Adventure 2 Battle, but the greater implications are apparent. Games provide a unique opportunity to experience a situation from another perspective.


Gee’s argument that educators should apply the design features of video games to learning is well supported by his 36 learning principles. “Through good game design,” he suggests, “we can leverage deeper and deeper learning as a form of pleasure in people’s everyday lives, without any hint of school or schooling” (p. 215). In addition to the learning principles, Gee’s illustrations of situated cognition, New Literacy Studies, and connectionism strengthen his argument and provide a common thread to weave all of his ideas together.

Gee and Marc Prensky, another video game researcher and education reformer, both agree that teachers are still vital and central actors in a classroom that includes video games and video game principles. In his 2006 book, “Don’t Bother Me Mom – I’m Learning,” Prensky explains that “one of the most interesting challenges and opportunities in parenting and teaching Digital Natives is to find ways to include reflection and critical thinking in their learning” (p. 37). Gee also sees reflection as an important part of the process that may be overlooked. Gee refers to what he calls a “reflective practice,” which Gee explains is the basis for the four-step process of probing, forming a hypothesis, reprobing, and rethinking; “Some consider this four-step process to be the basis of expert reflective practice in any complex semiotic domain” (p. 87-88). According to Gee and Prensky, students often need a teacher to help guide them through a reflective practice, especially to rectify incorrect associations and to guide students off of “garden paths” that distract from making the correct associations.

Gee’s ability to connect his ideas to meaningful anecdotes is one of the most appealing aspects of this text. Through various examples in the text, Gee establishes the importance of embodied learning and situated context in learning; both of which are key aspects to the learning principles inherent in video game design. To support his claims about the importance of situated cognition, Gee describes a scenario in which he distributed manuals for the game Dues Ex to a room of educated adults. He asked them to read the manuals. Were they able to decode the words? Of course, they were. Were they able to visualize and apply their literal understanding? No. His point in this exercise and for including this anecdote is to elucidate the problem many students face: they can decode the text in front of them; however, they have no way of applying their learning because schools today do not provide opportunities for application of many concepts. What does a student who reads a chapter about geology in a textbook truly understand about geology, besides definitions of key terms? Nothing, argues Gee. He explains that “[t]his is why so many school children, even ones who are good at school, can pass tests but still cannot apply their knowledge to real problem solving” (p. 105).

Today’s schools operate in a content view of learning: that learning is the process of distributing information from the teacher to the learner without regard for the social practices surrounding the development of those facts and ideas (p. 22). Gee objects to the “content view” of learning and believes that literacy is multimodal: print and images, for example. The New Literacy, to which Gee adheres, views literacy as a social practice and involves active, critical learning: “Literacy in any domain is actually not worth much if one knows nothing about the social practices of which that literacy is but a part” (p. 18). Gee advocates for overt reflection of gaming and games. He contends that video game learning is active whereas content-based learning in schools is passive. Digital technologies have ushered in this multimodal view of literacy.

The gaming culture, with affinity groups, forums, wikis, and massively multiplayer online games, exemplifies the idea of connectionism. Gee argues that “thinking and reasoning are inherently social. But they are also inherently distributed, and more and more so in our modern technological world” (p. 196). Gee’s text includes many anecdotes demonstrating the connectionism in our world. In one such scenario, Gee, a baby boomer, was able to reciprocate the frequent help he had received from fellow gamers who were members of a particular game’s affinity group. Some players had been posting to forums asking for assistance in operating a cheat code. This particular cheat code required the use of MS-DOS, an operating system with which Gee is familiar because DOS was the operating system when Gee was much younger. Thus, Gee explains the significance of connectionism: “here we see that even a weak link in a network can make the network more powerful in the right circumstances” (p. 202). Although Gee’s qualifying himself as a weak link may be humorous in light of Gee’s achievements outside of this particular game, the point is clear. Gee, not an expert gamer, is a weak link in that affinity group; in the world of education, though, Gee could not be considered a weak link. Our connection and participation within the myriad associations we make build the knowledge base to which we have access. Unfortunately, Gee argues, we assess students apart from their “thinking tools” (p. 197).


Some might argue that Gee imbues his text with superfluous jargon; however, his application of terms – affinity space, semiotic domains, design grammar, situated learning, critical learning, appreciative systems, metalevel thinking – are clearly illustrated through easily understood examples. Further, the “jargon” is necessary to prove his point: video games can guide current learning theory towards the development of more effective schools. Educators, game developers, and researchers are well served to develop an academic vocabulary to discuss these games as genuine artifacts rather than fringe fads.

Through each section of the prose, the reader may begin to question: what does this have to do with education? Just as the question begins to surface, Gee summarily answers the question thoroughly and explicitly, tying all of his previous game-based examples with real-world educational significance – as tenuous as some of those connections may be. His point, however, is never lost: video games have great potential for learning. Still, even though Gee manages to explain the games he plays in clear, accessible language, how does someone with no gaming experience – the baby boomers to whom he frequently alludes – gain a true understanding of the references, comparisons, and applications he discusses?

Gee’s affection for games as a gamer is difficult to overlook. Clearly, he has jumped into the “gamer affinity space” headfirst; he is fully immersed in gaming culture. As a result, he romanticizes the games he discusses. A person with little to no gaming experience may still feel alienated by his text, but ignoring his message would remain difficult because his points are clear and his arguments are valid and strong.

Gee makes a tenuous claim that games “are surrounded by a great many written texts” (p. 97). In this claim, Gee counts forums, blogs, wikis, and manuals as the great many texts. Unfortunately, in comparison to the breadth of texts available outside of gaming, “a great many” is reaching to make a connection that may not be as strong as he asserts, or hopes.

In the introduction and again in the conclusion, Gee clearly states that he wrote this book as plea to recognize that schools are broken and suggests that we look to video games as a way to transform our teaching practices, but he offers no solutions. Gee attempts to show examples of gaming concepts in application; however, each application that he discusses in his text hails from a science classroom – not once does he enter another discipline in gaming concept application. Many of the concepts are transferrable, but to gain the widespread buy-in that a movement such as his requires, Gee needs to show applications across the curricula. But, Gee never suggests that he has the answers. After all, he states from the beginning that his is a plea to fix broken schools. To that end, he is successful.

Final Thoughts

Gee offers some powerful questions – as yet, he acknowledges, unanswered questions – regarding the role of video games as actors in social and cultural movements towards improving education for students. How can teachers begin applying these learning principles now? How can schools harness the qualities in games that encourage students to devote hours endeavoring to solve complex and challenging problems? How can educators, policy makers, and administrations support a shift in schools that truly prepares students for the twenty-first century as Gee sees it?

“In my view, in the twenty-first century we need the following — and we need them fast and all at once together: embodied empathy for complex systems; “grit” (passion + persistence); playfulness that leads to innovation; design thinking; collaborations in which groups are smarter than the smartest person in the group; and real understanding that leads to problem solving and not just test passing. These are, to my mind, the true twenty-first century skills. We will not get them in schools alone and we will never get them in the schools we currently have” (Gee, 2009, p. 4).

In the end, the criticisms of the text are minor factors, for Gee, himself, says that he “meant to argue that one way (not the only way) to deliver good learning in schools and workplaces would, indeed, be via games or game-like technologies” (p. 215).  For any policy maker who would like to realize the potential that already exists, Gee’s book is an excellent guidebook through the world of gaming and its potential for learning. For any educator who is interested in a set of new principles of learning, Gee’s book is an excellent resource. For any gamer who would like to understand how gaming is good, Gee’s book is an excellent read. Gee’s book is for educators and gamers what Prensky’s book, “Don’t Bother Me Mom – I’m Learning,” which contains a forward by Gee, is for parents: an excellent guide towards understanding what and how video games are functioning to transform players in small and large manners.

Works Cited

Gee, J. P. (2007). What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Gee, J. P. (2009, April). Games, learning, and 21st century survival skills. Journal of Virtual Worlds Research, 2(1), 3-9.

Jenkins, Henry. (2006). Convergence culture: Where old and new media collide. New York, New York: New York University Press.

Prensky, M. (2006). Don’t bother me mom – I’m learning. St. Paul, MN: Paragon House.



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