What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy


Gee, James Paul. What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy. Gordonsville, VA, USA: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. ProQuest ebrary. Web.

In his book What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy, author James Paul Gee explains what video games have to offer users in terms of developing literacy skills, pedagogical applications, and learning principles that provide the framework for well-made video games. In the introduction, Gee begins with a central question: “what determines how you read or think about some particular thing?” (2). Throughout the introduction to his text, he pulls apart that question to identify how video games are a fruitful part of the discussion surrounding developing understandings of learning, literacy, and how to effectively teach these skills. Within each chapter of this book, Gee elaborates on a significant aspect of the relationship that video games can have to learning and acquiring literacy skills. This annotation will focus primarily on the first four chapters.  In the second chapter of his book, Gee discusses the potential multimodality of literacy, and how that literacy can be understood within different semiotic domains. Semiotic domains have a significant impact on how players learn within the game, how they understand the game within broader social contexts, and how critical learning happens within these semiotic domains. Gee follows this discussion with a chapter on how video games relate to the formation of identity through these semiotic domains, and how learners interact with the various levels of identification they experience as a result of engaging with an online game environment. In the fourth chapter of the text, Gee focuses on the idea of narrative and the impact that situated and embodied meaning within narratives has on both game play and learning more generally. Throughout each chapter, Gee draws examples from video games, as well as from other non-game sources within a digital sphere; however, his focus is primarily to emphasize the potential that video games hold for reinforcing the learning and literacy skills which he elucidates throughout each chapter. At the end of each chapter, Gee lists the various Learning Principles he has brought up over the course of the chapter. These are then collated at the end of the book into one final master list of thirty-six learning principles that good video games have, that game developers and educators can take into consideration in order to facilitate learning.


This text is a valuable resource for both SIPI and other endeavours or projects that currently address gameful experiences as they relate to the digital humanities. From the perspective of academia and academics, Gee’s text presents a useful discussion of the psychological processes at play while the player is experiencing the game. These include learning the internal and external design grammars of a semiotic domain, how video games establish a “psychological moratorium” (63) and the impact that has on players, and the formation of identity on three separate but related planes (virtual, real-world, and projective) (54), among others. Chapter three in particular provides a potentially fruitful direction for future academic study, discussing how video games support the formation and negotiation of three levels of identity, thereby opening up the question of how ludic experiences relate to self-hood and the definition of self.


Gee’s work also holds interesting applications for practitioners in the world of digital games, in particular for game designers. The learning principles Gee lists throughout his text provide a framework that practitioners can use to create what Gee would deem “good” video games. By this, I mean if video game designers are cognizant of the learning principles that video games can potentially incorporate, they can build opportunities to engage with those learning principles directly into gameplay. As well, they can use these learning principles to expand the pedagogic potential of their games. Moreover, Gee gestures towards the issue of diversity and of representing diverse groups in video games; practitioners and game designers could be well served by Gee’s text in incorporating a wider range of characters, which could subsequently allow them to engage with a larger consumer base.


Finally, the group that arguably stands to benefit most significantly from Gee’s text is the public, specifically educators. Each chapter of Gee’s text is, as noted previously, oriented around various learning principles he derives from his examination of video games. These learning principles have huge pedagogical value for educators in creating curriculum expectations, designing units and lesson plans, creating assessment and evaluation tasks, and engaging students in acquiring digital literacy skills in a range of subject areas. Indeed, Gee presents a number of possibilities to engage skills learned from video games in the classroom. For example, in his discussion of identity formation, he draws not only on an example from a role-playing game, but also an example from a student in a science classroom. Gee’s observations return to practical concerns that educators can apply to their classrooms or to their learning environments. All of these elements combine to make Gee’s text an effective resource for the digital humanities, as he offers insights into digital games that support a variety of purposes and approaches. He also extends those insights beyond his specific example. What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy is an important text to consider for those working within the digital humanities.

For a Position Paper on James Paul Gee’s What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy, click here.

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