Learning from Games

I just finished a book that has me thinking a lot about games, gaming, and game design. The book, Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin, isn’t an academic text at all. It’s a fictional story of three friends who collaborate to design video games. Covering about twenty years of their lives together, the story details the ups and downs and successes and failures of their friendships, romances, and professional lives. While I really enjoyed the book (and I highly recommend it), it’s the gaming connections that really connected with me. Beyond detailing the process of making video games, Zevin uses gaming as a metaphor and as a lens for life. And for death. To do this, Zevin masterfully weaves game concepts into the narrative so the reader can see the comparisons she’s drawing. In one of the more emotionally challenging section of the book, a character reflects on gaming.

“You are a gaming person, which is to say you are the kind of person who believes that ‘game over’ is a construction. The game is only over if you stop playing. There is always one more life. Even the most brutal death isn’t final. You could have taken poison, fallen into a vat of acid, been decapitated, been shot a hundred times, and still, if you clicked restart, you could begin it all over again. Next time, you would get it right. Next time, you might even win.” (p. 365)

This reflection comes at a pretty pivotal point for the character. They’re likely not going to be able to click restart. For the character, “game over” is probably not a construction, but something existential. And when that section of the text finally reached its conclusion, I felt a sense of loss. And a groundless desire that the character would get another chance at success. But that’s the optimistic gamer in me.

As often happens with the things I read, my brain tries to find connections with my role as an educator. If gaming could serve as a lens and metaphor for life, it can also serve as one for teaching and learning.  That’s not my novel thought, but one shared by lots of people, including James Paul Gee. Besides researching linguistics and discourse, Gee has written a lot about what games can teach us about learning. In 2003, Gee wrote a book called What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy, which I strongly recommend for any game-minded teachers (or teaching minded gamers). Gee also edited a book called Good Video Games + Good Learning, which collects essay on video games, learning and literacy.  While Zevin weaves the gaming elements into her narrative, Gee takes a more analytical approach in his writing, explicitly making connections to games and game design in his writing. For example, in a chapter on the digital participation gap, Gee discusses gaming as a way to introduce different properties of environments where humans think and learn best. These properties include:

(a) learners have clear goals for taking an action in the experience, an action that they care about;
(b) learners gain good feedback as they seek to accomplish the goal, including feedback that might make them rethink their goals;
(c) learners are actively encouraged to compare and contrast this experience to other related experiences in order to find patterns (generalizations) in experience;
(d) learners are encouraged to think about and talk about their assumptions, hypotheses, and strategies while acting and after action;
(e) learners hear others talk about their assumptions, hypotheses, and strategies as they attempt to accomplish the same or a similar action (often in an “after action review session”);
(f) learners are encouraged to persist past failure, explore, take risks, and innovate (and, thus, the cost of failure cannot be too high);
(g) learners hear language—sometimes a specialist or academic form of language— that fits the experience and the actions and goals that are an integral part of it; and
(h) learners are assessed on multiple variables sensitive to growth across time and useful for planning new actions and experiences.

(Gee, 2013, p. 66)

As I read through these properties, I wonder whether we do enough to foster these properties not only in our classroom spaces, but in our workplaces, too. Sure, these properties are derived from the magical world of video games, where we can hit the “restart” button after a misstep or failure. But these properties can serve as important guides for those of us who are fortunate enough to create environments where others work and learn.

References:

Gee, J.P. (2003). What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy. Palgrave MacMillan.
Gee, J. P. (2013). Good video games+ good learning: Collected essays on video games, learning, and literacy. Peter Lang.
Zevin, G. (2022). Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. Random House.

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