Professor James Gee kicked off the 4th Games, Learning, and Society Conference in Madison, Wisconsin with a talk entitled "Beyond Games & the Future of Learning", citing titles from Portal to World Of Warcraft to explain why games are uniquely suited to create 'passion communities' where learning can thrive.
Gee is Professor of Literacy at Arizona State University and the author of 'What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy' (2003) and 'Why Video Games Are Good For Your Soul' (2005).
Gee sees the current U.S. educational system as inadequate to the task of addressing the problems of an increasingly complex world. He stated that "21st century learning must be about understanding complex systems," and he believes many video games do a better job at this than the antiquated sender-receiver teaching model that dominates American classrooms.
"We're at the point where we must make choices. What do we want to be about?" Gee sees two separate educational systems operating today: one a traditional approach to learning; the other what Gee calls "passion communities."
In Gee's view, the latter produce real knowledge. Video games, virtual worlds and online social networks provide environments in which these passion communities can form and thrive.
Passion communities encourage and enable people of all ages to do extraordinary things. Gee believes the 'amateur knowledge' that arises from this immersive involvement often surpasses 'expert knowledge,' and cited fantasy baseball as an example.
The boundaries between the 'fantasy' game and the 'real' game have been blurred because fantasy players' expertise in statistical analysis has had a measurable impact on how MLB teams evaluate players.
Passion communities exist, according to Gee, to "give people status and control, not always money." He recounted the story of a young girl who began making clothes for her Sims characters. When she wanted more textures than the game provided, she taught herself to use Photoshop to create her own.
Eventually, she moved to Second Life and began selling her own original designs. When asked if she planned to pursue her interest in fashion, she said no. "I want to work with computers because they give you power."
"This is an alternative learning system that teaches more effectively than most schools," Gee observed. "We need to learn how to organize a learning, passion system community. Game designers know how to do this."
Gee noted that games often require complex problem solving and cited Portal as an excellent example - noting ironically that the game can be seen as a parody of traditional schooling. He cited a description of the game from Valve's website: "The game is designed to change the way players approach, manipulate, and surmise the possibilities in a given environment."
What, Gee wondered, if a school could do that? "Education isn't about telling people stuff, it's about giving them tools that enable them to see the world in a new and useful way."
Gee believes games elicit empathy for a complex system. "That's what games at their best can do. The passive spectator gains insight by getting involved." As players engage with games by creating mods, for example, they are creating tools that "theorize their play as they play."
In fact, it's suggested, World of Warcraft mods created by expert players "eventually eat the experience," providing a kind of emergent play that is superior to the experience built by the designers.
Gee sees broad implications for students in this regard. "Give students smart tools and let them use them and modify them to suit their purposes." Such self-motivated learning moves students away from merely consuming knowledge and encourages them to produce knowledge and apply it in meaningful ways.
Furthermore, Gee observed, when communities form around these activities, they are linked by a common endeavor, rather than by race, class, gender, or disability.
Gee clearly situates video games within an overall theory of learning and literacy with genuine power to transform students and equip them to address complex problems.
If passion communities could be formed to solve real-world problems like hunger and environmental degradation, Gee believes we would be much better equipped to face these issues head-on. The challenge, according to Gee, isn't just about teaching our kids; it's about ensuring they have a viable world to live in.