Video Games & Learning: Violence, Realism, & the Good

Having read the entirety of Gee’s What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy (2007) this week, there are several points in his arguments which I think might be clarified. The first has to do with transfer of learning. While Gee mentions in the beginning of the book that violent video games have been shown to not spread violence generally (but have been shown to have mild effects on the aggressive behavior of boys), throughout the book Gee’s arguments hinge on the premise that real world lessons can be learned inside of video games and will be transferable outside of video games. If the point of violent video games is to kill other players (some of my favorite video games are of this variety), and yet this behavior has not been shown to increase outside of video games, is this not some sort of indicator that these practices are not being learned in the video games? In other words, that transfer has broken down entirely in this respect? If people who play violent video games are not more inclined to violence in the non-virtual world, why would we assume that people who play math video games are more inclined to math in the non-virtual world, or that people who play problem solving games will transfer these skills into their outer lives? Do violent games teach us violence? If not, do math games teach us math? Or problem solving games teach us problem solving? Or situated embodiment environments teach us how to think and act like the “other”? I think we have a lot to learn from video games, and that we can learn a lot in video games. But this goes both ways. We are learning violence when we commit violent actions through an avatar. Violence is not merely physical—are we training ourselves to think and act differently toward those that are perceived as “bad guys”? So I think transfer is occurring, it is perhaps just not being studied.

Second, are the types of tasks typically confronted in good video games fundamentally similar to what we intend for students to learn in the midst of school? Is it just embodied action that we want students to be able to tackle in the real world? Are video game environments “dirty” enough to simulate the kind of world students will inhabit? What I mean with this last question, is that video game rules or mechanics, even in complex games, do not begin to approach the complexity of the rules (or lack of rules) in the real world, and the amount of variables present is so unrealistic as to be false. The real world is messy, dirty, full of contradictions and problems, often of a presently incomprehensible variety. Abstractions in school environments are an attempt to confront some of this variableness. Whether they are taught well or poorly is another matter, but in the end, students must memorize and learn abstract dis-embodied concepts at some point in order to deal with a real world that does not work like the clock-work of a good video game. The tasks to be performed in the real world are far messier and require not merely an overly simplified account or environment in which to learn them—they require abstraction, reflection and application to messy (but useful) cases. I agree with Gee that schools are in general not doing this well, but I think video games do not bring us all the way either.

Third, the kinds of games with which Gee deals are mainly concerned with entertainment of players. A game is “good” in and of itself if it fulfills its purpose of entertainment. Players enjoy, and it is good (no outside purpose or aim is necessary). On the other hand, learning is not a good in and of itself, it is always for something (or at least it should be). Good learning helps people do, think, or feel some way they were not previously, and this not only in the learning environment, but outside of the learning environment as well (and primarily). Learning is only as good as it is transferable to situations outside the limited scope of the original learning environment. Because games have a simpler (less complex) aim that is game-focused (instead of transfer-focused), it may be that the kinds of motivations and techniques used in video games may not always be directly appropriated for learning environments (or for serious games—games that have a focus on learning).

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