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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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James Gee: What Do Video Games Have to Do with Project-Based Learning?

John Larmer

Editor in Chief at the Buck Institute for Education

It was September 13, 2011, and we were just about to hear a talk by James Paul Gee, author of What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. The talk was part of our annual community meeting of the Buck Institute for Education. Here's a summary of our conversations -- before and after watching Gee speak. (Please scroll down for a video of highlights from Gee's presentation.)

John: Hey Dave, I'm not sure about this guest speaker we have for our community meeting. Aren't a lot of us educators worried about how kids spend their time these days? I'm always trying to get my teenage son to stop playing video games and pick up a book or go outside!

David: As a dad of two boys I worry about the same thing. That is why our house has clear rules about game playing. We designate Mondays as electronics free days. My wife and I, who both play games on our iPads, adhere to the rule too. We limit game-play on weekends to four hours per day. On most school nights we are so busy with home work and sports the boys never have time to play. I wouldn't want my kids to read 8 hours a day so why would I let them play video games 8 hours a day.

John: I don't play games myself. I tried a few with my son but I decided I would rather spend my spare time, well, reading something or taking a walk -- and my fingers got tired!

David: I don't think everyone is or will be an avid gamer. I don't think everyone is or will be an avid reader. That doesn't mean I don't want my sons to be fluent readers. It just means I think there is an electronic fluency that is equally crucial. Games are an important feature of popular culture, and I want my sons to be critical consumers of that culture. We approach the purchase of a game (even if it's a 99 cent game on iTunes) in the same way we approach the purchase of a book from a new author. We read the reviews, online and in print, and make an informed choice.

John: But when we promote project based learning in our work, aren't we saying that kids should have "real-world" experiences instead of traditional school assignments? How does that square with sitting in front of a screen?

David: I would argue that the 20th century description of the "real world" is very much dated. The real world of today includes augmented reality and the fact that we each have the processing power of yesteryear's supercomputer on our hip. I watch my boys play when they are on X-Box Live. They don't like to play unless they are collaborating in teams with their friends and relatives, unless they can talk with their friends through the headsets that plug into their controllers, or unless they can create elements of their gaming experience (the Forge feature in Halo 3 or MineQuest come to mind). Sounds pretty much like "real-world" 21st century skills to me.

John: Well, let's go hear this guy and I'll keep an open mind . . .

Here's a conversation we had after hearing James Gee's talk:

John: Ok, so should I start with Portal, SWAT 4, or what about Chibi-Robo? I don't think I'm ready for World of Warcraft yet. Kidding! I still have too many books on my list. But seriously, I might try a few games with my son. Or at least I won't worry quite so much that he's not getting anything from gaming besides the thrill of being a first-person shooter.

David: The games and entertainment you enjoy in the analog world are a good indicator of what you will enjoy in the virtual world. My wife loves Sodoku, which she played on paper every night before we went to sleep. She now plays it on her iPad. I love crossword puzzles and strategy games (Risk and Stratego, for example) and those are the same genre of games I have on my iPad and iPhone. My wife loves cooking (as do I and my sons) and all three of us play Cooking Mama on a variety of platforms.

John: What surprised me, and I think many of the people who attended, was that James' message was not "video games can be used to teach science, history, math, etc." but "education should be more like a well-designed video game." I can see how the learning principles that good games incorporate have parallels with PBL Here's a big one: James talked about how no gamer ever reads the manual before playing the game; it's boring and doesn't make sense until you've played, then you might use it just as a reference. Sort of like reading a textbook; we have to put students "in the game" so they will comprehend and care about what they're learning. The game = the project.

David: As usual, I agree with James. Based on my sons, though, I want to focus on the Need to Know, one of the eight Essential Elements of PBL that define our model at BIE. My boys are 12 and 10 and have played together in the analog and virtual world inseparably since birth. As the boys moved into more complex games on a variety of platforms my oldest son began a long winning streak against his brother. The timing of this was crucial - it occurred when my oldest son learned to read. Timothy was able to read the onscreen prompts, dialogue boxes and tips. Christian knew why he was losing: He couldn't read. His solution was simple. We embarked on a crash course in reading a year before he entered kindergarten. My son had a Need to Know, and he needed to know how to read.

John: I liked how he talked about the importance of identity in gaming, another learning principle that applies to PBL. In a good project students commit to an authentic task, in the identity of scientist, or engineer, web designer, writer, or whatever. Some of the other principles that I also see in PBL are risk taking, interaction, customization, sense of agency/ownership, just-in-time/on-demand information, situated meaning, systems thinking, and cross-functional teams. Let's just say I'll never think of video games the same way again!

John Larmer

Editor in Chief at the Buck Institute for Education
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Paula's picture

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. I, myself, could relate to the collaborative gaming topic because I do not play games such as, Call of Duty by myself and always party up with friends. Games like Portal and Portal 2 encourage and stimulate strategic, critical thinking and are very good for people of all ages to stay sharp. Reading this really made me realize how much of unconventional activities are actually educationally beneficial. Thanks!

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