Big Thinkers: James Paul Gee on Grading with Games | Edutopia
Edutopia on Facebook
Edutopia on Twitter
Edutopia on Google+
Edutopia on Pinterest Follow Me on Pinterest
WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Big Thinkers: James Paul Gee on Grading with Games

An Arizona State University professor sees a bright future for video games in the learning process -- in and out of school.
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Share

Big Thinkers: James Paul Gee on Grading with Games (Transcript)

James: We really believe that in a developed country like ours any person who has only standard skills or standardized skills they can be taught anywhere in the world now, and they can be done a lot more cheaply in low-cost centers. And so people are going to-- if they're going to survive in a developed country outside of low-level service work, they're going to have to have innovation and creativity. And so the form of schooling that we engage in basically privileges people who know a lot of facts but can't solve problems with them is on its last legs. It will not be economically prosperous form of schooling for us.

Interviewer: What's next?

James: Next will be schooling that stresses the ability to solve problems but not just to solve problems but to be able to do it collaboratively so that you can work in a group where the group is smarter than the smartest person in the group, and also where you can innovate with the tools you've learned and not just do standard solutions to problems. That's where we're going to go and that's one of the reasons people are interested in video games and related technologies, because again, they put you into worlds where you have to solve problems. All a videogame is, is problem solving. It's just a series of- if you think about it in some weird way a videogame is just an assessment. All you do is get assessed every moment as you try to solve a problem, and if you don't solve it, the game says you failed, try again and then you solve it and then you have boss which is a test, and you pass the test. I mean games essentially are a form of assessment. The thing that is probably the most painful, ludicrous part of schooling, but in a game it's a lot of fun, right, because it's handled in a very different way. One thing games don't really do is separate learning and assessment. They don't say learn some stuff and then later we'll take a test. They're giving you feedback all the time about the learning curve that you're on so they're not the only solution to this problem by any means but they're a part of the solution of getting kids in school to learn not just knowledge as facts, but knowledge as something you produce, and that in modern worlds you produce collaboratively.

One of the first games I played was a great game called Deus Ex, very complicated game and like any good baby boomer I read the game manual. And the game manual is just as technical as a textbook and I couldn't understand a word of it. It was boring, it was technical. It had lots of definitions that would cross reference other definitions and I threw it away and said "I can't play this game. I can't understand a word of this." And then I decided to do what any kid would have done is I played the game, right? And after a few-I didn't play it well, but after a few hours I picked up that little book, that little manual and everything in it was completely clear. Why? Because I had seen the reference to every word in it. I had seen what it was referring to. I was seeing what it was about. Well, my argument is the same with your chemistry textbook. Chemis-- the words in a chemistry textbook are tied to a game, the game of chemistry, what chemists do when they want to solve a problem. The words are tools for problem-solving. They're not just facts to do trivial pursuit with. And if you played the game of chemistry you come to understand why people use the words as tools to do things, to engage in actions, and to label images.

Now if you played the game, what you do with the manual is use it as a reference to look up stuff that you need to know to get better or to understand something in the game that you don't think you fully understand, and that's the same way a textbook ought to be used. You ought to be using your chemistry textbook when you've already understood that there's something you need to know about chemistry and you go and use it then proactively. So I don't think it's a radical proposal, actually. I think that scientists have always learned the language of science by doing science. Videogames just allow kids to do a lot more things, things that would be too expensive to do in the real world or that we can't get everybody to do in the real world.

In games like Civilization you know where it comes with an encyclopedia people don't read the encyclopedia and then play. They're not motivated to read the encyclopedia until they've played and then they play and they get into something like Egypt and then they want to go read about it. Or they mod the game and they want to go change some part of it and they go read about that part that they're going to change or learn stuff. So it's language on-demand instead of being forced on you. The other thing games do with language is they give it just in time. If you're in a game and the game needs to give you some language it gives you just the language you're going to use in the next few actions. System Shock, a very classic game, really had no manual. What it did is in the first levels of the game you had little kiosks and it would tell you just something you needed to know and in the next room you applied it. And if it didn't work, you'd go back and read it and apply it again and so it's language just in time.

Loads of games today come with the software by which they were made so the kids can modify them, redesign them. Kids want to produce. They don't just want to consume. There's a whole emphasis now on production not just consumption. So Spielberg's new game, Boom Blox is not just a game. It actually has a whole engine in which every level you play you earn more characters that you can use to build your own games. You can design your own games. So production, as Henry Jenkins has pointed out, participation. Kids want to participate in communities and when social networking software like Flicker and Facebook and MySpace and many, many more kids and adults too can organize into groups faster than they've ever been able to do in history. They can organize into groups that don't have to be supported by formal organizations, and those groups are often they are what I call passion communities. People have a passion for something and the way those can be- passion communities are being organized are very different than school. They're different in that they're not age-graded, in that anybody can both teach and learn. At certain times you're mentoring at other times you're being mentored.

I think the other thing is that while baby boomers tend to look at things like games and other media separately, modern kids see all these medias converging. So if you take something like Pokemon, that's books and card games and video games and television shows and movies. That's true of all the anime stuff, so to kids it's really cross-platforms, cross-modalities, cross-media. It's not about one thing. People have bemoaned that kids do not do much writing in school. Some people even say that games are killing reading and writing. Far from it, they're actually engaging kids with reading and writing more than ever. So fan fiction sites where kids write genre stories about a particular anime character or any possible thing that they have a passion for, they are flourishing. There's hundreds of thousands of Harry Potter stories for example. That you couldn't name a television show, a game, an anime series that doesn't have fan fiction written about it. And those people have organized themselves into fan fiction writing groups and even colleges where you could take courses free to learn how to do the fan fiction. So we're finding out that loads of people are learning English that way. They're coming in and they're stigmatized in their ESL class at school but they're getting on the computer and they're engaged in a fan fiction writing site in English and they're getting a bunch of feedback and they're learning to write.

Now interestingly these passion communities like designing clothes for The Sims or engaging in civic activism if that's what you're doing, they tend to set very high standards. We whine about the standards in school but these communities hold you to a very high standard. And if you want to enter the top part of that community, they will give you copious feedback but they don't dumb anything down for you and they hold you to very high standards.

Using digital tools in the classroom, in games but other digital tools including even these social networking tools that allow people to get into groups to do stuff is right now risky. Risky because our schools are many of them are test-prep academies doing the skill and drill. When we start to stress in order to compete with China and India we stress innovation and creativity this can be a lot less risky. You know the United States has had a good track record when it gets scared of trying to change its schools. When Sputnik went up we were really eager to start teaching. When in the '80s when Japan was beating our economy we were really ready to start teaching. We are going to get a new Sputnik and that is this global competition and you will then see people willing to innovate. And but teachers of course have to be rewarded for innovating themselves, for bringing new tools into this stuff. The other thing that we've done that is to me the root of the problem is that we have de-professionalized teachers. We have allowed a bunch of text books and tests and politicians and schools of education to supervise them and to do curriculum for them in ways that take away their professional responsibilities to build their own curriculum and to think strategically about how learning works in their classroom. We've got to re-professionalize teachers. Now that's right now anathema for people who want scripted instruction, but it is inconceivable that we could be using these digital tools with teachers who are not professionals.

How are we really going to reform schools when the people going into teaching are not really digitally savvy even when they're young, not as savvy as the kids? I think it can be a potential advantage because if they're learning along with their kids and modeling learning you have really a very good world for learning. Very often you don't learn that much from an expert. You can learn a lot by learning with somebody else and remember most of these passion communities engage in that type of mentorship. You get to watch other people learn and you try out stuff and people give you feedback so there's no reason why we can't put teachers in that domain. The other thing though we've got to do is make teaching a much more sexy job. You know Americans don't, unlike some other countries, Americans don't think of teaching as a really sexy job. "Wouldn't that be a cool thing to do?" But that's because our schools aren't very cool. If we begin to create learning environments that are not like the traditional school where people are learning in all different physical spaces with all different tools engaged in collaborations to solve real problems in the world, I could imagine teaching becoming a sexy enterprise and a cool enterprise that people would want to do.

We have now an economy with many businesses and many organizations including educational organizations and universities that are now ready to produce with digital tools learning 24/7. In ways that are often as we've talked about more productive and more focused in 21st century skills of schools. So schools have a new competition they have never had at this level in history, and if that competition I think will put tremendous pressure on them for the first time to change in a profound way. When we add the innovation crisis to it, I think we might be I think we have like a 50 percent chance of seeing for the first time in over 100 years a genuine paradigm shift in education. It's probably going to start in colleges. It might start in colleges. Colleges are profoundly out of kilter with their undergraduates, and they have a financial interest in keeping them, but I do think it will eventually affect all parts of the system from kindergarten right through college.

Narrator: For more information on what works in public education, go to

Get Video
Embed Code Embed Help

You are welcome to embed this video, download it for personal use, or use it in a presentation for a conference, class, workshop, or free online course, so long as a prominent credit or link back to Edutopia is included. If you'd like more detailed information about Edutopia's allowed usages, please see the Licenses section of our Terms of Use.


Video Credits

Directed by

  • Ken Ellis

Associate Producers:

  • Amy Erin Borovoy
  • Lauren Rosenfeld


  • Karen Sutherland

Camera Crew:

  • Orlando Video Productions

Produced with support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Comments (22)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Howard B. Esbin's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Society is waking up to the fact that learning and games are no more separate than science and innovation.

But this is ancient news. Consider Plato's observation. "You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation." The idea of embedded assessment is integral to the entire experience. How else does one progress from novice to master? Imagination gives life to what if. It's at play when tiger cubs 'hunt' and when pilots practice in flight simulators.

In the 13th century, San Po a Tibetan monk adapted an ancient Indian game to teach young monks and nuns. The modern descendent is Snakes and Ladders. One can see the underpinning concept of karma still at play.

In the 18th century, Froebel said play was the highest expression of human development. A century or so later Martin Buber said play was the exaltation of the possible.

And Dr. Gee is right. Learning through game play is more fun especially if its social. But again, even Barbarians knew this. The very word 'game' itself stems from Old Norse 'joy or glee'. Intertwined with the Goth for 'participation and communion'.

Of course, the Internet and digital technologies provide a tremendous platform for learning games. As an educator and learning game designer I've seen its value from the inside out, as it were. My only caution is that we don't uncritically elevate technology. We work with many teachers and counsellors who like that a version of our game, called Prelude, can be played part digitally and part manually. [The all digital version is in production.]

Prelude is designed to foster soft skills - such as self esteem, creativity, and collaboration - at an individual and group level. Incidentally, a three way assessment tool is embedded within the game process. Students can assess themselves and each other along with the facilitator. We've just concluded three years of successful piloting with community agencies and schools. The Eastern Townships School Board in Quebec is our principal education partner.

Thank you for the work that Edutopia does.

Howard B. Esbin, PhD

Theresa Lizakowski's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I found Dr. Gee's words inspiring and mind-opening! As a counseling and educational psychologist who has recently become immersed in the world of individualized instruction and homeschooling, I've seen firsthand how technology is transforming education, even as our current approaches fall short. The potential is boundless. Thank you, Dr. Gee for forging a path through the fog.

Margie Robinson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

What a clear and articulate explanation for using gaming in the learning process! Ive found a great one! Check out "Skate Kids Online"

Paige Shields, Grades K-12, Santa Barbara, CA's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I totally agree and appreciate Dr. Gee's comments. Like most computer professionals and experienced gamers, the benefits of gaming in education are obvious. I started an independent computer & gaming education center that offers after school enrichment workshops and camps for ages 6-17 a few years ago. We have seen a lot of prejudice against what we do by both parents and educators.

During breaks from workshops, kids are allowed to play the latest video games, and we use some games as learning tools as well (such as an Age of Empires history class). We call this recess for the brain since our workshops are 2-3 hours long, much longer than a traditional class for kids, so we pepper it with short game breaks which we use as a privilege when kids finish a set of tasks.

Around 30% of parents are very positive and enthusiastic about our program, but a much greater percentage are very negative and prejudiced against gaming and even computers. They complain that kids are sedentary and just playing games (which they mostly equate to watching TV) that they play at home anyway. We have actually had parents complain that their kids were having too much fun, and thus must not be getting a real education despite showing them the movie they just made, or the robot they programmed. These parents also never stay long enough to see a game played or that kids are not sedentary at all because when they play in an open, social environment they don't sit still. I believe the barrier of this prejudice is far greater than finding the money for these programs.

As for the schools, so far they barely talk to us. We offer our computer lab at very low cost to be rented during the school day. While we have offered this to many school administrators as at least a temporary solution to the budget crisis, they remain skeptical and are worried this would get in the way of raising money for computers in the schools.

We have also offered free technology integration training for teachers, but they barely show up, and if they do they almost never follow through on working with us to develop a lesson plan.

I would appreciate any advice on how to work with the schools to reach our ultimate goal of providing more computer and technology education for students. It seems to me that despite the fact that schools say they seek better computer and technology integration in schools, most don't have a clear plan to achieve this other than creating computer labs...without even knowing what they plan to teach. I believe most of our school administrators may not have enough technology experience themselves to be making good decisions in this area.

Dr Z Amps's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I recently played the video game Rock Band (like Guitar Hero), and as a professional musician for over 20 years I was totally blown away by the educational value that the game provides. It naturally introduces players to a solid rhythmic foundation and advanced hand-eye coordination needed to play instruments.

Problem solving is such an essential skill today and it is very difficult to teach straight on. Games are engaging and naturally bring the player into contact with the type of thinking necessary to be a good problem solver.

Alexey's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with professor Gee completely. Video games attract so much attention and time, these efforts should be directed in the right channel.

Henrick Borger's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

What I find most interesting here is what Prof. Gee points out about the underlying principles of gaming and education (with specific reference to assessment). Lets not focus on assessing with video games, but lets look at the kinds of assessment that takes place in games. Creating a pedagogical space that assesses continuously as part and parcel of being in that 'space'. The 'passion community' aspect of gaming, and the turning away from the outdated 'banking' method of assessment (Friere). I think that's what we can walk away with from this video. From reading other posts on this topic, people always get caught up on the phrase 'video gaming' and miss the real, underlying principles that are truly the educational goldmine here, and not simply the technological means of delivery. Just my take on it though,


Lance Clark's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My opinion on games is that games make the person sit longer and not out being active.

Mike's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I've been following Gee's work. I agree with his primary point, but I think it's beyond obvious. Well more or less, I think using a non-ludological (non-gaming, he approaches games like they're books) viewpoint like his is clearly outdated and borderline irrelevant. Additionally, the specifics are very vague and show a poor understanding of games, which doesn't help people like me any when dealing with entrenched administrators.

Guitar Hero doesn't help kids read, but there are games that do. The military has been doing this for years. These ideas aren't really new.

There are many pedagogical problems he overlooks, too which I won't get into because they're fairly academic. Ironically, the ludology journals really don't publish pedagogy stuff and vice versa, so it's not like anyone will find out about them either.

He also overlooks, consistently, the biggest problem with games - teachers are seldom early adopters, across the board. The tech acclimation level is astoundingly low. God forbid anyone publish my research on that though. IRB (ethical review board) approval is required for everything from sneezing to wiping your rear nowadays.

There's also the problem you can't get funding for this stuff. I have a M.Ed and program in 3 languages. I wanted to do some modding with the NWN toolset (IMO still the best one) for expressly pedagogical purposes and testrun it at my Uni's oncampus school. The department chair literally laughed at me. Outright laughed. I said I'd do it without funding. Again, more "red tape".

I have more research that's been censored by my U than that has been published. The academic wing of education is so backwards it's astounding.

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.