George Lucas Educational Foundation

James Paul Gee on Learning With Video Games

The gaming expert shares insights into why video games are such effective learning tools.
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James Paul Gee on Learning with Video Games (Transcript)

James: Digital media, video games in particular, work just like we know books work. You know, it's all the stuff that you know about literacy is true of digital media.

One thing that a lotta people who are not into games are not aware of is that today, in the way that people game socially is, the game is not the only thing at stake, right? And if you're gonna contemplate the possible use of games or digital media for learning about learning, you really have to say, "Wait a minute, don't just look at the game. There's more going on." Now, so I'm gonna show you what it is.

All right, this is World of Warcraft, 15 million people. This is the most played multiplayer game now in the world. It's a role playing game that has some interesting properties. Role playing means you have to play this with other people. You don't have to, but you do play this with other people. The basic unit is five people. Now in each of the five people, each one has to have a deep skill set, which they've chosen to specialize in those skills, and it has to be different than the other four. So you cannot bring in to the so called dungeons, that is, where you're going to go play and do challenges and fight-- you can't bring in five people with the same skill set. The problems are designed that they're hard, and they can only be solved if you integrate five different skill sets. See, so I was a priest, a healer. You bring in five priests to a dungeon and you die in two seconds, right? So the idea, first of all, is each person must be deeply skilled in one skill set, but has to understand the big picture, so they can integrate their skill set with the very different skill sets of the other people. Now why is this interesting? Because in the world of high tech work, this is called a cross functional team. If you go look at the new capitalism and high tech workplaces, they're almost all organized in cross functional teams, which means every member of the team has to be an absolute expert, but able to understand everybody else's role so they can integrate with it, and even replace them if they're gone. Now in work, this is considered extremely high stress. Then you go home to play World of Warcraft to do it again.

Portal is a game where you use a portal gun to make an orange or blue portal. And if you go in one, you come out the other, and they obey a whole bunch of the laws of physics, for this world, its own physical laws.

So this is a game that is essentially playing with a certain physics, and it's very interesting, problem solving, and it's a lot of fun.

And people could say, "Well, surely this is good for tacit understanding, kind of an embodied understanding," but it doesn't mean you can say any physics, right? And you know, as educators, say, "Well, you can't articulate your physics, so what good is it?" What those people are missing is that games today are only half the picture, because what happens in any game that people get passionate about is they play the game and then they get interested in going on an internet site, which I will call an affinity space, I'll tell you why, and discussing that game, modifying the game, researching it, and explicating everything about it, right?

And so, you get stuff, the first portal, like this. This is a group of people who play Portal who decided to make a Wiki to explicate all the physics in it. There are links, like in momentum, to actual physical definitions and physics textbooks and physics articles.

So now you see, whoa, far from there being no articulation and language of the knowledge being developed in the game, there's a whole community devoted to doing just that.

These games give rise to these people that get on the internet and begin to use quite technical, specialist language, like you just saw, right?

That is not vernacular English, right? You wouldn't talk that way at the dinner table. It's what people call academic language, or what I will call specialist language. Now this is the only piece of true gobbledygook I have in this talk and it's sad, but this is the way psychologists write. It's why they don't have friends. But yet the point is just really crucial. This is from a body of research that's now about twenty years old that shows that when human beings understand anything, whether it's a text or the world, they understand it not by abstract generalities, but by literally being able to run in their head a simulation of images and actions and experiences that the words refer to. And it turns out, and every teacher here is gonna say, "I could have told you that," when a human being is doing that is when they are thinking, because they have to get ready to take an action that they want to take, and they want that action to succeed, they think really well. But when you ask them to think about stuff, but there's no action they're gonna take, and they don't really care what the outcome is, they think very poorly.

You see, in American law, there's a very interesting legal principle that is completely wrong, called opportunity to learn. Courts have ruled, two kids had the same opportunity to learn if they got the same book. But in fact, I'm saying that if one kid has ten thousand hours of experience with the stuff the book's about, like ten thousand hours of playing Portal-- that's what the language is about-- that kid has a much better opportunity to learn than the kid that has fourteen minutes or seconds, right? That opportunity to learn is not the book. It's whether you can bring experience to the book.

When I first started to play video games, I was brand new, I was in my fifties and I was shocked at how hard they were. And like any good baby boomer, I said, "Okay, I can handle this. I'll read the manual first," and I sat down to read this little twenty page book. And the twenty page book had one hundred and ninety-nine bolded headings, each cross referenced to the other hundred and ninety-eight that were technical definitions. But I did what every kid would do, I went and played the game for hours, terribly. And then the weirdest thing happened to me. I picked this book up right there and I could no longer recover why that wasn't crystal clear. I couldn't even recover it anymore, because I have seen in the game, an image, an action, an experience, a goal, a dialog, that fit those words. See, these words are about a world, and if you haven't lived in that world, and you can't see it in your mind, these are just words. You can look them up in a dictionary, which is completely useless.

And it struck me at that day that the key problem of our schools, more now with No Child Left Behind, is it's full of manuals without the games. We have handed kids all the manuals without the games. And imagine, now if you did that to gamers, there'd be a revolution.

There isn't any such thing as technical, hard language. There's only language you don't know because you didn't live in its world, you didn't play its game. Therefore, in theory, we could level the playing field for the first time in American education if we brought the games to the manuals, and I don't mean a video game. If we brought the activities, the problem solving, the living in the worlds of chemistry and algebra, with making kids want to do things with them. That is, to see them as tools, to surmise new possibilities, that's the game. And if we brought those to school, they'd like it as well as Portal.

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Read a blog about the role of video games in project-based learning or visit our Video Games for Learning page for more resources on this topic.

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Richard Goldsmith's picture

Dr. Gee is pure genius in this video regarding project-based learning and games. As a gamer/educator for the past 20+ years, and World of Warcraft (WoW) player for the past 2 years, I am confident that we need to bring the games (subjects in schools) to the manuals (textbooks) in creative and exciting ways. Students need to be deeply engaged in their learning; also, learning should be hard work and rewarding.

This is what users (adults and kids) experience and expect when they play a game like WoW. Chew on this information regarding "priest" (Dr. Gee mentions his priest skillset in the video) healing statistics from a WoW website that supports the game:

"A very interesting thing happens when you reach one of these extra tick points: the duration of your damage- or healing-over-time spells increases from its hastened duration back to its natural duration. This is important to note because while the ticks are still ticking at roughly the same frequency as they were prior to hitting one of these points, and thus doing roughly the same DPS, they are now doing it for a slightly longer time. That extra time allows for you to insert other damage-dealing abilites such as Mind Flay (which aside from being our nuke is also behaves as a DoT benefiting from haste).

There are several formulas which are important to note, one calculates cast speed and another calculates the haste rating required for additional ticks.

To calculate the hastened cast time of a spell, use the following formula:
New_Cast_Time = Normal_Cast_Time / ((1 + (Haste_Rating / 12805)) * Shadow_Form * Darkness)
Where Shadow_Form = 1.05 and Darkness = 1.03

Example, if we take Mind Blast with a 1.5 second Normal_Cast_Time and a 950 Haste_Rating, we will get the following:
New_Cast_Time = 1.5 / ((1 + (950 / 12805)) * 1.05 * 1.03) = 1.291 sec"

Accessed: 3/22/11

Sounds like information you would read in a textbook doesn't it? This "academic language" makes no sense unless you play the game, WoW, and apply the information over and over again. Looks like learning to me.

Fifteen million subscribers pay to play WoW, because it is hard, technical, immersive, and fun. Also, you get to work on projects (kill a boss in an instance) with other group members who possess different skill sets. If you don't know your skill set well enough in WoW, your group members are able to "kick" you out of the group. Learning quickly is serious business in WoW. Your virtual life depends on it. LOL

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