Critical Learning in a Digital Era

Book Review

What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy

James Paul Gee


As our society pushes the limits of technological capabilities, we find ourselves in a dire need for an educational upgrade. Commonly practiced teaching methodologies such as rote memorization, drilling, “the 5 paragraph essay,” text based reading, etc. is not cutting it anymore (if they ever really were). Beginner students are coming into a classroom with mastery level skills of navigating a global network of information at the swipe or touch of a finger, communicating to a relative via a screen and a webcam, and yes, even the ability to overcome challenges via a video game. Yet why are we not utilizing these already formed mastery skills? Why do we insist on the “read, write, arithmetic, repeat” educational structure, instead of one the enables students to critically think about why these ideologies and practices matter?  James Paul Gee seeks to present possible solutions to these questions in his analysis of the practices that we see players engaging in during gaming.

DISCLAIMER: To throw some caution to the wind, Gee clearly states that his analysis is not a means of answering the controversial dialogues that revolve around gaming, especially those associated with violence and gender (10). If you have picked up this review in search for these answers, I suggest you stop reading here and seek other resources.

To help us better navigate the many areas of gaming that Gee discusses in this text, I will narrow it down to three main categories: Identity, Massively Multiplayer Social Constructs, and Critical Learning.


In what I will refer to as “present –world” learning (meaning the learning practices that we currently see students undergoing in K-12 education), we see the identity of the student as a linear concept. However, Gee argues that video games provide students with a multidimensional conceptualization of identity, which he breaks down into the virtual identity, real-world identity (49), and projective identity (50).  These three identities interconnect in that the real-world identity (e.g. Amanda Haydon) creates and controls the virtual identity (e.g. her World of Warcraft Healer Shaman Gunhgu), who embodies a “virtual identity in a virtual world” (49), and thus can create a projective identity (e.g. Amanda as Gunhgu) where the real-world identity “’projects one’s values and desires onto the virtual identity’” (50) and embodies the successes and failures of the virtual identity as the successes and failures of the real-world identity. The sheer metacognition that gaming offers to players allows them to engage in practices of critical learning.

Gee’s account of the importance of identity in relation to critical learning practices clearly illustrates a need for such structures within our present day academic institutions. In his book, he gives real world context to the  notion of identity by relating it to that of a student in a science classroom. If students were only encouraged to put on lab coats and embody the practices of a scientist, then they would, in an ideal world, be able to engage in the practices and adopt the metalanguage of a scientist. However, what the author fails to bring to light is how instructors can create real world excitement around the creation of these alter-identities. In a game,the player can fully dive into the story and virtual identities. However, in the real-world, in what ways can instructors ‘normify’ projecting a real world identity with a real world virtual identity in order to form a real world projected identity? What structures must be put in place? In order to make this a possible practice, would we have to re-think cultural social norms surrounding identity in the classroom?


With the emergence of Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) gaming, we can see the potential and importance of what Gee refers to as “distributed knowledge” (196). Through the analysis of one player’s experience (Adrian), Gee illustrates the “centrally social nature of game play” (183) by exemplifying the “affinity group” (27) that one builds in these massively multiplayer worlds.  Adrian’s testimony (found on pages 183-187) outlines that “play…is inherently social” (187) and involves communication and the placement of digital trust in both the real world players and virtual characters. Adrian also exemplifies that “knowledge and skills are not only distributed across himself…” (187), but that objects and tools within the game are also part of building a cognitive understanding of the multifaceted complexities and challenges within the game. With the tools for social, distributed, and networked practices, it feels easy to get on board with Gee’s overarching question as to why schools do not place a higher level of importance on social learning practices.


So what do projected identities and social constructs have to do with critical learning? EVERYTHING. At some point in our lives, it becomes uncool for us to play doctor with our peers. Why? Because we socially construct our children to believe that playing “dress up” past a certain age is just plain weird. So what do we do instead? We play video games that allow us to pretend with our friends that we are some fantasy creature who can overcome any obstacle. We are able to develop what Gee refers to as an “appreciative system” or “the sorts of goals, desires, feelings, and values that ‘insiders’ in that domain recognize as the sorts members of that domain (the affinity group associated with that domain) typically have” (92-93). What this means is that through social interaction and projected identities, we are able to build situated meaning and context for “the thing” that we are trying to accomplish.

Video games also allow players to explore and engage in what Gee refers to as the “four-stage probe/hypothesize/reprobe/rethink process” (93). Students are engaged in a rhetorical, metacognitive process where they must strategize and analyze how a certain choice could affect the entire affinity group, as well as the “tri-identities”.  This is critical learning. The ability to explore without restrictions, become the identity, form a metalanguage socially, distribute knowledge, rhetorically process how decisions will affect others, engage in multimodal texts, and create situated meaning within a semiotic domain or subdomain all play into the practices needed to critically learn, and are found in what Gee declares as “good games” (38). “Good games” set the stage for potential “good classrooms” where students can actually identify with the discourse they are engaging in while developing cognition socially.

Gee’s elaborate and captivating depiction of how video games engage players in critical literacy and learning practices leaves the reader asking how can we incorporate these needed components into academia? While Gee offers multiple suggestions, a common pattern seems to come into the readers full view. First, we, as a society, must revisit the conceptualization that we must “learn to play” instead of “playing to learn”. As Gee shows, the traditional in-classroom ‘read, write, memorize’ repetition does not align with how we develop cognitive critical learning practices. Second, critical learning involves “becoming” that which you are trying to learn. Students should be encouraged to seek outside resources in order to develop the metalanguage needed to fully understand and create situated meaning of the domain in which they are engaging in. And last, critical learning is not and individualistic affair, but one that requires the social dependency of distributed knowledge brought to the table by other learners. As Sir Ken Robinson states, it is not a reform that our educational institutions need, but a revolution. Why not kick start the revolution by pressing the “start” button?

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