Book by James Paul Gee
Review by Emma Leigh Waldron
Rutgers Business School – Undergraduate Program
Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey

James Paul Gee decided to learn how to play video games so he could play along with his young son.  He was surprised to discover that they are not only a source of entertainment, but that they also do an excellent job of employing sophisticated and efficacious teaching methods.  In this book, he outlines the 36 learning principles he identifies in video games, and suggests that the current American education system should be revamped to incorporate more of these methods.

Gee challenges the assumption that video games are damaging or without merit by emphasizing that technology does not exist within a vacuum.  He asserts that video games can be excellent teaching tools when they are designed well and when they are played in an environment that supports critical thinking.  Gee is critical of current dominant conceptions of education which place a premium on getting to your goal directly, quickly, and on the first try.  Gee believes this is an unstable and biased approach that turns teaching into sorting, and learning into competition.

This book is a thoughtful, unique, and impassioned contribution to the broader conversation about how students should be taught in schools.  It is not a handbook for how to incorporate video game technology into the classroom, nor does it focus on video games which are designed to teach reading and writing skills.  Nevertheless, readers will undoubtedly come away from this book with stronger opinions about video games and about education.

Gee’s broader theories and opinions about education are dispersed throughout the book, which is well organized.  In each chapter, he introduces a game or games that he has personally played, and then describes the most salient learning principles that the game exemplifies.  These principles are reiterated in list format at the end of each chapter, and all 36 are collected in an appendix.  His linguistic background is evident when he establishes terminology throughout the book, but this is balanced by his personal and conversational tone, which makes the text accessible.  The bibliographic notes at the end of each chapter include his commentary, which make them feel more relevant and easier to navigate.  This 2007 edition includes some updated information and slightly revised text from the original 2003 printing.

Although the content of this book may be most useful for K-12 teachers, it is certainly worth a read by anyone who works in education.  Advisors will find it prompts some thinking around important questions, such as how we can revitalize the struggling institution of higher education.  How can we advise students to seek experiences that will best prepare them for the 21st century, whether those resources are within our institutions or not?

While this book is engaging, stimulating, and relevant to anyone working in an educational field in America today, it does not satisfactorily address the difficult topics in the public debate about video games.  Gee acknowledges that video games are neither inherently good nor inherently bad, and that there are certainly some sticky gray areas, but he avoids engaging with more complex, problematic questions about video games, specifically concerns about video game violence, and issues of race, class, and gender disparity amongst gamers.

A review of Gee’s newest book, The Anti-Education Era: Creating Smarter Students through Digital Learning, will appear in a future issue of the NACADA Journal.

What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. (2007). Book by James Paul Gee. Review by Emma Leigh Waldron. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. 256 pp., $18.00, (paperback), ISBN # 978-1-4039-8453-1
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