Newsmaker: James Gee on Why the Power of Games to Teach Remains Unrealized

James Paul Gee

Gee: “We need to begin to get teams of people — game designers, content people, assessment people, learning people — who can get on the same page.”

For more than a decade, James Paul Gee has been writing about the potential power of games and game mechanics to change the way we learn, to create new “deep” learners.

But in this newsmaker interview Gee says most of the possibilities of games remain unfulfilled as the American education system continues to focus on tests and fact retention.

He worries that even as learning games become more prevalent, they are in danger of being changed by the schools they seek to sell to rather than changing the school itself.

“The textbook was the worst educational invention ever made because it was a one size fits all type thing and we don’t want to do the same things with games. We don’t want to bring games to school,” he said. “We want to bring a networked system of tools and deep learning and practices that have been tested and are focused on problem solving and not just fact retention — that’s what we want to bring to school. Games can be a very important part of that mix.”

Listen to the full interview:

The following is an edited version of the full conversation:

gamesandlearning.org: It’s been almost a decade since you wrote, “Learning by Design: Games as Learning Machines” and I wanted to read you a line from your conclusion. You write, “For those interested in spreading games and game technology into schools, workplaces, and other learning sites, it is striking to meditate on how few of the learning principles I have sketched out here can be found in so-called educational games.” You then go on to point out many non-educational games do implement these ideas well.

Has much changed in the last decade?

James Paul Gee: Sadly no because the reason these deeper learning principals are not in our schools is because of the standards movement tied to punitive accountability and a testing industry that is standardized and wide-spread and punitive itself. So we tend to have schools focus on doing test prep, a lot of our regular public schools. And therefore teaching skill-and-drill and fact-based curriculum. So until we change the policies around our schools, it will be difficult for the regular public schools to incorporate these principals.

gamesandlearning.org: And do you think that’s what really has to happen for there to be be widespread adoption of games or game mechanics in schools?

James Paul Gee: It is going to have to change if we want to have good game-based learning. Right now, there is a movement to bring automated tutors and artificial agents and customized tutorial programs on computers to schools, because they can do skill-and-drill and test prep very well and they will even save us money on teachers.

So it’s not that schools won’t get digital media or even games, but if we want deep games and deep game-based learning we would have to change the policies in our school…

In many, many of our standard public school these types of deep learning aren’t going to come without a change in heart and will in America about educating everybody deeply.

gamesandlearning.org: That seems like somewhat a daunting challenge. Are games sort of the canary in the coal mine then? Are they the thing that indicates that there is a shift happening — I mean deep games and not just what we were talking about, these automated tutors — or will they be the trailing beneficiary of any kind of shift.

James Paul Gee: I think the canary in the coal mine is not just games, but it is the contrast sort of deep learning that is both digital and social that often happens in collaborative space on the Internet, that is going on out of school often in popular culture that is often teaching tech skills, 21st Century skills, non-cognitive skills like persisting past failure; and what goes on in school. That as we see that people can organize themselves around passionate interest for deep learning, but we can’t manage to do it in an institutional way for everybody.

The problem really is we have a society with highest level of inequality ever. We’ve eroded livings wages and jobs that could give people lives where they feel they are contributing to society. And in a society with the level of inequality we have, with a large number of service jobs that don’t really equip people to feel that they are participating in society, then it is advantageous to have schools that don’t make people very deeply smart, right? Because they would call into question a system where so few people really count and where there is so much inequality. Not just for political reasons would they call it into question, but we know from decades of evidence that societies with high levels of inequality sooner or later get a very bad economy. Too few people can consume and participate and your economic livelihood goes down.

So edu-school and learning are always tied to the society we are in because we get the sort of schools we want and will. If we will large levels of inequality and a stagnate economy then we get the schools we’ve got. If we willed something different, we would get different schools. You know in the ’80’s when the so-called Asian Tigers were beating us economically we all of the sudden decided we wanted to have kids really learn stuff in school and we put in a lot of conceptually driven curriculum that was quite good, just like we did with Sputnik went up and we were afraid the Russians would pass us by.

So we have a history of stressing good and deep learning only in crisis in this country and I do think with the levels of inequality we are right on the cusp of a new crisis. So we might actually see an opportunity to bring deeper stuff to schools if the crisis goes far enough.

gamesandlearning.org: Do you think the gaming industry — or the learning game industry — is even ready for that kind of crisis and that kind of investment?

James Paul Gee: No, no. It isn’t ready for a lot of different reasons. What you see in the game industry is a tremendous amount of creativity coming from the independent game industry. As the X-Box and the Wii and the PlayStation started downloadable games and independent game people could really make a living we began to get whole new types of games… You began to see people playing with new game mechanics, new content, new ways of interacting with the player. You saw much more creativity. And you do today see much more creativity than you see in the educational games and that is because so many of the people who are trying to make educational games are people tied to old theories and structural technology. They think that games can be made by some sort of rules-based procedure rather than very high levels of artistry and creativity. And they make their games to fit with the schools we have.

They could have been getting ready for prime time. Even big publishers like Pearson who make so much money doing skill-and-drill are aware that there is a digital revolution and we might have a revolution in our schools. We can deliver deep learning to everybody. But it has been very difficult for them to get ready for that given that they make so much money in what we already have. I think the tragedy is we have so many people playing the old game that that if the game changed, we wouldn’t be as ready as we should be.

There are some people doing that, but it takes a big risk… If your stock doesn’t go up tomorrow then you are in trouble and that does not allow — the short-term thinking does not allow economically or politically to get ready for the changes you might see happening.

gamesandlearning.org: What could be that tipping point that might prompt, first, I guess it might be a social movement — is that what you would see driving the kind of change would need to happen for deeper learning to find its way into schools?

James Paul Gee: When you get genuine change like you did with Sputnik or the economy in the ’80’s it’s always several factors converging and coming together. I think that economic stagnation, economic inequality, the non-competitiveness of some of our students in schools with other countries will come together and a sense that we need to build American competitiveness, creativity, innovation…

We don’t, any longer, see change as an opportunity. We see it as a threat. It’s just an unfortunate thing about our culture. We’ve got to be part of a larger movement that says “Look, the world is going to change. We have a lot of crises in the world. It’s a complex system. This can be a golden opportunity to do better if we’re not frightened of change and we don’t see change as imperiling vested interests, but rather creating new interests.”

But we are part of a cultural moment where we have very serious problems that we are evading. Learning is one of them, schools is one of them, but we have others.

gamesandlearning.org: Let me dive a bit deeper. You mentioned the need for systems thinking, viewing education as a product of our society, but also a prime shaper of what is going to be the future of our society. How do games fit into that?

James Paul Gee: One of the problems is we always have the tendency to take any new technology and say all by itself it will do good. We did this with books. What is a textbook? A textbook is one book serves all. We do everything with it. It will make everything ok. We said computers could change things.

It isn’t the technology or the book that changes things, it’s what you do with it. Games can be a very important new tool and if they are networked with other tools and with good learning practices into a learning system that is collaborative and social and stressing deep cognitive skills (as well as non-cognitive skills like persistence-past-failure) then they can be very, very, very good. But by themselves — too many people today are saying, “OK, let’s just bring a game to school and it will make everything ok.” That’s just like the textbook.

The textbook was the worst educational invention ever made because it was a one size fits all type thing and we don’t want to do the same things with games. We don’t want to bring games to school. We want to bring a networked system of tools and deep learning and practices that have been tested and are focused on problem solving and not just fact retention — that’s what we want to bring to school. Games can be a very important part of that mix.

But if we try to make the curriculum just games by themselves it will either do no better than textbooks or they will be as inconsequential to schools as computers have been, right, where they are still used in schools just to type clean drafts of papers.

gamesandlearning.org: How does a game developer navigate this space? How do you build now, but also be building for the future? Is there a way to do that or do you just have to wait?

James Paul Gee: There is a way to do that. There is one crucial thing to do. We have good game designers who rarely communicate with academics and content people and then we have academics and content people who try to make their own games. They make terrible games, but the game designers make good games but they don’t really speak to the kind of content, the way problem-solving should work, when it’s tied to a school-based topic.

We need to begin to get teams of people — game designers, content people, assessment people, learning people — who can get on the same page and same language. We certainly don’t want the academic making the game.

The company I’ve worked a lot with, Filament Games, that does a lot of learning games. They are an example of that. They are good designers. They don’t let the content people design the games, but they know how to communicate with those people… That’s what we need to do.

Right now, we are seeing are a lot of games coming out of universities that are terrible because they are just made by academics and we are seeing lots of creative games, but where the new mechanics and the new stuff in these games are not actually being applied to learning content…

The two things I’d say is we need games that are going to begin to get on the same page about how design works for content and we begin to need to see games as part of larger learning systems and then we can making stuff that works now and then transform to be better and better as the system changes…

gamesandlearning.org: One of our other newsmaker conversations is with Dan White and he was speaking about the process, which was kind of fascinating to listen to compared to some of the other processes we’ve seen out there.

James Paul Gee: Absolutely, absolutely. You know the other thing that comes up Filament and many other people who are doing really good work in this area is because the game industry itself is changing — you are getting new game mechanics, you’re getting new stuff — there is a question of what is a game.

So Minecraft, is Minecreaft a game? Is it a platform? You know, who cares? The thing that we are building are deep and good forms of activity and we’re pushing the boundaries of what category it is in and I think too many people get overly concerned about whether it is a game or not. What they should be concerned about is it is a good interactivity for learning.

You know, the best selling game in history is the Sims and people have argued since the first day it came out that it’s not a game. It’s a sandbox or a dollhouse. Who cares? As Will Wright took his billion dollars to the bank, I don’t think he cared whether anybody called it a game or not. Ironically, it is the best selling game in history. We’ve really got begin to say that what we are building is good interactivity that is engaging and is based on achievement and problem-solving. We don’t need to be fussy about the category. We need to be fussy about the effects.