Good Games and Good Learning: Soul Food

Posted: October 28, 2011 in Books, Deep Thoughts, Gamer Theory
Tags: ,

Link to Good Video Games + Good Learning at Amazon
Oh goody, another series of posts. Maybe I should stop reading books that come with such conveniently grouped thoughts. So this week I’m reading Good Video Games and Good Learning (New Literacies and Digital Epistemologies) – which has one of the longest and smartest sounding titles of any book I’ve ever read. It’s a collection of essays written by Dr. James Paul Gee. Language geeks, you will love this guy’s stuff. He’s a researcher and professor in sociolinguistics and psycholinguistics. I didn’t even know those were actual things before I started reading his stuff. He’s not a “game guy” as much as he is a “literacy guy.” His work focuses on multiple modes of literacy, especially video games. This is one of those books that when you finally close the back cover, you feel like you’ve learned a lot.

Since this is a very meaty book and each essay is worth discussing, I’ll be doing another series of posts. There are ten essays and I’m going to try to go through them at a fast clip (although the last essay is a doozy).

Essay #1: Why Video Games are Good for the Soul

The soul is that thing which makes us human. The part of us that is not physical, but holds our passions, interests, and heartaches – that is what I mean by soul. It can be fed, or it can die a thousand deaths. So how do you feed the soul?

There are good things you can nourish and strengthen the soul with. Things that make you think and fill you with delight. Traditionally, culture is divided into “good” and “bad” entertaining pasttimes. Books are “good,” but TV is “bad.” Opera is good; Lady Gaga is bad. Video games? Well, they’re slightly better than TV, maybe. If they aren’t too violent.

According to Dr. Gee, this is a very wrong view. There is TV that is good – it gives us insight and gets us thinking (NOVA, Sesame Street, Mythbusters). And there is TV that is drek (Real Housewives of XYZ County). If things like books and opera are inherently better than pop music and video games, it is only because there has been centuries to filter out and forget the awful stuff. For every Deus Ex: Human Revolution there is a Duke Nukem Forever (a game so bad I won’t even include an Amazon link). There hasn’t been enough time for video games to forget the awful.

But it is absolutely possible for games to be elevating, insightful, and fun. They can push creative problem solving and pattern matching. In well crafted games – in “good” games – you definitely feel heroic, that you’re interacting with the game and making choices in a way that impact your enjoyment, if not the digital realm you’re playing in. A great game will stay with you and provide you with opportunities to not just reflect on the in-game world, but the real world around you. Within the game you have agency and meaning.

Games bring together fun, mastery, and learning. All three of these are very deep, primal drives within us. This is what nourishes the soul, just as surely as if the frisson came from works created Shakespeare, Monet, or Mozart. Does this make video games art? We’ll hold off on that debate for now. But I think Dr. Gee would argue, quite convincingly, that games are literature.


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