Going to extremes with visual literacy: good learning principles and (gulp!) video games

One of the best PD opportunities I have had this year was an audience with Paul Gee, a presenter at the Learning and the Brain Conference held in San Francisco.

He challenged his audience of teachers with the notion that education should be a whole lot more like video gaming. This seemed like a pretty radical perspective coming from an old professor of literacy and linguistics. As I recalled, his earlier work (which I came across repeatedly when I undertook my M.Ed nearly a decade ago) had focused (much more sedately) on language and literacy education. However, as I looked over his bio, I could see the shift in focus reflected in book titles like: What Video Games Have to Teach us About Learning and Literacy (2007, 2nd Edition) and Good Video Games and Good Learning: Collected Essays on Video Games, Learning, and Literacy (2007). Clearly, he had found that language and literacy can be exponentially enhanced through the medium of gaming  – a marriage of entertainment, learning, and mastery.

Nevertheless, this was a pretty revolutionary – even confronting – way to start a keynote address to an auditorium of educators. Of course, clever chap that he is, he didn’t just come out with this startling statement. Instead, he worked the audience up to it with some comments of such striking logic that we didn’t even realize where we were heading until it was all so self-evident, it was hard to disagree.

Opening comments were about changes in education and the learning sciences in recent times. We used to think humans were predictable, logical beings, good at rule-following, etc. But newer theories describe the human brain as hardly comparable to a calculator and not particularly good at abstraction. Rather, our minds are good at assimilating experience – we learn best from experience.

Now, there is one big problem with this predilection: the world is not a very good teacher; we can get killed from life experience. So, if educators want to harness the power of experience for teaching and learning, then the experiences for learning need to be well-designed. We can’t just turn kids loose to learn. Teachers need to purposefully design learning experiences.

What design-elements do these learning experiences need to include? Gee provided the following list:

  • Motivation (Emotion)
    Clear goals
    Reflection IN action (Did that work? Why or why not?)
    Immediate and copious feedback
    Attention (Clarity about what to focus your attention on)
    Perspective (Inside and outside the experience  – what is the big picture as well as the individual experience)
    Practice at applying to new experiences
    Debriefing (Reflection ON Action) … reflecting and sharing explanations with other people

Enter: Video Games!

Now that Gee had me nodding and agreeing with him, I was a lot more open to his hypothesis that video games are promising for learning because they are an experience that is completely guided and controlled by the creator. In addition, video games can be understood as operating on two levels – the software is basically a well-designed experience, and the meta-game is the well-designed social interaction that takes place around the game. (People play video games, like World of Warcraft, and then get involved in a community to discuss and reflect on the game together.)

Video games = well designed experiences + well designed social interactions

Good teaching = well designed experiences + well designed social interactions

But Gee wasn’t content at having made this connection. He switched focus at this point to language and literacy ( his old stomping ground) and the point that school is designed around language – specialist, academic language. However, when kids fail with language, he asserted, they don’t usually fail at phonetic reading. Actually, they fail because they are bored by it.

Kids learn a language by having experiences with this language. You can’t learn language with other language, though. Right?

To illustrate this, imagine yourself coming home from the store with a brand new video game. (Or better yet, imagine a kid.) What happens next? Do you – or that child – rip open the wrapping to then sit down on the couch with copy of the instructions to pore over?

If you’ve ever tried to read the instructions of a sophisticated videogame, you would know that the instructions are virtually indecipherable. You have to actually play the game to get what’s going on. Then, after experiencing the game, you would have a lot greater chance of making sense of those instructions. When we can fill in images, actions, experiences, and dialogue, then we have a “situated meaning” for a piece of language. So now it’s not hard anymore; it’s obvious!

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Can teaching be like this? If we were to give our students the game experience equivalent of the biology concepts we want them to learn – instead of giving them the biology textbooks to read – Gee asserts that we wouldn’t be getting that bell curve anymore. And we could happily screw up the national testing system!


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Capitalist companies in the video gaming industry have figured out the incredible power of this “situated meaning.” Take Yu-Gi-Oh!  for example.

Yu-Gi-Oh! is a Japanese manga franchise that includes a trading card game and numerous video games. Most versions of Yu-Gi-Oh! involve a fictional trading card game , where each player uses cards to “duel” each other in a battle of fantasy “monsters.” From an educator’s perspective, what’s interesting about all this is just how complex the language of these cards can be … and just how addictive the game is, nevertheless. We face significant difficulty in motivating our students in schools to take on long and challenging tasks; yet, many video games are long and hard … and kids love them!

It is this intense engagement in self-directed learning that Gee wants educators to harness. Once again, he highlighted the features that video games boast that make them ideal for learning.

  • Motivation: Oodles of it
  • Problem-solving: Research shows that if you teach facts, and test like we do today, you will get facts and formulas learned but it doesn’t correlate to problem-solving; but if you teach through problems, the person has to recruit the facts to solve the problem so get both the facts AND the problem-solving
  • Clear goals: e.g. to reach the next level
  • Copious feedback: Running scores and updates
  • Well-designed experience: Completely constructed – no real-life randomness!
  • Mentoring IN the game and in the META game (and the transfer from video game experience to real world experience  comes through the community interaction)
  • Performance before competence: Educators don’t tell students: Keep your mouth shut until you learn English … and yet we do often skip straight to the expectation of mastery, without the benefit of practice and experience, when we try to teach other concepts
  • Failure: Failure-based learning: If the cost of failure is high, you won’t continue; however, in video games, the cost of failure is made lower because you want to explore everything thoroughly because you might want to rethink your goals from time to time, try out some new styles, take risks
  • Well-ordered expertise: Learners continuously face problems they need to solve; the problems are scaffolded and ordered so as to keep players/learners right at their Zone of Proximal Development
  • Cycle of expertise: Give the player/learner a problem, (challenging, but do-able); then they practice the problem until they can do it in their sleep; then you provide the next problem, and the automatic expertise needs to be undone / challenged again

Gee made another rather “A-ha!” connection for me between education and video games – or rather assessment and video games. They make you realize how unnecessary assessment is to the well-designed learning experience (i.e. video game), because they:

  • Integrate learning and assessment
  • Provide copious information
  • Include multiple variables
  • Track growth and trajectories across time
  • Provide preparation for future learning
  • They are formative = evaluative

Think about how you can’t get out of a video game level until you have mastered that level – and then think about how ridiculous it would be to tell the gamer who has finally completed the last level: “Okay, you managed to master that level … but now you need to take a test on it!”

Despite my first impressions that his views had grown quite extreme, Gee, in his article elaborating on the ideas from his presentation, doesn’t consider his stance as either conservative or liberal, traditional or revolutionary. He says:

The progressives are right in that situated embodied experience is crucial. The traditionalist are right that learners cannot be left to their own devices, they need smart tools and, most importantly, they need good designers who guide and scaffold their learning . For games, these designers are brilliant game designers like Warren Spector [best known for the cyberpunk video games System Shock and Deus Ex]and Will Wright [original designer for The Sims games series which, as of 2009, was the best-selling PC game in history]. For schools, these designers are teachers.

So, like a good video game designer, teachers like me need to see ourselves as practical theoreticians of learning. The profit motive has prompted people in the interactive video gaming industry to produce incredibly challenging, incredibly motivating learning experiences. What will motivate teachers to do the same? Or policy-makers and governments to measure and provide the cost?