Gee on What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy

When people learn to play video games, they are learning a new literacy. Of course, this is not the way the word “literacy” is normally used. Traditionally, people think of literacy as the ability to read and write. Why, then, should we think of literacy more broadly, in regard to video games or anything else, for that matter? There are two reasons.

First, in the modern world, language is not the only important communicational system. Today images, symbols, graphs, diagrams, artifacts, and many other visual symbols are particularly significant. Thus, the idea of different types of “visual literacy” would seem to be an important one. For ex¬ample, being able to “read” the images in advertising is one type of visual literacy And, of course, there are different ways to read such images, ways that are more or less aligned with the intentions and interests of the advertisers. Knowing how to read interior designs in homes, modernist art in museums, and videos on MTV are other forms of visual literacy.

Furthermore, very often today words and images of various sorts are juxtaposed and integrated in a variety of ways. In newspaper and magazines as well as in textbooks, images take up more and more of the space alongside words. In fact, in many modern high school and college textbooks in the sciences images not only take up more space, they now carry meanings that are independent of the words in the text. If you can’t read these images, you will not be able to recover their meanings from the words in the text as was more usual in the past.

In such multimodal texts (texts that mix words and images), the images often communicate different things from the words. And the combination of the two modes communicates things that neither of the modes does separately. Thus, the idea of different sorts of multimodal literacy seems an important one. Both modes and multimodality go far beyond images and words to include sounds, music, movement, bodily sensations, and smells.

None of this news today, of course. We very obviously live in a world awash with images. It is our first answer to the question why we should think of literacy more broadly. The second answer is this: Even though reading and writing seem so central to what literacy means traditionally, reading and writing are not such general and obvious matters as they might at first seem. After all, we never just read or write; rather, we always read or write something in some way.

There are many different ways of reading and writing. We don’t read or write newspapers, legal tracts, essays in literary criticism, poetry, rap songs, and on through a nearly endless list in the same way. Each of these domains has its own rules and requirements. Each is a culturally and historically separate way of reading and writing, and, in that sense, a different literacy. Furthermore, in each case, if we want to “break the rules” and read against the grain of the text—for the purposes of critique, for instance—we have to do so in different ways, usually with some relatively deep knowledge of how to read such texts “according to the rules.”

So there are different ways to read different types of texts. Literacy is multiple, then, in the sense that the legal literacy needed for reading law books is not the same as the literacy needed for reading physics texts or superhero comic books. And we should not be too quick to dismiss the latter form of literacy. Many a superhero comic is replete with post-Freudian irony of a sort that would make a modern literary critic’s heart beat fast and confuse any otherwise normal adult. Literacy, then, even as traditionally conceived to involve only print, is not a unitary thing but a multiple matter. There are, even in regard to printed texts and even leaving aside images and multimodal texts, different “literacies.”

Once we see this multiplicity of literacy (literacies), we realize that when we think about reading and writing, we have to think beyond print. Reading and writing in any domain, whether it is law, rap songs, academic essays, superhero comics, or whatever, are not just ways of decoding print, they are also caught up with and in social practices. …

Video games are a new form of art. They will not replace books; they will sit beside them, interact with them, and change them and their role in society in various ways, as, indeed, they are already doing strongly with movies. (Today many movies are based on video games and many more are influenced by them.) We have no idea yet how people “read” video games, what meanings they make from them. Still less do we know how they will “read” them in the future. It won’t do to start this investigation by assuming they are dupes of capitalist marketers-though, of course, some of them very likely are. …

Video games are at the very beginning of their potential-”we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.” They will get deeper and richer. Eventually some form of conversation between real people and computer-created characters will occur alongside the conversations among people in their virtual and real identities that already take place in Internet gaming. There are and will be vile games, and eventually there will be some “canonical” games, games that lend themselves powerfully to elevating the aspirations and imaginings of all people for better and more just worlds. These may be new aspirations and imaginings or ones that fill old visions with new meanings and hope.

But for now, video games are what they are, an immensely entertaining and attractive interactive technology built around identities. I have made but one claim for them here. They operate with — that is, they build into their designs and encourage — good principles of learning, principles that are better than those in many of our skill-and-drill, back-to-basics, test-them-until-they-drop schools. It is not surprising that many politicians, policymakers, and their academic fellow travelers who think poor children should be content with schooling for service jobs don’t like video games. They say they don’t like them because they are violent. But, in reality, video games do violence to these people’s notions of what makes learning powerful and schools good and fair.


  1. Active, Critical Learning Principle

    All aspects of the learning environment (including the ways in which the semiotic domain is designed and presented) are set up to encourage active and critical, not passive, learning.

  2. Design Principle

    Learning about and coming to appreciate design and design principles is core to the learning experience.

  3. Semiotic Principle

    Learning about and coming to appreciate interrelations within and across multiple sign systems (images, words, actions, symbols, artifacts, etc.) as a complex system is core to the learning experience.

  4. Semiotic Domains Principle

    Learning involves mastering, at some level, semiotic domains, and being able to participate, at some level, in the affinity group or groups connected to them.

  5. Metalevel Thinking about Semiotic Domains Principle

    Learning involves active and critical thinking about the relationships of the semiotic domain being learned to other semiotic domains.

  6. “Psychosocial Moratorium” Principle

    Learners can take risks in a space where real-world consequences are lowered.

  7. Committed Learning Principle

    Learners participate in an extended engagement (lots of effort and practice) as extensions of their real-world identities in relation to a virtual identity to which they feel some commitment and a virtual world that they find compelling.

  8. Identity Principle

    Learning involves taking on and playing with identities in such a way that the learner has real choices (in developing the virtual identity) and ample opportunity to meditate on the relationship between new identities and old ones. There is a tripartite play of identities as learners relate, and reflect on, their multiple real-world identities, a virtual identity, and a projective identity.

  9. Self-Knowledge Principle

    The virtual world is constructed in such a way that learners learn not only about the domain but about themselves and their current and potential capacities.

  10. Amplification of Input Principle

    For a little input, learners get a lot of output.

  11. Achievement Principle

    For learners of all levels of skill there are intrinsic rewards from the beginning, customized to each learner’s level, effort, and growing mastery and signaling the learner’s ongoing achievements.

  12. Practice Principle

    Learners get lots and lots of practice in a context where the practice is not boring (i.e., in a virtual world that is compelling to learners on their own terms and where the learners experience ongoing success). They spend lots of time on task.

  13. Ongoing Learning Principle

    The distinction between learner and master is vague, since learners, thanks to the operation of the “regime of competence” principle listed next, must, at higher and higher levels, undo their routinized mastery to adapt to new or changed conditions. There are cycles of new learning, automatization, undoing automatization, and new reorganized automatization.

  14. “Regime of Competence” Principle

    The learner gets ample opportunity to operate within, but at the outer edge of, his or her resources, so that at those points things are felt as challenging but not “Undoable”

  15. Probing Principle

    Learning is a cycle of probing the world (doing something); reflecting in and on this action and, on this basis, forming a hypothesis; reprobing the world to test this hypothesis; and then accepting or rethinking the hypothesis

  16. Multiple Routes Principle

    There are multiple ways to make progress or move ahead. This allows learners to make choices, rely on their own strengths and styles of learning and problem-solving, while also exploring alternative styles

  17. Situated Meaning Principle

    The meanings of signs (words, actions, objects, artifacts, symbols, texts, etc.) are situated in embodied experience. Meanings are not general or decontextualized. Whatever generality meanings come to have is discovered bottom up cia embodied experience

  18. Text Principle

    Texts are not understood purely verbally (i.e. only in terms of the definitions of the words in the text and their text-internal relationships to each other) but are understood in terms of embodied experience. Learners move back and forth between texts and embodied experiences. More purely verbal understanding (reading texts apart from embodied action) comes only when learners have enough embodied experience in the domain and ample experiences with similar texts

  19. Intertextual Principle

    The learner understands texts as a family (“genre”) of related texts and understands any one text in relation to others in the family, but only after having achieved embodied understandings of some texts. Understanding a group of texts as a family (“genre”) of texts is a large part of what helps the learner to make sense of texts

  20. Multimodal Principle

    Meaning and knowledge are built up through various modalities (images, texts, symbols, interactions, abstract design, sound, etc.), not just words.

  21. “Material Intelligence” Principle

    Thinking, problem solving, and knowledge are “stored” in material objects and the environment. This frees learners to engage their minds with other things while combining the results of their own thinking with the knowledge stored in material objects and the environment to achieve yet more powerful effects.

  22. Intuitive Knowledge Principle

    Intuitive or tacit knowledge built up in repeated practice and experience, often in association with an affinity group, counts a great deal and is hon¬ored. Not just verbal and conscious knowledge is rewarded.

  23. Subset Principle

    Learning even at its start takes place in a (simplified) subset of the real domain.

  24. Incremental Principle

    Learning situations are ordered in the early stages so that earlier cases lead to generalizations that are fruitful for later cases. When learners face more complex cases later, the learning space (the number and type of guesses the learner can make) is constrained by the sorts of fruitful patterns or generalizations the learner has found earlier.

  25. Concentrated Sample Principle

    The learner sees, especially early on, many more instances of fundamental signs and actions than would be the case in a less controlled sample. Fundamental signs and actions are concentrated in the early stages so that learners get to practice them often and learn them well.

  26. Bottom-up Basic Skills Principle

    Basic skills are not learned in isolation or out of context; rather, what counts as a basic skill is discovered bottom up by engaging in more and more of the game/domain or game/domains like it. Basic skills are genre elements of a given type of game/domain.

  27. Explicit Information On-Demand and Just-in-Time Principle

    The learner is given explicit information both on-demand and just-in-time, when the learner needs it or just at the point where the information can best be understood and used in practice.

  28. Discovery Principle

    Overt telling is kept to a well-thought-out minimum, allowing ample opportunity for the learner to experiment and make discoveries.

  29. Transfer Principle

    Learners are given ample opportunity to practice, and support for, transferring _what they have learned earlier to later problems, including problems that require adapting and transforming that earlier learning.

  30. Cultural Models about the World Principle

    Learning is set up in such a way that learners come to think consciously and reflectively about some of their cultural models regarding the world, without denigration of their identities, abilities, or social affiliations, and juxtapose them to new models that may conflict with or otherwise relate to them in various ways.

  31. Cultural Models about Learning Principle

    Learning is set up in such a way that learners come to think consciously and reflectively about their cultural models of learning and themselves as learners, without denigration of their identities, abilities, or social affiliations, and juxtapose them to new models of learning and themselves as learners.

  32. Cultural Models about Semiotic Domains Principle

    Learning is set up in such a way that learners come to think consciously and reflectively about their cultural models about a particular semiotic domain they are learning, without denigration of their identities, abilities, or social affiliations, and juxtapose them to new models about this domain.

  33. Distributed Principle

    Meaning/knowledge is distributed across the learner, objects, tools, symbols, technologies, and the environment.

  34. Dispersed Principle

    Meaning/knowledge is dispersed in the sense that the learner shares it with others outside the domain/game, some of whom the learner may rarely or never see face-to-face.

  35. Affinity Group Principle

    Learners constitute an “affinity group,” that is, a group that is bonded primarily through shared endeavors, goals, and practices and not shared race, gender, nation, ethnicity, or culture.

  36. Insider Principle

    The learner is an “insider,” “teacher,” and “producer” (not just a “consumer”) able to customize the learning experience and domain/game from the beginning and throughout the experience.

Gee, James Paul. 2003. What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp.2, 14, 203-210. || Amazon || WorldCat