James Gee, Video Games are Good for Your Soul

Gee describes the sense of control a player has in a video game, as contrasted with the sense of powerlessness created in other social institutions, including schools:

Good video games are good for your soul. Now there’s a statement that begs for some qualifications!

First, what’s a video game? What I mean are the sorts of commercial games people play on computers and game platforms like the Playstation 2, the GameCube, the Xbox, and the handheld Game Boy. I mean action, adventure, shooter, strategy, sports, and role-playing games. I mean games like Castlevania, Half-Life, Deus Ex, Metal Gear Solid, Max Payne, Return to Castle Wolfenstein, Tony Hawk Underground, Rise of Nations, Civilization, Age of Mythology, The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, Allied Assault, Call of Duty, Tales of Symphonia, ICO, Pikmin, Zelda: The Wind Waker, and Ninja Gaiden to name some random good games off the top of my head. There are many others.

Second, what does “good for you” mean? Next to nothing is good or bad for you in and of itself and all by itself. It all depends on how it is used and the context in which it is used. Is television good or bad for children? Neither and both. It’s good if people around them are getting them to think and talk about what they are watching, bad when they sit there alone watching passively being baby-sat by the tube (Greenfield 1984). The same is true of books. Reading reflectively, asking yourself questions, and engaging in a dialogue with others, is good for your head. Believing everything you read uncritically is bad for you and for the rest of us, as well, since you may well become a danger to the world.

So good video games are good for your soul when you play them with thought, reflection, and engagement with the world around you. They are good if, as a player, you begin to think and act like a game designer while you play the game, something good games encourage. After all, players co-author games by playing them, since if the player doesn’t interact with the game and make choices about what will happen, nothing will happen. Each page of a book and each scene in a move is predetermined before you see it and is the same for every reader. Many acts and their order in a video game, however, are open to player choice and different for different players …

Modern life offers more opportunities, but more complexity, as well. For many people—perhaps, all of us at times—modern life offers too much risk and too much complexity. We don’t really understand what’s going on around us, lots of it just doesn’t make any good sense, at least as far as we can tell. We can understand why some people turn to fundamentalism to garner secure “truths” without thought and reflection. It is, indeed, an attempt to save their souls, to protect themselves from the traumas of modern life, a life where often the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and everyone suffers risks created by other people, even people clear across the globe.

If people are to nurture their souls, they need to feel a sense of control, meaningfulness, even expertise in the face of risk and complexity. They want and need to feel like heroes in their own life stories and to feel that their stories make sense. They need to feel that they matter and that they have mattered in other people’s stories. If the body feeds on food, the soul feeds on agency and meaningfulness. I will argue that good video games are, in this sense, food for the soul, particularly appropriate food in modern times. Of course, the hope is that this food will empower the soul to find agency and meaning in other aspects of life.

[I am speaking here] primarily about the pleasures—the charge—that good video games can give people. These pleasures are connected to control, agency, and meaningfulness. But it is also about how good games create deep learning, learning that is better than what we often see today in our schools. Pleasure and learning: For most people these two don’t seem to go together. But that is a mistruth we have picked up at school, where we have been taught that pleasure is fun and learning is work, and, thus, that work is not fun. But, in fact, good video games are hard work and deep fun. So is good learning in other contexts.

Pleasure is the basis of learning for humans and learning is, like sex and eating, deeply pleasurable for human beings. Learning is a basic drive for humans. School has taught people to fear and avoid learning as anorexics fear and avoid food, it has turned some people into mental anorexics. Some of these same people learn deeply in and through games, though they say they are playing, not learning. The other people who often say they are playing when they’re working hard at learning are those professionals—scientists, scholars, and craftsmen—who love their work.

Gee, James Paul. 2005. Why Video Games are Good for Your Soul: Pleasure and Learning. Melbourne: Common Ground. || Amazon || WorldCat