Aside from the hideously unwieldy title, the only bad thing about James Paul Gee’s What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy is that I had to return it to the library before writing this post, and so I have to take down my notes from memory before I forget everything I read. That’s what I get for trying to be thrifty, I guess.

Two things really jumped out at me while reading WVGHtTUALaL. (Seriously, they couldn’t think of a better title?) The big one is Gee’s model of the way player/learners shift identities as they engage with a new subject, putting on different hats as they explore and experiment. This is not only a useful way of looking at the learning process, but it provides an alternative to a lot of popular conceptions of identity and immersion in video games. Rather than judging games in terms of how completely they immerse the player — in how fully they induce a dramatic or ritualistic loss of self — the constant slippage between the player, his or her character in the game, and what Gee calls the player’s “projective identity” (the values and goals that the player maps onto the character) is actually a key quality of the playing/learning process.

For instance, when a character in a game instructs the player to “press the circle button to open the door,” it might seem like the mixture of references to in-game (the door) and out-of-game (the circle button) objects would break immersion and make the experience less satisfying for the player. Your typical player, however, won’t even blink at this seemingly abrupt cross-cutting between contexts, because he or she understands — either instinctively or explicitly — the connections between himself or herself, the controller, the character on the screen, and the dance they’re all engaging in. And because the player can adeptly slide between these multiple contexts and identities, the mixed language of in-game tutorials is a quick and effective way of teaching the player how to play the game. This is why no one reads manuals anymore: even as they evolve into ever more complex texts, games also evolve into highly effective teaching machines.

This idea of projective identities goes hand in hand with the other major idea I took away from the book: that both learning and game playing are intensely reflective processes, involving constant analysis, hypothesizing, experimentation, reevaluation, etc. Successful learners, like successful gamers, are always taking a step back and looking at what they’re doing, trying to understand the boundaries and structures of the domain they’re in, trying to see if they can do what they’re doing a little better. To put it another way: both gaming and learning are totally meta.

The main goal of the book was to present the ways in which video games illustrate or inspire a range of contemporary educational theories and methods, but I ended up getting the reverse out of it, gaining new perspectives on video games through the lens of educational theory. Maybe they should have named it What Learning and Literacy Have to Teach Us About Video Games. That would still be a pretty crappy title, though.