Context Book Review: What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy by James P. Gee

In What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy (2007), James Paul Gee explores the mechanisms by which players learn gameplay and develop subsequent mastery skills and strategies and how those mechanisms relate to literacy and learning. A quote from the book’s final chapter sums up beautifully what is Gee’s core argument: “The argument in this book is not that what people are learning when they are playing video games is always good. Rather, what they are doing when they are playing good video games is often good learning.” There are a couple of key points in that sentence of particular importance: “good video games” and “good learning.” These key concepts comprise the entire frame for Gee’s investigation. Gee defines a good video game as that which incorporates a list of 36 personally curated learning principles supported by current cognitive science research. He assigns consistent descriptors – games that are long, hard, complex, and enjoyable – as a diagnostic tool to assess a game’s usefulness in this manner. These descriptors are the necessary elements to learning and literacy – education that is engaging, complex, and contextual. The 36 Learning Principles as outlined by Gee can be seen here:

Gee demonstrates how good video game learning can translate into good classroom learning by emphasizing the importance of context in learning, defined by the term “semiotics.” He demonstrates how simply learning the thing is not as important as understanding the use of that thing – that is, that to learn a word does nothing without the understanding of the word’s meaning (sometimes multiple meanings), and how it can be used and manipulated to create the desired outcome (a structure, a sentence to convey an emotion, an inquiry, a demand, and so on). Similarly, Gee relates an example of students who could recite Newtonian principles but couldn’t manage to make sense of the principles used in practical application. By this measure, Gee asserts that current popular pedagogy fails to value context in favor of content and that this proves a disservice to long-term learning, especially in a K-12 educational setting. He stresses that the type of classroom instruction that shares modality with the theory of learning in good video games “is rare and getting yet rarer as testing and skill-and-drill retake our schools” (p. 6).

So then, the hyperlinked library model naturally lends itself to an environment that promotes video game-based learning. The library as classroom plays a particularly important role in video game learning concepts. Public, school, and academic libraries have a unique position to draw patrons into exciting and innovative programming that uses Gee’s Principles of Learning to provide educative tools. It’s important to consider, however, using video gaming as an instruction tool can provoke apprehension among the technophobic crowd, and even more so, perhaps, with those who find video gaming useless, or a waste of time. And here is where Brian Mathews, in his white paper Think Like a Startup (2012), urges us to invite and accept this challenge of change making: “We don’t just need change, we need breakthrough, paradigm-shifting, transformative, disruptive ideas.” How disruptive and paradigm-shifting the thought of using video gaming as an educative tool is, indeed!

Libraries are at an advantage having some autonomy outside an institution to provide supplemental instruction. Imagine how a public library might transform an after-school program by creating an interactive, immersive space with educative video games as the main event. How about a homework help program that integrates fun and engaging video game-based lessons? The possibilities for how libraries can meet student patrons where they are – and they are where video games are being played! – are seemingly endless. Libraries have the opportunity here to comingle learning and entertainment spaces for youth, and the importance of such an opportunity cannot be understated. As Mathews urges, “let’s not pigeonhole ourselves into finite roles, such as print collections, computer labs, or information literacy.” Agreed! Let’s resist the fear of change, the uncertainty over new technology and challenge ourselves as educators, service providers, and literacy facilitators to meet head on the technology that already has the young public in its grasp – let’s harness its power for good, for learning, for better serving learners who deserve better than the status quo from their educators.

Watch: James Paul Gee on Learning with Video Games (courtesy of Edutopia).


Edutopia (2012, March 21). James Paul Gee on learning with video games. Retreived from

Gee, J. (2007). What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy (Rev. and updated ed.). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Mathews, B. (2012). Think like a startup: A white paper to inspire library entrepreneurialism [White paper]. Retrieved from

Smith, L. M. (n.d.). Learning Principles*. Retrieved from

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