James Paul Gee
Gee is a leading proponent of developing video games for education and a professor of literacy studies at Arizona State University. His most recent book is Good Video Games and Good Learning.
Video Games 101
Can video games like Grand Theft Auto be educational?
What's Wrong with Our Schools?
Gee says schools have a content fetish: they teach facts but not problem solving. Video games can teach these skills better than textbooks.
What Games Teach
A hunting party in World of Warcraft prepares you for collaboration in the business world. What else can you learn from games?
Why is Moby Dick blocked by Internet censors at some schools?
What Makes a Good Game?
Baby boomers aren't good at making games. Can the next generation deliver effective learning games to the classroom?
Every Gamer Needs a Mentor
Why rich kids learn more from video games than poor kids.
Reading, Writing, and Gaming
Has digital literacy killed traditional literacy? Far from it, Gee says -- they're married. Kids are writing and reading more than ever, just differently.
Flow: From Challenge to Mastery
What is flow? Gee describes this profound psychological state and its effect on life outside video games.
Addicted to Games
When it comes to addicted gamers, Gee says we need to ask: what's wrong in their real life that makes a virtual life better?
Playing America's Army
Gee offers thoughts on the Army's controversial recruiting game and points out that the Army beat educators to using video games effectively for learning.
A Game for Justice
Gee describes his latest project with Sandra Day O'Connor: a game for engaging kids with our legal system.
Q: So let's just start with schools. Are schools losing their relevance?
JAMES GEE: As their currently constituting, constituted, they're losing their elements. Uh, schools tend to be about facts, right? They have what I call a content fetish. Uh, what is physics to a school? It's, it's the 1200 facts everybody ought to know about physics, or however many, and when you test 'em and know 'em, you know physics. That is not what physics is about. Physics is about solving problems. Facts in physics are simple tools to solve problems. If you're a physicist, you know a lot of facts, but the reason you know a lot of facts is, they're tools to solve problems. Now, the dilemma is this: we know that if you teach people something like physics or civics as a bunch of facts, it doesn't predict they can solve any problems. In fact, even people with A's in physics, who can write down, you know, the laws of motion on a piece of paper, cannot use them to solve real problems. Learning a bunch of facts does not predict problem-solving.
Problem-solving does predict you know a lot of facts because it's very difficult to solve problems if you don't have facts as tools. So in, in, in the world we live in now we care more and more about people actually being able to use their knowledge to solve problems. One reason is, we have a lot of problems, right? We have a lot of problems with complex systems. The environment, civilization conflict, the economy. and so we care that people can think in ways the lead to problem-solving. And that is making schools, one of several things making schools out-of-date.
Q: Where do games fit into it?
GEE: Well, games are nothing but problem-solving spaces. I mean, often people who don't know games, they just think of Grand Theft Auto, or some violent game. Uh, and, and what they also don't realize is, you know, movies and books are in some sense about their content. You go to a movie and whatever the story is, it's about that. And so we think, if you're not a gamer, a game like Grand Theft Auto is about its content, it's about violence. Uh, but it's not. It's about solving problems. And the problems happen to be pretty hard. You could replace every act of shooting in Grand Theft Auto with not shooting a gun, but taking a picture with a camera. And most of the problems would stay the same. Right? Good players are looking at the problems and how to solve them and are kind of thrilled with trying to think of good strategies. They're not actually paying a lot of attention to the content primarily. Immature players may be paying attention to the content. But strategic players are not.
So games are about problem-solving spaces. Now, many games aren't violent, right? The Spore, Will Wright's new game you know, has certain levels of violence, but you spend most of your time building the game for him, it's an interesting concept. Uh, you have to build stuff before you play, and he gives you great tools to build and that doesn't involve any violence at all. So what is the game? It's a set of problems. And it has a lot of feedback. It's, it's good problem-solving, because you constantly get good feedback about how you're doing. And the problems get more challenging as you go one. That's why games have levels, that's why they last a while.
And every time you get a problem you get much opportunity to practice it. You get, you get to practice the solution until you're so good at it you could do it in your sleep. Then you face a boss, and all of a sudden, it doesn't work. You have to think of something new. You have to learn something new, put it together with what you've already learned, get better, ratchet up your skills. Then you're going to practice that until you can do it in your sleep. And that's the fun, you know, you like the mastery. But then you get a new challenge. That cycle of, you know, really practicing something til you're so good at it you can do it in your sleep, and then facing a challenge where it doesn't work and you have to do something new has been called the cycle of expertise. It's how anybody becomes an expert. Real experts are always looking for that problem that will challenge them; that will take their routine mastery and make them think about it again, and ratchet up their skills. And games are essentially problem-solving towards mastery that build on the cycle of expertise.
Q: So as we move into the 21st century, what is it what we should be trying to teach our children? What are the skills they really need?
GEE: Well, there's a lot of talk about 21st century skills, to the point that some people are tired of the word. But the idea is very important. Uh, just learning a lot of facts in school won't do you much good. Not only does it not lead to problem-solving, but a lot of the information you get goes out of date. There's, you need to learn new things. Stuff that isn't, wasn't even invented when you were in school. Change is very fast. So clearly, some of the 21st century skills are these: you want a proactive learner. That is, somebody who is passionate about learning. and can learn on their own. You also want people who can learn in communities. More and more today outside of schools, kids are joining communities, whether it's fan faction writing, or designing for the Sims, or doing digital photography - whatever their passion is. They're going into a community that mentors them and where they have to be good citizens in this community. So learning how to be in these communities, which are rich with skills and mentorship is an important 21st century skill. Many kids are getting that out of school, they're not getting it in school.
I think the kids also have to learn to think about complexity. We live in a world with so many complex systems, like the economy, like civilizational conflict like the environment. Uh, where we have learned, certainly with the economic crisis, we've learned we can't trust individual experts. Right? Individual experts tend to undervalue what they don't know. And overvalue what they do know. We know more and more that to think about complexity, people have to work together. They have to work collaboratively in teams with different types of expertise. Uh, and they have to learn to think of complex systems, of many variables interacting, of unintended consequences.
Now, games are actually good at this, because games are complex systems. They're a system. You have to figure out, how does this, how do the rules in this game, how do they interact so I can accomplish my goals? And even better, so I can accomplish a goal that I dreamed up on my own, get an emergent property, do something the designer never predicted. By the way, designers love that. They think that's proof that they did good game design, that players find creative ways to solve problems. But essentially you're, you're trying to figure out, what's this rule system? What's the underlying system in this game? So obviously, if we make games about the environment, or about complexity, we, we get a double win. Because as the kids try to figure out the rule system, they're figuring out some of the variables that actually interact in the real world. And thinking of how do I deal with this complexity. And how I work with other people? How do I pool my expertise, whatever I'm getting a passion for, with other people's passion, so we can be smarter as a group than any individual in it.
So those are the, that's a mind-set, an orientation towards the future that I think is going to be absolutely required for the 21st century.
Q: So in terms of your own work, if you can, in a paragraph, tell me what it is you're trying to do.
GEE: What I'm trying to do is not spread games, per se. A lot of people misunderstood my original book to say that we should use games for learning. Uh, what I was saying is that good games recruit learning in a very good way. They actually reflect the best research we know on, in the learning sciences, of how human beings learn deeply. And they do that because they're about problems, and they take a long time, and they have to lead to mastery, so they better be good at learning, because if no one can learn them, no one's going to buy them, no one's going to play them.
So what I wanted to spread, and what I do want to spread, is not the games, but the learning. The type of learning that people do through games can be done with games or without games. The important thing is the learning. And this is learning that is, as I've said, focused on problem-solving, focused on a cycle of mastery, where you get really good at something and you get a new challenge. It's also what I call situated learning, which is a technical term, but what situated learning means is, you don't learn just through a lot of words. You always put words together with images, with experiences, with actions, and with dialog. In school, too often, if I want to teach you some language, what do I do? I give you more language. I give you a book about it. You don't, you've never played the game connected to the book, you've never done the activities connected to the book, all you've got is a bunch of words. And if you don't understand it, I give you another book. I give you more and more words.
Games don't just give you a manual. In fact, nobody reads the manual until after they've played the game for a while. Games always marry words to images, to actions, to experiences, to dialog. So you understand them. Now, that's what you want to do in physics. You don't want to give people lectures in physics with a bunch of words they can't understand. You want to give them actions and experiences and goals and problems. And in those actions and experiences, they're going to hear the words in context in a way that says, oh, this is what this word is for. This is what I can do with it when I want to solve a problem. These are the images that are connected to that word. That type of understanding, which is called situated understanding, is real understand. If all you've got is a definition, you know, what does force mean in physics, and you can give me ten other words that define it. We know it doesn't imply anything about you being able to solve a problem.
But if you can identify the word "force" with a bunch of images and experiences and goals and actions and dialog that you've actually had with people, then we know you not only know what the word means, but you can solve problems as well. So we get both.
Q: And where does technology fit into this?
GEE: Well, the technology fits into it in, in, in one, technology being these games, is, what are they? They're virtual experiences. They're a way to give you new experiences. Uh, you know, you can't go out in the world and see what the world looks like to an electron. But you can in a game. You can't have as a task to set off some dangerous bomb and learn the physics behind it in the real world, but you can do it in a game. It can give people experiences to get these situated meanings. That is, to let us see, what are the images, what are the actions, what are the experiences that go with this language. That go with the language of physics. Or, with the language of civics. Or anything else. What is, what is knowing about the government got to do with intervening in the government, and doing stuff? Well, one good way to do it is to make a game in which you do it. Right? And you see what it looks like to talk the talk and walk the walk. Because those always go together. I'm a linguist by training, and one of the things that's crucial is, whether you're doing civics or physics, you've got to walk the walk and talk the talk. They go together. And how we talk, the language we use, is a tool for solving problems. And action and words always go together, except in school, where we don't have any of the actions.
Q: So are you controversial? I mean is your work controversial?
GEE: Well, I, originally I thought it would be controversial. And besides one long hand-written letter from an 80-year-old who told me I was going to Hell and gave me Bible quotes I have not be confronted with a lot of controversy. And I think the reason for this is that we certainly know today, whether you're a policymaker, you're a teacher, you're a parent, that we've got to have more innovation from our kids. That just skilling and drilling them, giving them standard skills in a world in which every country in the globe can give people standard skills, and which is going to be a lot cheaper to do jobs connected to standard skills outside the country than in it, that we need people that can be creative and that can be innovative. That don't just have standard skills, but can use whatever they know for innovation. For creativity. and it's pretty clear that this is a technology that offers some promise of innovation and creativity because it puts people in worlds. A game is a world in a box. And giving people new worlds, new experiences with new sets of problems, and ample time on tasks, as you may be doing this for thirty hours, just seems, I think, natural to people as, as offering too much potential to just simply dismiss as a toy, or to get too concerned about the violence problem and just dismiss all the non-violent games.
Q: So we have computers in almost all of our schools at this point. Why is it that this stuff isn't really being incorporated into our system?
GEE: Well, we have computers in schools, but they're not used in the way that they're used out of school. Uh, very often the classroom has one computer, it's still used to type drafts of, clean drafts of papers. We have a computer lab, you're in it for one hour a week. Compare that to the kid that's playing Harvest Moon and has just spent, you know, five hours managing his farm, and, you know, thinking about the economy. Making the choices about how do I want to play this game, I mean, there's no competition here. So I'm not sure we really have computers at school. The other thing is, we have a mania for control in school over technology. We're frightened of it. Uh, so we know we ban all the internet sites. Uh, many sites ban any site with the word "game" in it. That pretty much stops this enterprise. Uh, a humorous story that Henry Jenkins once told me, they have a, a very nice piece of interactive media around Moby Dick that they made at MIT, and they wanted to put it in schools, and they found it was very difficult because all sites with the word "dick" in it are banned. Now, a society that bans Moby Dick because it has the word "dick" in it is not serious.
On the other hand, what I guess is serious is the fear people have of this. You know, when books first got printed there was tremendous fear of people who weren't used to them. They were going to destroy society. They were going to allow poor people to read. They were going to make people rebellious. Uh, everybody who was not native to a technology, when it's new in their lifetime can be frightened of it. And especially then when children adopt it, it becomes more frightening, because all of a sudden, your child knows more than you do. And maybe is even in a different culture than you. And that's happening today with a vengeance. The kids are in a digital culture that many of their parents are not in. Uh, they're doing highly complex things with their computers, with their games. Even if they're six years old playing Pokemon many parents have had a Pokemon discussion with their six-year-old, and are just embarrassed. The six-year-old knows, you know, 340 characters, and every possible relationship in this game, and is a complete expert, and the parent can't understand a word of it. And for many people it's unsettling that your six-year-old is smarter than you.
Q: Is this any different than rock and roll or television, or another kind of...
GEE: Uh, I don't think some of the fears are any different than that. I think the different is that this is a technology that is as powerful as literacy was originally. You know, human society has never seen a technology with the power of literacy. Literacy allows you to do stuff at a great distance, it allows you to organize people in institutions and cities. It allows for creativity and expression for cross-cultural communication. It allows for a tremendous amount of stuff it's expanded the human mind. Uh, we've never seen a technology that, that is as changing to culture and as changing to people as learning how to write was. It was only invented two or three times in society. It, it wasn't an idea that came to everybody. And we can't even imagine what our world would be without it.
And what we're looking at here is a new technology for meaning-making. a digital set of tools for meaning-making, not print. And it's going to be and is becoming as transformative, and what it's doing is by, it's not removing literacy, print, at all. It's changing the ecology of the old literacy. Kids are writing and reading more than they ever have. But they're doing it differently. And they're doing it in tandem with these digital tools. They're writing strategy guides for games, they're writing fan fiction, they're engaged in technical arguments about the different cheats in their games or how to mod a game, modify a game. Uh, so people have predicted, oh, you know, this new literacy -- that is, using digital tools to make meaning - will kill the old one. Far from it. They're married. It's very difficult to be good at digital stuff if you're not already highly literate.
You can't play Pokemon if you can't read. And you certainly aren't going to get into a technical discussion about changing the artificial intelligence in a game like Age of Mythology if you can't read technical material. So these two literacies are married. And the digital literacy is changing the shape of print literacy. Uh, but it's not killing it.
Q: OK, but what about the traditional book. I mean, the literacy of the, the literature. Let me just finish the question... would it be such a bad thing if it went away?
GEE: Well, you know, you're asking a Baby Boomer. It would be sad to me to have the book go away, and it's not going anywhere. It's changing. you know, every new meaning-making device, technology that is as powerful as literacy was, as print was, and as this digital one certainly is, there's always gains and losses. I mean, there, so there isn't the book that's being lost. But there is, there are some things that are being lost. Today kids don't read books quietly by themselves, cover to cover. They tend to read stuff in order to do stuff, right? They, they're, and they write stuff in order to do stuff, or in order to intervene in a community or be in a community. Uh, they're not as into what you might call contemplative reading. Uh, they're not sitting there reading Henry James and poring over every pronoun, which Henry James wants you to do, that's the way he writes, he wants to have the most subtle effects, and he requires you to read slowly, and he requires you to read the whole book.
That type of reading, probably is in some decline. And the humanities organizations have certainly bemoaned that. and I think it's worth bemoaning. I the loses are, you know, when print replaced oral culture, when writing happened and oral cultures began to disappear across the world, there were certainly things we lost. One of them is memory. People in an oral culture would make us look really impoverished at memorizing things. I mean, these were people who could hold massive amounts of material in their head. Think of the Homeric poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Homeric singers could produce thousands of lines of poetry, a, a story in poetry out of their own memory. Uh, we, we're not good at that anymore, because print took it away. Is it a loss? Sure. Uh, but that's the price of gain.
And, to a certain extent getting people to be contemplative and a little bit slower; not to multi-task all the time but put all the energy into one task? Well, maybe that becomes one of our goals to show them that's, that's another skill that's worth having. and it becomes the burden for us to really convince people that it's worth having. Because, you see, that's what really happens, is when changes happen, all of a sudden, when we think a loss is too important and we want to remedy it, then we have to argue for it now. We have to say, why is it good to read Henry James? We can't just say all educated people read Henry James. Because we know that's not true anymore. Uh, so we have to give an argument. And I think that's good. We should have to give an argument.
Q: But the burden falls on those of us who remember the way it was. Who didn't grow up with this stuff. Because those who never knew another world can't possibly know what they're losing.
GEE: They can't.
Q: And it does sort of create an urgency, doesn't it?
GEE: Yeah, you no longer know what you lost in losing all this memory. Uh, it's gone. And that's partly because the people who were in the oral culture weren't able to pass it on. Now, there area, there are places where that oral culture is still around. So people who are engaged in oral poetry, in rap music still retain a lot of features of, you know, the power of the voice, the power of face-to-face talk. And those practices, by the way, many of them in the African-American community do have a tie to the former oral culture. With the oral poetry and the whole thing. So it actually is retained. We don't always realize that there are aspects of it retained. if we do think that contemplative reading of things like novels, cover to cover, is an important practice, then one will have to find a way to integrate that into the new ecology of digital literacies or it will be lost.
Q: What about, putting aside the issue of books I think those of us who are swimming in digital worlds, we all share this feeling of, at least those of us over a certain age, of losing a kind of, a kind of quiet, a kind of sort of continuity of thought and focus that isn't necessarily about reading a novel, but is connected to something else that seems important. I wonder whether you can talk about that.
GEE: I, I think it's the same issue. So losing contemplativeness, losing continuity, you know, pre, people kind of meditatively paying avid attention over a long period of time to a certain extent might be lost, again the burden falls on us to show it's valuable. But I wouldn't be too quick to say that that is lost. It, again, it's changed. I'll give you an example. When I first started this this work on the video games, only about seven years ago we were interviewing uh, a young teenager who at school was said to have severe ADHD. Uh, and he was playing a multiplayer game massive multiplayer game I won't name it because what he did was illegal, but he wanted to hack into the game to find the algorithm that determined how good the drops are when you kill something.
You know, in this game, you kill some, what's called a Bob, some monster, and it drops a glove or a sword, and you want it to be good and valuable, and there's an algorithm that de-- So anyway, the game doesn't want you to always get good stuff. So there's an algorithm to determine this. And he hacked into the code to find that algorithm so he'd get on at just the right time always to get the good stuff. And it took him 12 hours. ADHD and he spent 12 hours on no other task. That's pretty strong continuity, and that's not multitasking. Uh, it's pretty impressive, and it's even more impressive for an ADHD kid. And he found the algorithm. The company caught him. They called his father, and they said, your kid's hacked into our game and found this algorithm, and they said, we're trying to decide whether to put him in jail or hire him.
Q: What'd they do?
GEE: They didn't put him in jail. And that child today is in college majoring in computer science. And the day he went on campus, the first day he was on campus, he was hired as a research associate - a research assistant - uh, and he couldn't find an introductory computer science course that he hadn't already mastered.
Q: Amazing. OK, assuming that we are in a transition, and a new kind of, a new model of human being is evolving, can you... we talked about what we're losing. What are we gaining? Or who, give us, paint a picture of us of this new human being.
GEE: Uh, I think that we're gain - the new human being, if there really is a new human being, I mean, we're, we're finding new capacities for human beings. Uh, and what we're gaining are two very important things. One is the ability for people to be in communities and collaborate, and be smarter in the community than they are as an alone individual. This is something that kids, kids play games socially. We found, people predicted this was going to be a socially isolating technology. Far from it; it's almost impossible to find a kid that doesn't want to play socially, who doesn't want to join groups, who doesn't want to be a fan on something and start building Web sites.
So we're growing a bunch of people who see what they do as ver - social, and collaborative, and as parts of joining communities. And then they want to teach in those communities, they want to mentor in those communities, they want to lead and they want to build as part of those communities. And I think that's if, to the extent that these communities are good - they're not all good, but to the extent that they are good, this is a very positive feature. It goes along with a second feature, which I've already mentioned, and that is complexity.
The world has gotten too complex for our old model of human beings where you do it all on your own, and the only important thing is what's going on in your head. And you're smarter than me, so that means something in your head is going on better than me. And because you're smarter than me, that means you deserve a lot more than me. And you're an expert. And you do it all on your own. And you get to be an expert in one narrow thing. Uh, that's dangerous now. Uh, we need you to be an expert. But we need you to be able to be on a team with other experts. Uh, in business, they call these teams cross-functional teams. That is, where everybody on the team is an absolute expert in something. But the know how to integrate their expertise with everybody else on the team. They know how to understand the other person's expertise so they can pull off action together. In a complicated world and with very complicated problems. Now this is also what a hunting party is in World of Warcraft. World of Warcraft sells people cross-functional teams. Things that are high-stress in the workplace, people go home and join one. You're in a hunting party of five people. Every person must be a different type of character. And must have mastered the skills of that character perfectly. But you also better understand the skills of every other character so you can integrate with them.
So we're seeing cross-functional teams in play, we're seeing them in workplaces, and they're therefore a very important way of being the world in the 21st century. Because they give us the good of expertise, but they save us from some of the bad. That is, the narrowness, the privileging of your own knowledge against other peoples'. Uh, and kids, are they're ready for this world. They're ready to be on these teams through their play.
So kids are getting prepared for this world in their play. They're thinking about complexity, they're getting deep expertise, they're mastering stuff, but they're also having to deal with other people and really put it together to build stuff. Uh, it's not clear they're getting it at school. In fact, a lot of this is called cheating in school. Right? School is still just testing each individual, testing you on one day and it's not seeing what you can do with smart tools. It's not seeing what you can do with other people. Uh, so we really have two different school systems now. We have one out of school, in which people are learning to collaborate. They're learning to use smart tools, they're yearn--learning to build, and not just take it the way people give it to them. And then we have a school system which is based on this same old individual idea of trying to find out what's inside your head and see whether you're better than the person next to you.
Q: How... clearly, the school system as-is, slow being an understatement, to catch up to the ideas you're talking about. But tell me where I can look to find the legitimization of these ideas. In other words, where is it catching on? Is there an institutional response to this that...
GEE: Well, there is an institutional response. First of all, it's catching on out of school. So we know many very impressive communities out there. Let me give you one example because we're studying this right now. Uh, we're looking at girls and women who are designing for the Sims. They're not playing the Sims, they're designing for it. They build houses, they build clothes, they build furniture, they build walls, they build environments. Uh, some of them are absolute experts. they've had to master dozens of pieces of software to do this, Photoshop and many others. They've got, it takes very highly technical skills to do it. Then they teach each other - even the experts, if they have to learn something, so to another expert in the community to teach each other.
So you've got women who have very high tech skills, very good artistic skills one women who we've studied in this is a, is a woman, who's retired, she's a shut-in, she can't leave her house, because of her health. And she has now 7 million downloads of her creations. Globally. And her there's a little book where people can leave you messages. And she has been thanked over 400,000 times. So you see, she's shut in in her house, but she's not shut out of the world. Uh, and that's because of this this community of people. So, that's already done. And you ought to look at that community and say how do we in school do that well? By the way, this community's not age-graded. There's 15-year-old girls and 60-year-old grandmothers. And they're teaching each other. Sometimes the 15-year-old is teaching. Many times the 60-year-old is teaching. and so it's not communities like school. But it's already out there. Uh, the other thing about schools is, they have no changed for a long time. The basic paradigm of schooling is pretty similar today than it was 100 years ago.
So we've gotten into this idea of thinking, well, they can't change. They aren't going to change. Well, they've got a new competition today they haven't had in history. There are lots of other institutions out of school - business, not-for-profits, community centers, libraries - who want to use smart tools, some of these digital technologies, for 24/7 learning for everybody.
You learn all the time, you learn on demand, you learn just in time. And you're learning 21st century skills. That competition has never existed for schools before. And that competition is beating schools at its best. Sure, there's some stuff that's no good out of school. But at its best, it's beating schools. And my own prediction is, that competition will finally, for the first time, break the paradigm of schooling we have. Uh, it won't happen immediately. Because we've been through a period over the last few years in which we've over-stressed testing. And we've, that testing is driving a skill-and-drill agenda. Uh, but it will change.
Q: So, just to close this off, what about nationally? I mean, is there institutional support for this anywhere? Aside from the Macarthur Foundation? Give me the kind of...
GEE: Well, there are more and more foundations entering this space. I mean, and there are certainly many more companies entering this space, not for profit and for-profit companies. So the space is being entered pretty quickly. I think that as we've tried to make games for learning - sometimes people call this "serious games," I don't, I don't like that term, because what makes a game good for learning is that you don't know it's serious. Or you're not being totally serious, you're at play.
But people are begin to making these games and I think what we've found as we began to do this is, they're much harder to make than we thought. And this is contentious to say, but I think a lot of them weren't very good because they were made by us Baby Boomers. And we brought all our old theories, even if we thought we didn't have them, we brought all our old theories to it. And what I'm seeing now is we're beginning to make much better learning games when they're being made by games designers in their 20s and 30s who don't bring the baggage of the Baby Boomers and who are really native to these technologies, and I think it's really making the curve go up.
Institutional support for this is growing in a number of areas. One area that you just see it tremendously is libraries. So many libraries want to get into games. Why, this was the, this was the place that spread literacy, and made literacy equitable by having books for everybody. And if this is a new literacy that can make people smarter when it's used correctly, then the library has a new function. And that is to spread this digital literacy and make it equitable. And they are, many libraries are doing this. And I think they're going to become a very important site.
Many community centers, boys and girls' clubs and other community centers are beginning to see that learning is 24/7 and that much of the learning kids do is out of school, that much of the high-value learning and a lot of it is in rich homes or wealthy, where they, the kids have been resourced for this learning. And it then becomes an equity goal for this community center, saying, how can I resource these other children for this 21st century learning. Uh, and so, there is institutional support. And what I hope will happen, and I think it is happening, will happen, is that as those institutions get better and better at this, people will say we can do this in school, too.
There are good schools, one in Chicago that Macarthur has funded where there are out-of-school programs doing 21st century digital skills that is turning kids into, into, all, making them do professional level work in digital media to pick up the skills, but also to pick up the creativity, the innovation. But they are marrying them to schools. The teachers know what they're doing, they support it in school. The after-school programs supports what they're doing in school. Uh, and that sort of marriage is extremely powerful. Because then we truly turn this into a 24/7 task for all the kids, and one in which there is true collaboration between the school and the community and the family. And that's really where the value-added will come.
Q: What about in the halls of government? Public policy makers?
GEE: So, what's the government's role in all this. Uh, well, you know, President Obama has done a few things that I think are very promising in this regard. So, of course we have this bailout money that's coming to schools, and at the, and the bailout money has got some strings attached. And one of them is the accountability. Right? That you have to show through these test scores your kids are doing well. We, we surely need a lot better tests than we have. We need tests that kids can solve problems. Uh, and that they take on new identities as problem-solvers, not that they can fill out bubbles. And I think Obama knows that, so one of the strings we, in addition to getting the kids up on these regular test scores, we also have to show that they're learning deeper material that they're learning conceptually how to do, and not just write things down on a piece of paper. and that they're learning to innovate.
Uh, and one of the key things I think schools will do, I think the Departm - Department of Education will encourage them to do this - is to lengthen the school day. That has been one of the big factors that really improve the performance of poor kids and minority kids, to lengthen the school day. But when you lengthen the school day, you certainly can't have kids keep doing the same old skill and drill you've done all day, or you're going to get a rebellion on your hands. So if you put together the fact that they bailout money does seem, and the policies do seem to want to encourage innovation, in that you have to show you did something innovative, and not jet got the bubble test better, and that we have some extra time to play around with. This is going to create a very interesting experimental space, where we can say, let's play around with technologies like games, that seem to marry deep engagement with problem-solving and innovation. Uh, and and, therefore, we can get both.
We can have enough time where kids are being skilled and drilled, we can get those bubble tests still okay, but we can do, really add value when we lengthen the day and we get these kids doing more engaging stuff. And then the hope is that peripheral part of the day, with the marginal extension, will eat the regular part of the day. Because you know, new technology, new innovation, start on the periphery, and then they move to the center. And so I think it can be very promising if we start on the periphery of schools and then, uh show that this is more compelling learning. That when people learn to solve problems, they know the facts already anyway, so you get a double bang for your buck, and then I think we can take over the school.
Q: Philosophically do you think the Secretaries of Education, and the people who control the purse strings get it? I mean, do they accept this paradigm?
GEE: I think they get part of it. I, I do believe they get the idea that we have to move beyond just the bubble test. They do get the idea that we have to have innovation as well. They do get the idea that extending the school day is important. They do get the idea that learning is 24/7 for a lot of kids in privileged homes, and it had better become 24/7 for the other kids who are in deep trouble. I don't know if they get the idea that some of these tests we're using today are detrimental to our kids. That they're not really testing stuff that's important, and they're not telling us the growth curve of the kids, they're not telling us how this child is developing towards mastery. They're just telling us one shot picture on Tuesday.
So I, I do think they get a lot of it. Whether or not they see games as a powerful technology, that I don't know. Uh, that I, I don't think either President Obama or the Secretary of Education are gamers beyond basketball which we know they both, they both play. And, again, I think that like many people, they may misunderstand games. We're not talking about games uh, as important in their own right. We're talking about a technology that has power to put people in new experiences and new worlds. And in worlds that ask them to do something. And eventually even build them themselves. And maybe the word "Game" doesn't betoken that for them.
Q: What you're up against, though, is, people imagine video games. And there's something about the notion of bringing video games into schools...
GEE: Right, right, and that's why I think what we have to say is what we're bringing into schools is situated learning. That is, learning where people solve problems and where they marry words to actions, experiences, goals, and dialog with other people. And games are one way to do that. There are other ways to do that. But I also think we've got to educate people what the potential of this technology is. You know, this is a relatively new technology. We've made 1% of the types of games we could make. We're just discovering the other 99 percent. But any parent who saw, as I did with my 13-year-old, all the worlds that he has build in Spore.
Right, that he puts on Spore, and he has built really hundreds of artifacts in that game, using tools to design and be creative. And that he is thinking about how he wants to build this stuff for himself and how he wants to think like a designer and not just play. And that Will Wright, the designer of that game, gave him the opportunity to say, playing and designing are, are more and more the same thing. When you play and when you do stuff, you ought to think about how you'd build it yourself. Uh, the same thing is happening with Will Wright's game The Sims, with the women I talked about earlier. They begin to play the game, and then they say, wait a minute, I'd just as soon design for the game. I might as well build it. And then they get caught up in a building community. Uh, there's a lot to be learned from that, and those are not the first things that come to our mind when we think of game. What comes to mind is shooting people in Halo. But what should come to your mind is people who are in a form of play that ultimately leads to thinking like a designer.
Q: OK. I have kids who play Spore as well, so I know the game a bit. and I agree with you about the extraordinary opportunity for creativity. What concerns me as a parent is, and I wonder whether, you know, you share any of this concern, is shifting so much of our interaction and learning to a virtual space.
Q: And what the ramifications of that are. It's such a powerful and alluring space. Particularly for children.
GEE: It is. And, you know, when I was growing up, in a, in a non-middle-class family, there were a lot of people around me who were concerned about people who read too much. As somebody said to me, 'what's the point of putting all that in your head? You could hit your head, and it would all fall out.' Uh, people have always been concerned with enticing technologies. And books, for many children, are really enticing and they spend a lot of time reading, and now, middle class parent, no middle class parent says, 'oh, my kid's reading too much, I gotta stop this.' But they, but they, working class families used to do that. Uh, look, nobody wants to say any technology - television or games, or any other technology - is good for you or bad for you. They're nothing for you, and we have to know how they're used.
So if your child is playing games, it depends about the learning that is built around that activity. It's the context in which the child is doing it. Same with television, by the way. So wit these technologies, if that person's doing it, and they're connecting it to other things in their lives, and it's leading to new skills, and it's making them socialize with people so that they learn how to collaborate and they're making connections across the different skills they're getting. Then it's very good for your kid. If they're sitting there, being, you know, babysat by it, or, they're, you know, just mushing buttons they're caught up in it and making no connections and learning no new skills, then it's bad for you.
Uh, so it depends what you do with it. There is no answer to the question are games good or bad. It depends what you do with them. Now, what we find is for kids who are doing positive things with games, they do not spend all their time in a virtual world. Uh, they may, they may do a lot of different virtual things, too, so they might play Naruto, and then they build a Web site devoted to Naruto. And then they get into a community about Naruto. And then they want to write a Naturo manga or comic book. And, you know, these are also kids who play soccer. And theater. Or they do Dungeons and Dragons. I mean, what's impressed me for the kids who come from families who are not frightened of this stuff, and who, but who mentor it, is, is that the kid does not become obsessed with one thing.
They might, when they're on a new learning curve, spend a huge amount of time learning how to do something. Right, which is typical of human beings. But then, they want to connect it to something new, and they want to move on from it, and so I haven't seen this uh, total obsession with any one domain when there is good mentoring given to that child. But I do want to say, that for young children, families do need to, to build learning around it and to mentor it. I don't think the way to mentor it is to be uptight about the time the person's doing. You should be uptight about the quality of what they're doing.
We found out initially the parents often have no idea what their kid is doing. 'Oh, he's in there playing a game.' Well, that could be bad, and it could be very good. We saw kids in there doing stuff with games and rebuilding their computers that couldn't play the game, and then building Web sites and then getting into guilds and doing chat with professors in their guild. You know, there were 13-year-olds leading a guild with 50-year-old professors in it in Starcraft and World of Warcraft later. Uh, and you'd go out to the parent, and say, 'yeah, what your kid is doing in there is paying for your retirement.' He's, he's picking up skills that are going to pay for your retirement. So you might as well, you might go in there and look what he's doing.
Other kids were not, there was nothing pushing them. You know, there's a study that came out not too long ago by Susan Newman, a former deputy, Deputy Secretary of Education. And she put with her colleagues, very high-quality digital learning in the libraries in Philadelphia. Into middle-class areas and into poor areas. The idea was to layer to level the playing field. To allow access. And the access worked. The, the poor kids used it as much as the middle-class kids, so it wasn't an access problem. But at the end of it, the richer kids had gotten a lot more out of it. They have learned more, they had more knowledge, and their literacy levels went up. So, sh--which was a little mystifying.
It was another example of rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. Why? Because in the middle-class families, the upper-middle-class families, they were there with their kid. And they were mentoring the kid. They said, ok, pick something that involves reading, and pick something that's a little above your head, don't pick it below your head. And don't give up the first time you fail. Persist in the challenge. Don't keep switching from one thing to another. so there's was mentoring in how to interact with it, and how to, how to persist with it. Uh, the poor kids didn't have that. Their families were at work. They picked something that might be below their reading level. They didn't persist always past failure. They went from one thing to another. So the mentoring was the key ingredient. And it wasn't present for the poor kids.
Q: But weren't they in libraries?
GEE: They were... There were... and so what the study, well, many librarians would say, OK, I'm not going to intervene in this child's play but the moral of the story is, yes, you better intervene in their play. You need to go do for the poor kids just what the middle-class parents did for their kid. That does not mean you go teach them direct instruction. It means you mentor them to show them how to persist past challenge, how to pick stuff above their reading level a little above their reading level, and how to make connections. And then how to, how, how, to realize when you do that, pretty, even though it's a struggle in the beginning, there's a big payoff. All of a sudden, you're really in a development, developmental trajectory of learning.
So, it, it raises a new role for librarians. The idea of mentoring people in this way is going to become a key role for librarians and people out of school. But the mentorship is crucial, the idea that I hand the kid the technology and it's some magic potion that will make them smarter is just not true. That's, by the way, the same with books. Books can make you dumber or they can make you smarter. It depends what you do with them. And one thing we've known for, you know, a very long time, for young children learning to read, they absolutely need the opportunity to talk about what they read. And if they're talking about what they're reading, thinking about what they're reading with a parent, then the reading is doing them a lot of good.
If, if, they're, if they're not uh or if they're just being told to listen to their parent read and shut up, keep quiet, then it isn't, it isn't necessarily any good for them. So, it isn't any different with books. These technologies require a mentor. The mentor is not always a parent, it could be other peers. There's tremendous mentoring in these communities that are available on the internet. If you get a passion for Age of Mythology, and want to then to all the other people with a passion for it, the ment - there's tremendous mentoring from people that you can get. But, of course, you have to know you can get it. Somebody has to help you to say, oh, there's a community out there, why don't you take this game much further, because once you get in that community, they'll tell you there's a lot more you can do with this game than you think. You can go into the level editor and make whole environments. You can begin to be a designer. Or you can tweak the artificial intelligence. Or you can write on mythology. You can go check the mythology in the game out and see if it's accurate or not. You're going to find out, wow, there's a lot more I could do.
Q: Now I'm beginning to think it has a public health crisis with what they're calling internet addiction. They've got kids who cannot stop playing the game. And who are, the rest of their life's falling apart. They're not sleeping, they're not eating, they're dying in, you know, PC bangs. Their grades are falling. So, what do you say to that? I mean, how do you...
GEE: Oh, this is the issue that comes up over addiction to games. And the first thing I'd want to say is, I'd want to know how serious a problem that is. How big it is. You know the way the media works, if somebody tomorrow gets killed by a pig, it's all over how dangerous pigs are. Uh, but you know, your odds of getting killed by a pig are very small, and very few people get killed by them. Uh, but the point is that peop - human beings are programmed in such a way that if a new phenomena happens and we find out some people are being harmed, we think it's a major health crisis. So I don't what the numbers are and whether they're big enough. This issue of addiction has certainly come up on a game like World of Warcraft. Which is, which, without any doubt, there are people who have ruined their lives over it. There are people, by the way, who have greatly enhanced their lives over it. I used to play for hundreds of hours with my wife, and it was good for both our creativity and our relationship. but there, there are people who have certainly had their lives fall apart. Their marriages fall apart. And there are people today making their living treating these addictions.
Like it's a new therapy. Uh, what you want to know in those cases is, what was wrong with their lives that this was better. Right? Because in all the cases that I've seen World of Warcraft was better than what they had. Uh, one case that I know about, a guy had lost his job he didn't have much dignity left, he'd lost his house, his wife had left him he was relatively poor. Uh, and all of a sudden, he's the head of a guild in World of Warcraft. And he's leading people, he's very helpful. His whole thing is, how do I help people in there. So he has a great respect from everyone in World of Warcraft. So now he's got dignity, he's got control, he's got power, he's got friends, he's got respect. He doesn't have that in his life. Who wouldn't play World of Warcraft more than their real life if they were in that circumstance. I think some of the people who are treating these addictions realize that in those cases, you have to ask, what was the lack in the person's life or their relationships, and how do I improve that? Uh, rather than say, let's, you know, worry just about the game.
Because I do think these are second lives. When you get into a game like World of Warcraft, and it's a social space, and you're out there with, you know, hundreds of thousands of other people you can join a guild, or you can play with your friends. Uh, you can meet people in there that you don't know personally, but you see them all the time. Uh, that these are pretty rich lives. I mean, why wouldn't they be rich lives? And that they can entice people whose lives aren't as rich isn't surprising. I mean, you think about it, for most of human time on earth, you couldn't be any different than you were born. If you were born a peasant, that was it. If I came along to that guy, and said, you know, you're going to be a peasant for all your life, but I've got this world you can enter where you can be a king. Who wouldn't have played it?
Now, you know, if you look at how people, poor people, working people, read Shakespeare in the 18th century and the early 19th century, many of them, you know, when we didn't make it just a school subject, many of the poor people said just that. You know, when I read Shakespeare, I see what it's like to be a king or a queen. And I also realize that I, they're just like me. They're a person. I can empathize with them, I can see that some of my problems, at an emotional level, are the same as them. And furthermore, I can understand this as well as anybody who's educated. It was an empowering experience, because it actually gave them a vicarious life, another life.
Games do give people a powerful vicarious life. They put you in another life with real people so it's not just virtual. and just as, you know, freeing you from your peasantry might have been addictive -- for very understandable reasons, we are entering a world in which this can be addictive for people - because it is a potentially life-enhancing experience. Uh, and for some people, that might not compare well with their real lives.
Q: OK, this gets at the real nub. Which is, what is the relationship between these virtual lives and our real ones? And, I mean, you guys, you guys, I've certainly, I've read a lot this circular magic of play notion. That when you're in a game, you know it's a game, and it's not really the same. And so if you're shooting somebody in a game, that doesn't mean you're going to go out...
Q: By the same token, that, that, that can, that can sort of work against you. Right? Because when you leave that game, how much of what you got there do you bring with you?
GEE: Well, this dichotomy between the game and the world, between the virtual world and the real world, has truly broken down. So when you're playing a massive multiplayer game like World of Warcraft, you are there with other real people, first of all, so it, they're not virtual they're real people. Some of them you know, like when I was playing with my wife, we're in the same room together, but some people you don't know, but they're real people. The other thing is, we know from a lot of research, there are real economies. Their fictional money is worth something. You can't legally trade World of Warcraft money, though people do it. Uh, you can trade Second Life money, legally, and people make their livings in Second Life. So it's not clear that these aren't real experiences.
And what they are allowing people to do, for good or ill, because any powerful technology can be used for good or ill they are allowing people to discover other aspects of their real selves. Right? You, you, because you can play with your identity, you can play with your avatar. You can try out things in these spaces in a little bit safer way, sometimes, because the other person isn't right next to you, they can't hit you. And and what are you discovering? You're not discovering something fictional about yourself, you're discovering something real about yourself. You're having experiences that you could never have in life.
And I remember early in World of Warcraft, just playing with my, this may not be a good story, but I was playing with my wife, and some person who claimed to be a teenage boy came up to me and asked, we were both female characters, my wife and I, and I told the boy that we were sisters, and she was 17 and I was 15, and he started to flirt with me. You know, and I was fif, I was in my 50s at the time. I thought, wow, this is unbelievable. I'm a 50-year-old man, and I could never have had the experience of being flirted with by a teenage boy. Never in my real life could I have had that experience. Uh, as he started to flirt with me, I realized I had no idea what to say to him. So I had to ask my wife, what should I say? How would I, how would I do that? and it was a bizarre experience. I of course was also discovering something about my real self I never could have. And one of the things I discovered is, he started to say to me, first of all, I want to play with you every day, I'll come and we can play together, and I thought, well, that would be a drag. But he also kept calling me "hon." And I finally said, if you call me "hon" one more time, I'm going to break your kneecaps. And far from him disliking me for saying that, that seemed to be a good flirtatious technique. I was, he thought I was even better as a girl.
Now, I didn't continue to do that because there's also something also probably a little creepy about that. But nonetheless it's a good example, and again, it's a good example of where you can be bad or good, right? It can be... of how you're discovering stuff about yourself. It's really you. Right? But it's put... you imagine that peasant. That peasant had to, in the Middle Ages, had to engage in a fairly narrow range of activities. He didn't get to lead the business community, he didn't get to critique the church, he, he didn't... now, you know, if you'd given that peasant that possibility, what you would have discovered is he's a lot smarter than you'd thought of.
Q: I'm interested in this period of time where you spent a lot of time in World of Warcraft. And what the feeling was - because we've been talking about this a lot -- how disoriented we feel when we leave. That, that movement from one to the other. Um...
GEE: Right. I think that is part of the power of games. You know, one thing I've been very impressed with in games, this was especially true when I started playing them, but it's, it's still true, and every gamer knows this when you leave a game and you've been playing it a long time, you see the world through the lens of that game. If you've been playing Portal - wonderful game in which you have to build portals in the world and you use the laws of physics to go through them, it's a, it was a very popular game - uh, when you leave it, you see the whole world as, where could I put a portal here? Uh, if you're playing the, one of the stealth games, you all of a sudden see the world, where would be the best cover? When I played SWAT IV, where you have to enter every room absolutely safely so that no team member dies, nobody gets hurt... all of a sudden, you're at a conference, you say, well, how, I know how I'd get in this room if I wanted to, you know, be a stealth player. So you see, they, the weir... they have a great effect they, they they let you see the world in a different way.
And for a whi - that transition is often, as you're overlay on the real world some of the way that the game has taught you to see the world. Now that could be a very powerful effect. That's an effect we'd like for learning. Uh, imagine making a game for physics learning in which all of a sudden, kids began to say, oh, I se the vector now in the world. I see how that force is actually working in the world. So, it could be, again, it could be a good effect, or it could be a bad effect. But I, I think that you see when you notice that getting out of a game is like leaving a world, it's like leaving something that was uh, a relationship you're seeing the power in that, in that game. I, I think in large part that's good. I don't see any, any danger with it.
I've always loved to look at the world through the lens of a certain game. It's always, you know there's a piece of advertising they did for Portal, that actually had a great learning theory in it. Where they said, what Portal is trying to do is give you a tool that lets you see new possibilities in the world. The Portal gun lets you only make portals, and you have to obey the laws of physics, like conservation, moment however fast you go in one, you come out that fast the other one, and you have to get through a whole set of laboratories just using that portal gun. And all of a sudden, you look at the world in a new way. You look at it in some ways the way a physicist does, and and there's, and the game is saying, we're going to give you a tool to see new possibilities in the world.
Can you think of a better educational goal for our dangerous world, to say, I'll give you a new tool that makes you see the environment in a new, to see new possibilities in the environment. To see new possibilities in your world. I'll give you a tool that lets you see new possibilities in the economy. Boy, we need that right now. Uh, because the old tools haven't been so good. So one things games can be about is tools to see the world in a new way, not just the virtual world, but to see the real world in a new way.
Q: Except that, that the game world is magical. And the real world is not.
GEE: Oh, well, then you need, you need to get out more in the real world. I, I, I'm a, I'm a person who loves birds and hiking. And, uh I live in Sedona a large part of the years, and I'll tell you, when I'm hiking around Sedona looking for birds, it's as magical as any game I've ever been in.
I, I think that one of the sad things about the world is how we have taken a lot of the magic out of it by the way that we've hurt our environment, and by the way we've impoverished people. But uh, it, it's, it would be a, it's a rare thing, I think, for human being to feel the world isn't magical. Most of the time, people on Earth, even poor people, have found a lot of magic in the world.
Q: My point, though, is, I fail in a game, I always get another chance. Right? There's always... it's a finite experience. I can reinvent myself.
GEE: You can.
Q: You fail in the real world, it has different consequences and I...
GEE: It does, but that... failure in the real world has different consequences. We know that one of the great learning principles in games is, failure is not high-cost. And the reason you don't want it to be high-cost is, games want you to explore everything. Try out different things, think laterally and not just linearly. Re-think your hypotheses. Try out some new learning styles. And nobody's going to do that if the risk of failure's too high. You get... you, you won't explore, you won't take risks if failure is too high. So it's crucial.
Now we know this is also true of children. Children and adolescents are not going to grow up properly if the price of failure is too high. Right? Because they won't be able to do the exploration and the risk-taking that they need to do to see the parameters of their world. So we have to protect them, but we also have to lower the cost of failure. One of the things we could do tomorrow to make schools much better for learning is lower the cost of failure. What failure in school says is, you're a failure. You're less good than Johnny, so you're a failure. You know, there's only, the trouble with schools, when we just sort people, is there's only one winner. There's only one person who's on the top of the hierarchy, and the rest of us are some form of loser. That is no good for exploration, no good for innovation, no good for risk-taking.
So the fact that the failure is high-cost is sometimes, of course, just due to the fact that we only have one life and one body. But too often it's institutions and other people that made it that way. We can't change the fact that if, you know, a bullet goes through you, you're only going to get one shot. So we ought to protect you. But we certainly can change a lot of the other failures that we have. Failure is the key to learning. You know, the motto of the IDEO Major Corporation is "fail early, fail often." Uh, it should be in every school. It should be in every school: "fail early and fail often." Uh, because the quicker you fail, the quicker you map the terrain. You're in a, you're in a dungeon, you map the dungeon by failing. And then you know it. Might as well get to it, quickly. So I think that's the fundamental problem. And now, it is true we have only one life. And I'm older now, 61, so I'm pretty well aware that I would have liked another one, too, another chance. Uh, but it is interesting, as changes happen fast, and these digital technologies come along, it is giving us something like second lives. You know, Second Life has got a good name. Because you have an opportunity to do some do-overs now you never had.
Think of the woman I mentioned who is a shut-in. In the old days she couldn't get out of her house. A lot of, you know, her husband is deceased. we might have said, well that's the end for her. That's, that's the end of the story. And someday she'll die, but it's going to be pretty lonely. She's not lonely. She has 400,000 people thanking her. I have never got 400,000 people to thank me for my books. Uh, so sh - at the end of her life, she got another life. And she's a revered designer in her community. She's a rock star. You know, she's got a lot more fame and fortune than most people we think of as famous. That could, that's, that's a tremendously wonderful thing that it could happen. And in that form, it could never happen in history before.
Q: What I was going to say to you before is, all the things you're saying are true. And you could be a knight, you could be a prince, you could be a king. But it's still all ones and zeroes. Even when you hear, you know, the sounds of other people talking. And you know they're real people. They're still ones and zeroes.
GEE: It's not, well, see, would you say that books are 26 letters? Books aren't just 26 letters. The 26 letters allow us to express an infinity of things. That's the great invention of literacy, of the alphabet. Those ones, it isn't ones and zeroes. They're just the things that allowed us to express an infinity of things. Something has to allow for the expression, and that something is, in the most brilliant cases, is actually pretty small. See, I also don't think, when you were in a game, and then you feel a certain flatness when you leave it's not the screen. Think about it. Uh, people who play sports, after a football game are often depressed. Because their adrenaline is gone. Because they've been so focused, they've had a, they're having a flow experience. And all life can't be flow. And so of course there's a let-down.
You know uh, there are artists who have, who get depressed after each, when they write a poem or they write a book. Virginia Woolf, of course, killed herself because of this. The let-down after some creativity, and after a strong experience is a physiological experience to people. It has nothing to do screens, per se. People see it with poetry, people see it with football. It's just a human response to having powerful experiences. If I'm out birding and I've seen great stuff, the world doesn't look as good at home. Uh, that's just an effect of human beings.
What it should encourage us to do is to not only look for more of those experiences, but also look to how we can find them in our mundane life. With our children or anything else. I mean, you know, and this is a principle that people have applied in art for a long time. Uh, things lose their flavor when they're too routine. I, you know, when you have a new child, and that child is one or two, you have to be pretty benighted if that isn't just really exciting. It just amazes you, oh, this little thing can do all this stuff. And it's so amazing. Uh, and then, you know, you take it for granted. Uh, when it was strange, at first it was strange, that, you know, this child was strange, so you saw all the mystery in it. The way that we have to, we can bring magic back to our lives in, make the routine stuff strange again. How do you see your child as strange again? How do you see them as new again? I mean, that, so what art tries to do, what poetry tries to do, what any good art, it tries to take something that people have taken for granted, and therefore they can't see how wonderfully weird it is, and make it strange again, put it in another context.
And, you know, it isn't just games. All art has as one of its goals to make the mundane world strange again so that we see it as magic again. and that's a good thing. That's, that's the fundamental to art, as far as I'm concerned.
Q: Describe what flow is.
GEE: So flow is Csikszentmihalyi's theory of of what really engages people. He got it by, in part by looking at scientists who were so involved in their work, you know, they'd put 12 straight hours in it. That child I mentioned who was hacking into the game to find the algorithm in 12 hours, he was having flow. Flow is an experience where you are so caught up in something you lose a sense of time. You feel powerfully attached to it, you, you that you're really operating at your best. And here's the stages by which flow works, and what's required for it is: First you have to have a problem that you confront. Games, by the way, use this as a design principle. You first have to confront a problem that seems very challenging. And it has to create a little bit of anxiety in you. It can't create so much anxiety that you give up. And it can't create so little you're not enticed.
So you first are a little bit anxious. Can I really do this? And then, you practice, and you do it, and all of a sudden, you're in a state where it's challenging, but you know you can do it. That's flow. When humans are in that state, where I still find this challenging, but I know I can do it, I've go those skills now, I'm putting up with this challenge, they're in flow, and humans are at their most creative. They can put in endless time and energy when they're in that state. Eventually them come into a third state, which is mastery. It's routine. Now it's easy, it's not much challenge. People enjoy that for a while. Mastery's fun for a while. Then they get bored with it, and they want another problem. Good games at their best, that's what they do. You get into a new level, you feel, wow, this is challenging, I'm, I don't know if I can do it, I'm a little bit lost here a little bit anxious. Uh, but not overwhelmed. And then all of a sudden, I find I can do it, I get enough practice, it's challenging, boy, I'm pulling off good stuff here. Who would have thought? And that's the thing where, that's where, addiction in another, in the good sense comes in. That's what you could do.
Now, obviously, we would like to create flow experiences for things that we think are good for people. Uh, probably it's not best to have always, you know, all your flow experience over [unintelligible]. But you know, that's our challenge, how to we create for - how do you tell a challenge, what is it like to have this sate of flow in doing math? Wouldn't it be wonderful if, instead of saying, I'm going to worry about, you know, what every American needs to know in Math, which ends up being nothing that we said I want every child to know what it's like to just lose a sense of time because this math is so engaging to do. And I don't even care which math it was, because then you really see, now I know the point of math. And I know why anybody would pursue it. The same with science, the same with civics or anything else. Uh, so one of our goals ought to be to produce flow in areas where it enhances people's lives by getting them to see the world in another way.
Q: And you think games can help?
GEE: Games do, at their best, create flow. Uh, that's one of the reasons why, you know, you, you, if you were in Second Life and very engaged and immersed in that, you were having a flow experience, you were losing some sense of time, and there is always a let-down when the flow is over, because it's very enhancing to people. It's what keeps scientists going for years on problems that are challenging. See, one of the nice things about their field is sometimes the problem remains challenging for five years. They're in a state of flow for five years. and you know, you can't get them to come to dinner. Uh, it's be a wonderful thing if your kid wouldn't come to dinner because he's got a state of flow over algebra.
Q: Back to sort of game-based learning. Is there any data that it works?
GEE: The data's just coming in. This is a new field, and we have to be, you know, a lot of people want to rush to get data and evidence. We're in that sort of stage with our government. you, you don't want to get evidence for something until you have a good theory of what it is. You have to say, well, how do I recognize a good game versus a bad game? What is my theory of learning? Because what's the point of testing something you don't understand? And games raise an interesting question for assessment that we haven't thought of. Nobody's claiming that bad games are good for you. They're claiming that good games are good for learning. So what we have gotten is a lot of people testing games that are clearly no good, no one wants to play them, and finding out they don't lead to learning. So what? Nobody, nobody ever claimed that a bad game was good for you, no more than a bad book.
What we first have to then do is understand what's a good game. And what makes a game good is that it's engaging. It has to engage deep focused thought, lots of time on task, strategic thinking, and commitment. Uh, it has to create, all good learning, and this is true of, we want games to create a state that has been called by some scholars "grit." Grit is crucial to learning. It's a disposition, and what it means is, grit is the combination of passion and persistence. Really deep learning requires passion and persistence. Passion gets you one, hooked on doing it. Persistence is required to get mastery. So what we really want to cre - create in kids is grit for what we want them to learn. You can't learn algebra in any real sense without grit. Uh, schools are very bad at giving people grit. Games are very good at giving people grit. They get a passion for that thing, and they persist with it. Often because they're supported. By other people. There's a social community out there, uh to do it. So, that's what we want to test, is, you know, can we build games that are engaging enough to give people grit. And then, will they lead to learning.
Now, my own theory is I think we know already from research that if I've got you doing enough time on task with grit, it would be impossible for you not to learn.
Q: But it's a chicken-egg, right? Because how can you, how can you get the sort of funding to get this thing off the ground if you don't have the data to prove that it works, and...
GEE: Well, so that's one model of innovation is, give me the data, and I'll give you the money. Uh, that was, thank God, that wasn't Macarthur's model. Their model was, I'll, I'll give you the money, and you try. Let's just see if this works. Let's innovate. And by the way, if I'm too uptight about pushing you to dissemination and results, I'll bet you you won't try a lot of interesting things, and you won't explore, and you won't take risks. Because you're afraid of failure. Afraid you won't get your money. they didn't do that. Uh, and what they did get is a lot of innovation. Some of it didn't work. You'd better hope some of it didn't work, or we weren't trying out the space. And some of it does work. We are beginning to get evidence Quest Atlantis at the University of Indiana has been assessed more than any other serious game. And what they do, is when they find that it doesn't work, they change it. They tweak it. And every time they tweak it, they find it works. Right? In other words, you learn from the failures. And so they're, they're getting good evidence that it works.
There are games to teach algebra, where there are beginning to be good evidence that they work. But what I want to stress is it's no point testing the game by itself. Nobody's saying, hand the child the game and ignore them, and they're gonna learn algebra. It's testing a learning system, a mentoring system, built around the game. And my fear is, too many people are rushing off and saying, does the software work, and doesn't, don't tell us how it was used. So there's a study that showed that software in school doesn't lead to any results. It's exactly what you'd expect. Because some places it's used badly, some places it's used well. And some places it's used in a mediocre fashion. So when you do a big study it all washes out.
What I want to know is when you created good learning, that is what we've called situated learning, so people are doing stuff -- they're solving problems, they've got experiences and images and dialog, they don't haven't just got a bunch of words - and you have a game in there. That's when I want to know, does that work. And does it work deeply and does it work well. The other thing is, I want to know whether it works, not just did it teach you a bunch of facts. I want to know, did it make you able to solve problems. And even more, more important, I want to know, did it change you. Did it make you see yourself in a different way. And you say, you know, I don't know just how to solve algebra problems, I like algebra. I'm the sort of person who can do algebra. I'll go, I'll look for an algebra problem to solve. I wa - or, like the women in the Sims - I'll look for a piece of software that will let me make meshes, and understand this. And I don't really care how hard it is, because I got a community to help me, I really want to learn it, and I'm gonna do this.
That sort of change, where you become a proactive learner, who identifies with the learning and identifies with the domain, that's the real proof that me made a change. and and, and we don't know how to assess that. But we sure know how to recognize it when we see it. When a person begins to become on fire to solve problems in a domain, it's pretty clear they're on fire. The woman I mentioned to has 7 million downloads of millions of objects she's created, I don't think we need to give her a test. I think she just passed it.
Q: Pause for a second?... In theory, everything you're saying makes a lot of sense. I wonder, I notice something with my 11-year-old son, who, you know, he's a kid who likes a challenge, he loves to read, he's a bright kid. I brought him to the CES trade show, and he tried out a bunch of games.
Q: Some of them were serious games, most of them were not.,
Q: And his reaction was, serious games were just, weren't good. He's like, they're boring. And what I'm trying to figure out is, is that just because they work? Because they're just not being done very well yet? Or is it because kids smell a rat. They know when there's a, there's a, there's an ulterior motive, there's an agenda to their play. And it takes some of the fun out of it.
GEE: I think those, that's certainly possible. My own view is, they're not very good. Uh, this is a hard enterprise the commercial industry's been doing it longer, they've been doing it with more money, but money is not the answer. And I say this in part because in the commercial industry, for the first time there's now a real niche game market opening up, because of the fact that you can downloads games from [coughs] for the Xbox Arcade, or the Playstation 3 or the Wii. It's allowing independent game-makers to distribute their games. And we're seeing games like Flower. Now, Flower is meant to be a game that is poetry. And if you've not played Flower, you definitely ought to play it. It's a beautiful, wonderful, really life-enhancing game. Everybody who's played it, I think, has just been blown away by it. and no one would have identified this as a com - you know, one, as one kid said to me, "you, is it, you're just really a flower?" I said yes. It doesn't sound good, but they, everybody who I've seen play it loves it. and and I think your son would have even found it entrancing. I think you would. Uh, and so, there they were able to make a truly good game that isn't a regular entertainment game.
It's not tr - it's not trying to teach you anything directly, but it is trying to be poetry, and it is poetry. It's trying to do something else. So I think part of it is we haven't made the games uh, good enough yet. The other thing to say, though, is, sure, taking your kid to a convention, and putting a learning game next to Halo, Halo's going to win. But in school, it's not next to Halo. It's next to the textbook. And it has no chance of losing. You know, years of research have shown that textbooks are among the least effective ways to teach. But they're in every classroom. And there is research, we do know this from evidence, if you offer a kid a game, and you offer them the textbook, most of the kids take the game. So, they're not at a trade show. I, at the trade show, by the way, would most certainly take the commercial games. Uh, I like learning but I'd take many of the even bad serious games I've seen over the textbook. Now let me say something else about games that's crucial. It's a dividing point, and people disagree on this. Uh, I don't think we ought to be using games to cover whole curricula, or to cover whole textbooks, or as the only thing we teach with. What games are best for is as a concept called preparation for future learning.
They give you a foundation to get interested, to have a background, and to have some experiences for learning you're gonna do later that won't necessarily be in a game space. And I think what we're going to find is the best games are preparation for future learning. Now, preparation for future learning is crucial, because people who have not had good preparation for future learning are often turned off, unmotivated, and don't learn well. So I'm not a fan of the people who want to make games for coverage. And I am a fan of people who want to make games that are preparation for future learning. For future change of your identity, for trying to find your passion, for setting you up for other learning experiences. I think that's where the real payoff for learning is going to be. And I think when we make those games, they aren't going to look like they're duping people. They're going to look very entertaining. Uh, and the best ones that we are making, a company in Madison that I help from time to time, all young game designers called Filament has made an underwater science game that I think any kid would... find a joy to play.
The Our Courts game, which they're making, the game we're making with Sandra Day O'Connor that is a game where you're in a world where you bring law to a lawless world. You can defend yourself, with constitutional rights. You can go to court and free robots from slavery. uh, again, I don't think any kid's going to feel duped in that.
Q: Tell us the story of Sandra Day O'Connor.
GEE: Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, retired Supreme Court Justice, was an is very concerned about the fact that Americans don't fully appreciate the importance of a free court system, one that isn't politicize, one that isn't controlled by the executive. Uh, she's concerned that many more people in the coun - in the country know the n--know the judges of the American Idol than know the Supreme Court. Uh, and she believes that courts are an essential ingredient of a free country. Uh, she said to me once, it was very powerful, I had never thought about this it's only in the courts that an individual can stand, and have any standing, have any power. Right? You cannot go tomorrow to Obama you, you better be part of a very large group. Uh, you can't even go to Congress without being part of a big constituency or an interest group or something. But you can stand in a court tomorrow with power as an individual. Uh, and that's a very important concept.
And she knows she's, I don't, she's not herself a highly digital person. But she knows that kids learn through digital media. She understands intuitively that this is a, by engaging them, and by getting to put it in worlds that capture their attention and give them a lot of time on tasks that this is a very good way to motivate them to learn this stuff. So she had the idea, let's get kids into digital learning, digitally interactive learning, including games.
To get them to understand the importance of courts in our society and a free society, in a playful way but a way in which let, lets them learn a lot of civics, but by using that civics to solve problems and think about the world. And that's the game we're building, and that's what we're doing. ah, eh, through, with uh, Georgetown University where the, Abby Taylor, who's the head of the project is. And uh, so far we're very happy with it. it's a, it's an interesting concept. Uh, the justice came last year to Games for Change and gave the keynote. I think she got two or three standing ovations. I mean, she has a great capacity to get on the wavelength of people. And I think that this group of people saw that she got it. She got it in a, in a very deep way.
So it's been a very motivating experience, because it is a game where we want to say about civics what I would also say about physics, is that physics is a set of tools to solve problems. And to see the world in a new way. And to intervene in it. It's not a bunch of facts. And civics, which is not a popular area of our educational system, is not a bunch of facts, it's a set of tools - some of them are facts - that allow you to intervene in your world.
To participate in your world, to change your world. And when I think kids see that there are powerful tools, and understanding how courts work is one of them, there are powerful tools in which they can see themselves as change agents, then I don't think they'll feel duped. I think they'll want to engage.
Q: Last question. We've spent a lot of time looking at the military and its applications to technology.
Q: Which are extensive. And somewhat controversial. and you know going back to sort of your notion that games give you something you can take... that the line between games and life is not necessarily so bright. Well, I wonder how you feel about, you know, the Army experience center in Philadelphia, where they have, the Army's created this kind of video game, mostly war game, arcade for kids. and it is, it is essentially a recruiting center...
GEE: It is. As America's Army was.
Q: Right. So, what, what's going on there? Is there some danger in the kind of transition from playing war games to joining the military. War games being sort of inspiration to join the military, and then going into the military.
GEE: Well, yes. Sure. I mean, America's Army first of all, remember, was made before the Iraq war. It was a time which the Army was having trouble recruiting. And what they wanted to do, I don't think they wanted it to be just a recruiting device, they wanted it to brand the Army. They wanted to say to people, you know, look, the modern Army is high-tech and collaborative. You've gotta be on a team, you've got to be a team player, and you've gotta use pretty sophisticated technology. And and they wanted to get that across. And games are very good to let the world know what your world looks like. So If I want you to know, how does the world look to me, one way to do that is put you in it. And the Army did that. And we're going to put you in this modern world. So that was one of their goals. I think that's a goal, you know, I think that's one reason why religious groups make games, including even, you know political groups like the Neo-Nazis. They, you know, they want you to know what the world looks like.
The only danger is if you only play one game. We want you to be in a lot of worlds, so you know what the world looks like from many different perspectives. But there's a deeper thing. Whether or not you approve of using games to teach people to be soldiers there is a deeper issue with the Army game. Uh I once heard one of the Colonels, who was involved in America's Army, say to a group of educators one of the reasons we teach through video games is, some of the kids we've got are kids you've failed with. Right? And if we taught, if we taught them the way you do, with a bunch of lectures and writing on boards, this time, they get killed. Right? Uh, because it has to work. The learning has to work this time. Or they're going to get killed. So we, we have to do it differently. And in fact, America's Army starts with a parody of flip charts and lectures, and uh, um. But the other thing he said is, you know, teaching people this way, where they're in a problem-solving situation and they have to know what the world's like and they have to solve these problems collaboratively is a good way to teach a lot of stuff, not just Ar - how to be a soldier. And you educators should be embarrassed that the Army did it first.
It, because you know your way of teaching is not working. For lots of kids. And yet, we did something about it. You didn't. Why didn't you? And if you, if you object to what we did, you object to us teaching people to be soldiers, you teach them to be something else. and you do it. Now people have said, oh, well, you know, the Army has a lot of money, and we didn't have the money, and we've, you know, for some years people saying, well, the big limitation is, it takes a lot of money to make these games. Uh, that just isn't true. Uh, games like Flower did not take a lot of money. Uh, Braid, which is a game that got tremendous attention uh, a game that is very challenging and very inventive, it didn't take a lot of money to make.
In the commercial space, people are beginning to make games that didn't take a lot of money and are highly creative. Uh, we've just got to be a lot more creative in the education space. Maybe being in education has dumbed us down. Uh, and we've got to open ourselves up to much newer forms of thinking. So I, I do believe the lesson from the Army, and they've learned a lot about how to teach through games, so one thing they've learned is that a game by itself doesn't work. You have to have what they call after-action reviews. People have to be able to get out of the game, talk about their strategy, compare strategies, and think about it. Then when you do that, the game does work. So they've taught us some important principles. But the key thing they've taught us is, if we don't like it we'd better do it ourselves and do it better.
Q: So there's no, in your mind, there's no downside to, to learning to fight a war in a game and then going into the real world.
GEE: Well, I think there's a downside to learning to fight wars. I, I think one thing that the Army learned is, you know, there's a very good game they made to teach people Arabic in a cultural setting where you don't offend people. Boy, that really is, you know, the horse is already out of the barn. Uh, that was something that should have been done before the war, not afterwards. Uh, I think had we made good games to to make peace and cultural understanding, and understanding of religious conflict a lot of the war could have been avoided. And we certainly could have shortened it greatly, even if, even if you think, unlike I, that we had to do it. uh, so and the Army, learned, boy, we'd better simulate peacekeeping, cultural understanding, and language learning, and not just war. And I think that's one of the key lessons and so I, I think there is a downside to teaching people just to be soldiers. But I certainly think teaching people if, you think it's good to teach them to be soldiers, I'd certainly rather they learn that in a game world than they learn that by dying in real stuff. Or, and the Army does this in part because some of the equipment they're using is so expensive, you can't let people use it.
But, the moral is you know, we ought to be teaching people how to, how to make peace. And how to do things rather than killing. Uh, as, as, as effectively as they do with teaching you to be a soldier. And you don't notice, one of the things that they're teaching, they're not, you know, you don't learn how to fire your weapon in that game, because I assure you pointing at pixels is not pointing at a gun. But, but what the Army, what the games does is, it, it's preparation for future learning. It tells you, what's the identity of a modern soldier. What must you think like, act like, and what your values must be. And it does a very good at that. And wouldn't it be great to have a game that tells you, what are the values of a physicist? How do they think? What do, what do they do in the world? It's just kind of sad, we spent a lot of money to do that for a soldier and we don't do it for other stuff. So I don't know, I don't want to bemoan the Army; I'd like to say, let's get on with it. And do this for some more important things.
GEE: Look, w--so, yeah, and I actually find that when you, when you use the game to recruit, and the player doesn't know, and the family doesn't know it's a recruiting device, then that bothers me. Right? I think there's a lack of transparency there, and, and I know in the beginning, some of the kids that we followed played America's Army. They were extremely good at it right at the get-go and they got, they got notices from the Army, including this kid who hacked into the, the, the game that I old you about. And of course those were from very left-wing families, and they found it funny, and they weren't on their way to the Army. But, but at a deeper level, look, would it offend you if a game tried to brand science? And for the kids who were good at it, we offered them a fellowship to college. You know, you wouldn't be offended by that. So if you think that you have to have an Army, and, then you're probably not offended the Army recruits that way. I, I wished we didn't have to have armies, and, as I say, I am bothered by a lack of transparency. I'd like it to say right on there. But I think the real issue is, it's a political issue of whether you object to people going into the Army. and uh, uh you wouldn't object if we were recruiting them for other stuff. So I still want to say let's recruit them for other stuff.
Where it offends us less. Uh, there's a political issue. I, I, I'd certainly, you know, if we're recruiting for the Army that's probably a better way than doing it than just having people drop into centers. Uh, but I do think even in the games where we're going to recruit for science, transpar - the game, all games should be transparent. I mean, people should know - this, by the way, is a big issue well beyond the Army. Because there are people today who want to use games to look at stuff you're doing that you don't know they're looking at. Uh, to surveille you. To see the decisions you're making. Uh, there are people who want to turn workplaces into game-like things where the boss sees all the information, and you think you were playing a game. It's kind of an Enders Game scenario, but actually you were being judged.
This media does lend itself to surveillance. That's one of its powers, right? We can get a lot of information. And we can either use that information to give it back, to you, for your learning, which is very powerful and good, or we can use it for surveillance. And so in a way, you could view the Army game as a kind of surveillance. We're find out who's good, and then we're, if, if we went, you know, in the Enders Game, we'd actually have them fight the wars without them knowing it, right? Sure, I think that's a real, deep danger, and it's a danger that goes far beyond the Army. Uh, how do we use this to ensure that the copious information that game is tracking or can track and which will be tracked in educational settings as we use it, how do we be sure that there's transparency so that information is given back to you for your development. And not given to people just to surveille you. I think that's really the deep issue.
Q: It's an arms race, isn't it?
GEE: It is. Yes. Definitely.
Q: Do you find that nature is particularly valuable to you as an antidote to your digital life?
GEE: No, I don't think - oh, OK. I don't think that nature is an antidote at all to my virtual life. Look, let's take somebody who goes to a great nature film. Right, a classic nature film. Far from taking away your interest in nature, it often makes you want to go look. I mean, if you see a wonderful movie about birds, you have all the more incentive to pay attention to the birds. And then, paying attention to the birds in the real world might make you want to learn more by going to a book or going to a movie. So they're not, they're not in competition with each other. They're actual - they actually can be supplemental to each other. And I think games, games are the same way. I mean I think that we can, any media can en - can enrich how you look at the world. And make you want to go out there and look at it a new way. And in looking at it a new way, can say, I want more media experiences to teach me some more stuff. So I don't think they have to be in contradiction.
You know, Pokemon, which was for years one of the longest-running fads, children still play it, it's not the fad it was, but it was a huge fad, is, as video games, and books and figures, and a card game. Pokemon was originally made by a designer who was from Japan, and had been a bug collector. And who thought, wow, it's really important to be in nature and collect bugs, it teaches you something about the world. And as experience urban kids, especially in a place with not much land, don't get much. So he kind of built the whole collection experience into this game, which became a worldwide phenomena, and let us discover, boy, kids sure love collecting. and every parent knows that if a child does get an opportunity to look at the world that way, many of them take it. Just less and less kids do get that opportunity.
I mean, the real issue is not that games take people away from the world. It's that many people's access to the world is cut off. Right? Uh, I have the luxury of being able to walk around beautiful mountains looking at birds in a state where birding is very good. Uh, you, you know, and I, I had, you know, people who have helped me and mentored me to do that. If I'm stuck in an urban area with no mentors, I may not even know the birds are there. You know? In New York City, where we are, you can walk into the, the big parks here, and do some great birding. But somebody would have to key you to that. You, you're first thought is, there's not much nature going on here. Well, in fact, there is. So uh, there again, we want media to always point out to the world. Right? We want it to point in, into the world, or out into the world so that people go from the media and see the world a new way, and then we want them coming back and demanding for the media to deepen their experiences. And I think that when those two are in competition, when they fight each other, then we've got bad media, or sad worlds.