What Video Games Can Teach Us About Learning

Sibylle Gruber, Guest Blogger and Professor of Rhetoric and Writing

Who plays games?
What do we learn from games? How do games help us learn?
What is play?

These questions started a community discussion at Flagstaff’s Murdoch Center organized by the Interdisciplinary Writing Program, in collaboration with Philosophy in the Public Interest. The discussion focused specifically on “Do you play? Video Games and Learning,” drawing an audience of gamers and non-gamers who wanted to learn more about how we can talk about the social impact of video gaming, the moral and ethical choices made by gamers, the changing demographics of gamers, and the appeal of specific games for specific audiences. Nicole Pfannenstiel, who teaches Rhetoric and Writing at NAU, and whose research interests focus on social media, video games, and writing pedagogy, provided excellent background information to contextualize the questions that everybody focused on, and Erik Kain, a technology and video game reporter and critic for Forbes magazine, provided industry experience on writing about games, consumer rights, trends, and the culture of video gaming.

Photo on 3-27-14 at 6.59 PMParticipants included Betty Hayes Gee (center), who is currently a fellow with the Teachers College Center for Games and Impact at ASU and who is the invited guest speaker for the Undergraduate Video Game Symposium, a whole-day interdisciplinary event on the rhetoric of video games organized by the Interdisciplinary Writing Program to take place on March 29, 2014. Betty Hayes Gee’s extensive history in gaming studies, including authoring and editing multiple books on gaming, and contributing to the founding of the Games, Learning, & Society research collective at the University of Madison, Wisconsin, added a theoretician’s lens to the world of gaming while also showing the participants her own involvement as a gamer.

The participants also brought up the many stereotypes that gamers face in academic settings where gaming is seen as outside the sphere of academic learning. Even though none of the participants were anti-social, ghostly-looking pale characters who suffered from a serious lack of Vitamin D, or who no longer were able to function without playing highly violent games that would lead to certain destructive tendencies in the organic world, these stereotypes preoccupied many of the participants. Fortunately, a recent study shows that these preconceived notions need to undergo extensive revisions.

Nicholas Taylor, professor of communication at NC State and lead author of a paper on “Public Displays of Play: Studying Online Games in Physical Settings,” published in 2014 in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, and his co-authors point out that the “dichotomy between online and offline practices and settings” is much too limiting and doesn’t show that gamers are highly social people with gaming supplementing social interactions instead of eliminating them. The authors point out that “the notion that online games somehow supplant ‘real world’ sociality is inaccurate and limiting.”

Photo on 3-27-14 at 6.58 PMCertainly, the interactions in the community forum confirmed that gamers are a diverse group of people who enjoy talking to each other and also to non-gamers, something we can see in the photo of a wonderful group of gamers and members of NAU’s ACM Club who participated in the Community Discussions on Thursday, March 27, 2014. The participants, highly articulate in their analysis of games and gaming, undermined gamer stereotypes as soon as the discussion started. Rachel, a senior in Computer Science at NAU and the president of the local ACM chapter, provided an excellent starting point for rethinking who plays video games. She made it clear that she started playing because of her mother’s passion for video games, sometimes staying home from work to recover from an all-nighter playing SIMS games. Jordan, an English minor and major in Applied Computer Science, included his passion for making moral choices in his discussion of what we learn from video games. And, the discussion on what we see as play provided an excellent starting point for making connections between academic learning and “passionate affinity spaces,” a phrase used by James Gee (also part of the lively community discussion at the Murdoch Center) and Betty Hayes in their 2012 book on Language and Learning in the Digital Age to denote spaces that provide ideal environments for learning.

To merge academic spaces with passionate affinity spaces, the Interdisciplinary Writing Program at NAU decided that a symposium on the rhetoric of video gaming would provide an excellent forum for students to research their passions and write and design thoughtful presentations that would allow students to show their expertise, and their passion, to an audience that is curious about gamers and gaming, and who are ready to learn more about who plays games, what we can learn from games, how games help us learn, and what play is.

We are ready to play and learn on Saturday, March 29, 2014, at the Undergraduate Video Game Symposium.

See you there! Let’s all level up!



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