Gaming Gorilla

Gaming has not been my thing.

At work, I have been an impartial observer of its thrall over high school students and, at home, a less than impartial observer of my own son Will’s hours of gaming.  If Jane McGonigal (2011) could have reported her findings about the merits of gaming ten years earlier, Will certainly would have had more scholarly salvos to launch in our many skirmishes about video games.

If gaming had value, I did not see it.

When I reflect on Will’s game time now — with the insights from the research and experiences described by McGonigal (2011), Doug Thomas and John Seely Brown (2011)  and James Paul Gee (2008) — I can see that, rather than a mind-numbing waste of time (I’m pretty sure my husband and I probably used those exact words a time or two), it was a form of learning that was, for Will, a welcome departure from the conventional schooling he was subjected to day in and day out through middle school and high school.

Last week, I was heartened by classmate Pam Martin’s admission that she was a non-gamer and emboldened by her challenge to give MMOG a go.  Where she led, I followed and played a bit of Glitch over several days.

In this first foray into gaming, I was struck by two big departures from traditional learning environments:  the leisure of self-discovery and the freedom to fail.  Within the clever construct of the Glitch, I was left to discover how it all worked – to try, to fail, to try again as many times as was necessary to ultimately succeed and move on.  There were gentle proddings, hints and suggestions, rewards and enticements.  These constitute what Thomas and Brown meant by the “bounded and structured environment” in which learning can be cultivated (2011, p. 19).

The “properties of a well-designed game” – those conditions that Gee argues “experiences need to meet in order to be truly useful for learning” – are often woefully absent in classrooms today (2008, p. 21).  Instead of the enabling boundaries that Brown and Thomas advocate around a generous zone of self-discovery and experimentation, schools have institutionalized quite massive hindrances to the far more productive, student-centered effort to “recruit good learning” (2008, p. 21).  These hindrances include old-school teaching and assessment practices, content-laden curriculum, rigid schedules and fierce college acceptance expectations, to name but a few.  Instruction is often siloed, teacher-centered, discrete, de-contextualized, and spoon-fed.  When that is so, there is no time and space for “recruiting distributed intelligence, collaboration, and cross-functional teams for problem-solving” (Gee, 2008, p. 37).  And students are too numbed and nearly zombified — as if someone has eaten their brains – for “marrying emotion to cognition” in ways that might muster a sense of empathy and ownership for their learning or resilience in the face of failure (Gee, 2008, p. 37).

This stark difference — between the engagement of a gamer out of school and the utter disengagement of that same gamer in school – is what has my attention now.  When it comes to the value of gaming, as Cathy Davidson (2011) might say, I finally see the gorilla!


Davidson, C. N. (2011). Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn. New York, NY: Viking.

Gee, J. P. (2008). Learning and Games. In K. Salen (Ed.), The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning: The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games, and Learning (pp. 21-40). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. doi: 10.1162/dmal.9780262693646.021

McGonigal, J. (2011). Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. New York, NY: Penguin Press.

Thomas, D., & Brown, J. S. (2011). A new culture of learning: Cultivating the imagination in a world of constant change. Authors.


About tellthetruthruth

I'm a 12 Thinger.
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2 Responses to Gaming Gorilla

  1. Jan Oliver says:

    As the parent of a gaming teen you were certainly not alone in these earlier attitudes regarding its drawbacks, and I applaud you now for seeing their inherent value. The conversation around gaming in the media had been skewed toward the negative, something Davidson tells us was a knee jerk reaction from the Columbine tragedy and influenced subsequent studies to concentrate on possible negative effects and bypass the positive educational properties. This instituted a general consensus that had us all “missing the gorilla” and resulted in a huge setback for learning. I’m just happy that now those earlier attitudes are being challenged and gaming is finally being recognized as a valuable learning tool. It makes me envious of students today…what a great time to be a young learner.

    • ruth says:

      It is quite amazing to find that there is so much to learn about learning from the gaming world. Remarkable when gaming was immediately deemed the antithesis of learning. As parents, we were sure of it. And we said the most inane things in support of that “knee jerk” belief, using as much scientific logic as the Music Man’s “Trouble with a capital ‘T’ and that rhymes with ‘P’ and that stands for pool.” Our kids knew our logic was uninformed but they weren’t necessarily looking for the learning in gaming either. As gamers come of age, like Jane McGonigal, they can steer the research and expand the discussion about what gaming really is and is not for gamers and non-gamers alike. You are right. It is a cool time to be a kid. And a cool time for adults whose minds have not clamped shut on certain topics. 🙂

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