Half Lives and Hedgehogs | Exploring the Educational Value of Video Games

Featured image courtesy of moddb.com

This week I texted my boyfriend Ben to let him know that I was reading about one of his all time favorite things for class: Sonic the Hedgehog.  When I started telling him about James Paul Gee’s compelling argument – that “better theories of learning are embedded in the video games many children… play than in the schools they attend” (6) – on the phone later that night, Ben seemed to know exactly what I was talking about.  “I’m pretty sure Sonic taught me how to read,” Ben told me.


Ben went on to explain that as a young boy his love of video games motivated him to learn how to read, a skill that seemed essential to master his favorite games.  Ben’s experience touches upon Gee’s assertion that video games are exemplary educational tools because “learners are not always overtly aware of the fact that they are “learning,” how much they are learning, or how difficult it is” (122).


Special shout out to my favorite bandicoot.

In the second half of his insightful book, Gee outlines several learning principles that he finds embedded in the gaming experience, illuminating each principle with vivid examples from video games that made me long for my PS1 console and a lengthy (and, as it would happen, instructive) session with Crash Bandicoot.  Gee references tremendously popular games like the Lara Croft Tomb Raider series, Sonic the Hedgehog, and Half-Life, as well as controversial games like Under Ash and a particularly disturbing video game produced by the hate group National Alliance revealingly titled Ethnic Cleansing (I won’t dignify that game with a hyperlink). Even the most violent and offensive games, Gee argues, have educational value.  The point, Gee explains, is not that “what people are learning when they are playing video games is always good,” but rather that “what they are doing when they are playing good video games is often good learning” (198).

As dubious as this argument may sound, especially in the face of such hate-filled content, Gee quickly won me over.  There were moments when I questioned his conclusions, but I found his arguments to be overwhelmingly persuasive.  Here are a few highlights from the second half of the book that I found particularly relevant to the practice of public/digital history.


Professor Von Croy guides Lara – and the person playing as her – through the first episode of      Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation.

Video games train players in “subdomains” of the real game. They do not, in other words, separate learning from the context in which that knowledge will ultimately be applied.  In Tomb Raider, for instance, players learn how to maneuver as Lara Croft in the game’s first “episode,” which gives “the player enough information and skill to play and learn from the subsequent episodes” (119), teaching those skills within the context of the game.  For historians, I think this presents an interesting possibility to allow the public to engage with the past in a way that cannot be accomplished in museums, to learn about the past by interacting with it in the virtual realm.  Living history sites allow for a similarly immersive experience, but there is usually a degree of separation on the part of the visitor, as they take on the role of a modern observer in an unfamiliar world.  Video games have the potential to make people participants, to encourage them to make decisions and maneuver in ways that make sense within the historical context of the game.  The Jamestown Online Adventure and Cotton Millionaire offer a simplistic glimpse at how this might work.

Video games are social experiences.  They create what Gee calls “affinity groups,” a network of people united by a common endeavor and possessing extensive knowledge, as “diverse individual skills and cultures are recruited as resources for the group” (191).  For public historians looking to foster collaboration and community around their museum, video games provide an interesting model.  This is probably a topic for another blog (or a book, for that matter), but perhaps there are ways for historians to learn from and leverage the kind of community-making potential that Gee describes.


Sonic and Shadow

Video games allow players to explore multiple perspectives.  This, I think, is Gee’s most powerful, relevant, and controversial argument.  Because video games require people to act as a given (and sometimes not so well-intentioned) character, they allow players to experience “the “other” from the inside” (149).  Games like Sonic Adventure 2 Battle allow users to play the game as Sonic or Shadow, his evil twin, exploring the values and goals of that character, int he process comparing those values and goals to their own.  Of course, not all games allow the user to have this experience to a meaningful extent – Rebecca Mir and Trevor Owens make that much clear in their article “Modeling Indigenous Peoples: Unpacking Ideology in Sid Meier’s Colonization.”  Yet the potential remains.  Herein lies the value, Gee argues, of games that seem inherently offensive (Mir and Owens would agree).  They call upon the player to go beyond personal comfort levels and suspend value systems as they explore an alternate perspective.

This prospect is at once daunting and terrifying.  Gee talks about the kind of complex, immersive games that require a great deal of time and money to produce, and the thought of asking someone to take on a controversial role – that of slave owner, for instances – seems fraught with potential missteps and unintended outcomes.  Yet in his oft-quoted masterpiece Interpreting Our Heritage, Tilden Freeman calls upon historians to be provocative.  Video games, it would seem, have the power to provoke players to do everything from explore new perspectives to learn how to read.  We simply cannot ignore that potential.


2 thoughts on “Half Lives and Hedgehogs | Exploring the Educational Value of Video Games

  1. protok1t says:

    As you point out from Gee: “What people are learning when they are playing video games is always good,” but rather that “what they are doing when they are playing good video games is often good learning.” Teaching the player to think in a new way or being presented with a never before experienced situation is preparing them for future learning and growth. The player may unknowingly be learning, but without the challenges put forth to the character, why would the player be compelled to keep playing?

    I agree that Gee’s notion of multiple perspectives is most “powerful, relevant and controversial argument.” A good game should allow for an immersive experience. As Mir and Owens point out, “The interactivity and agency that players experience in games make playing from disturbing points of view possible and…provoke feelings of guilt in players. The power of this guilt suggests a potential for games that portray disturbing points of view as potent vehicles for exploring the past and understanding a more nuanced history.” Also, I agree that historians, public and academic alike have a duty to be provocative, but I wonder if a “real” historically accurate game would even be fun or interesting?

    Even some of the most popular video games, such as Grand Theft Auto, Donkey Kong, and even our beloved Mario Bros. give in to the stereotypically racist tropes that the controversial Ethnic Cleansing game promotes. Arguably, the only difference between that video game and other “racist” video games is its makers. (http://www.complex.com/pop-culture/2012/06/the-10-most-racist-video-games/) Even the “hardcore gamers” that reviewed this game via Wikipedia suggest, the quality of this game accurately reflects the low intelligence of the white supremacist crowd. Yet, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, perhaps one of the most popular open-world video game franchises of the 21st century, can still feature “Kill the cholos” mission.


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