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From Role Playing to Playing the Role of a Teacher

Our assigned reading this week, an excerpt from James Paul Gee’s book What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, really “spoke” to me.  It brought me back to a part of my educational history I left out of my literacy narrative: my history with video games.  Perhaps I didn’t translate video games as easily to literature as comic books.  Maybe I, too, have my own prejudices, as an adult, about the relevance of video games.  However, Gee’s Chapter 2: “Semiotic Domains: Is Playing Video Games a ‘Waste of Time’?” brought me back–and it brings me forward.


Gee’s chapter opens up with a very good point: “Images, symbols, graphs, diagrams, artifacts, and many other visual symbols are significant, more so today than ever. Furthermore, words and images are very often juxtaposed and integrated”(17).  Gee calls these texts multimodal, that is, they mix words and images.  To this, I pose the question: are people who are better at multimodal literacy “better off” in our increasingly internet and sign/symbol-driven twenty-first century culture?  Are video game nerds and comic book nerds, dare I say, better suited for social interaction than, say, graduate students of English who spend hours in the Rosenthal library scrutinizing Chaucer, Henry James, Barthes and Saussure?


The thesis of Gee’s chapter is “semiotic domains,” which he describes as “an area or set of activities where people think, act, and value in certain ways”(19).  The author gives the reader several examples of these domains: law, rap songs, academic essays, and, yes, even the beloved superhero comics of my youth.  Gee validates these different communities for their different practices.  They require different modalities (language, signs, symbols, etc.) for communication.  Indeed, all of these “semiotic domains” or to use academic parlance-disciplines-has different rules and requirements for membership.  The question I have here is: how do these “semiotic domains” affect your understanding of the word, “literacy,” which we have been using all semester?


Gee makes an another excellent point on pages 22 and 23, where he compares basketball with other domains like math and science.  This analogy illustrates what Gee calls “the problem of content”(22); it’s not that children (or adults, ahem) are not learning when they play video games, but what are these people learning?  Gee lightly touches on the issue that too much focus is placed on content.  If this focus on content were applied to basketball, then a textbook on basketball would be very isolated when read by students who have never seen or played a game themselves.  Gee postulates that we do this with math and physics.  He then describes an extended example involving learning about the theory of Newtonian physics without a practical understanding of said semiotic domain.  I wonder–in our class’ concern about reading and writing, is too much value placed on theory?  What about the practices of reading and writing?  Are we, as teachers, placing too little emphasis on writing in our classes (what of our personal lives)?  What would Sandra Perl, Stanley Fish, and Peter Elbow say about these questions?


Are video games a waste of time?  Gee would have us believe not.  This is just another area of “semiotic domain,” one which requires active and critical learning to be successful–just like the disciplines of English or English education.  I grew up loving RPGs–role playing video games: Final Fantasy games, mainly.  I also liked side-scrolling video games where the player takes on a hero role: Castlevania, Mega Man, and the all-too-familiar Super Mario Bros games.  As I got older, I traded my video game consoles for longer, deeper novels and literary theory textbooks.  Perhaps something is to be said for looking “outside the box” involving multimodal literacies.  Hmm.  After all, how many of you have never seen the following words (and you know you’re fibbing if you have to suppress a chuckle): “I’M SORRY BUT OUR PRINCESS IS IN ANOTHER CASTLE!”?

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  1. Christopher Grimm says

    P.S. To my classmates, I’m sorry for my late post. I’ve been battling the dual villains of stomach illness and family obligation this week. Thank you for your understanding. I’m especially sorry to last week’s presenter, whom I missed, and this week’s presenter, who has to contend with very late class participation this week. Apologies abound!

  2. trevor11 says

    I think you bring up a interesting dynamic when you ended your post by saying those more simplistic games got traded in for more complex stories. This is what happened with myself as well. I LOVE a good role-paying game, why? STORY and all its intricacies. Simplicity is something I appreciate but complexity is something I crave. I needed to make a transition from the short games to the long games and the shallow to the deep just like with my reading and writing. If I hadn’t played those games that told me great stories but also in many ways challenged me to problem solve (do any of you know how hard it is to beat a super mario game? I have yet to do so and I’m 23 years old and consider myself a gamer and reasonably intelligent -________-) I most likely wouldn’t be the kind of reader, writer and student I am today.