Gee, what a future: A response to James Gee’s talk

A more detailed summary of James Gee's lecture can be found in the companion piece titled: Problems in education, as solved by James Paul Gee


As a student, it’s incredibly distressing to hear James Gee speak about the future of the traditional university system. Thousands of colleges are going to fail over the next few years. The typical university will face threats from all sides that will test their embedded inertia against change. From the bottom, for-profit institutions like University of Phoenix will take care of those who are just looking for a piece of paper and some letters after their name.  For those who are unwilling to sacrifice prestige, the big-name brands are offering online programs, like MIT-X. There is also a rising movement of proponents for a credential-based system; degrees are a vague measure of accomplishment and, because of grade inflation, the face-value merit of a university diploma is distressingly diminished. The system needs to change and few academics would bet on any radical shift happening soon. Higher education is falling prey to the same deficiencies as the K-12 school system: teaching the wrong stuff in a woefully outdated context, with insufficient standards. Heck of a time to be seeking a degree.

Futurism is a heady brew

Gamification of an existing system is pragmatic—it is a copy/paste from games onto existing real-world systems, yielding optimized results with minimal effort. Building “serious games” goes one step further, in that it is an original production arising from the explicit purpose of merging games and reality. These efforts have gained a lot of traction (or caused a bunch of hype, depending on who you talk to), and it’s going to take a lot of work before the average citizen sees this as a viable model for societal systems. Then comes Gee—and he takes it as far as fact and reason might allow, all the way to society becoming a ludic, fluid, intuitive, pragmatic collective of knowledge builders. After the talk, my head was swimming. Hearing about the future from one of the “gamer greats” is always a foundation-shaking experience. Games as immersive introductions into fields of knowledge, as a sort of embodied initiation into paradigm-shifting affinity spaces… it’s a lot to wrap one’s head around. Gee should be praised for this initial conception; I can’t wait to see what comes from this. In the meantime, like most talks that have inspired me, I have so many questions! The three main agents seem to be games, society, and education and so I will try to address each in turn.

Games

Collective intelligence, as a concept unto itself, seems to have very little to do with most gaming. Intelligence is a thing; gaming is a system, a process. Game systems can increase intelligence, but Gee says that games are a playful primer for learning, not the heart of future knowledge. The idea is that games will teach an embodied understanding of basic principles, encouraging further exploration of the subject matter. In the talk, he references Portal as an example of a “Game,” which has two main effects:

1)       In the “lower-case” game, players can learn some basic physics via embodied learning; acting out the conservation of momentum really does embed the concept in a unique way.

2)      Then, players are theoretically primed to learn basic physics lessons.  They will, if sufficiently interested, explore wikis, learn more complicated applications, and become contributors to the Portal-physics affinity space.

Sure, but only to a point—right?

Learning is more than just doing something, or even doing that something a thousand times: learning is what happens when the concrete becomes abstract. Specific lessons must become general rules, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to apply information from one context in another. Gee acknowledges that, eventually, people must stop and read a few terms; the game manual comes later, it’s not that it doesn’t come at all. Eventually, there is still a bunch of (online) reading one must do to go from enthusiast, to contributor to collective intelligence. Thriving in an affinity space might feel pretty game-like, and getting into one through a video game is obviously a gaming experience—but after that first session of games, what exactly is supposed to happen next? The moment-to-moment learning seems strikingly devoid of any game-based design. Right now, the formula looks something like this:

  1. Play a video game. Have fun, pick up basic concept through embodied learning.
  2. Go the forums, wikis, and other sites that compose that game/concept’s “affinity space.” Revel in the community, pick and choose subjects for fun and loosely read up on stuff.
  3. Adopt a few spaces and get to work! Read when necessary, but ask the community first. Craft whenever possible, always iterate. Tinker, experiment.  Slowly but surely, master things.
  4.  Congratulations—you are now an important contributor to the affinity space! Continue to research and commune. Be prepared to work with other masters to determine and maintain standards for conduct and quality.

The first step sounds like fun, but the rest sounds like a career trajectory, optimistically described. Nothing is causing all this work to be fun; Gee presumes it will be fun because it’s supposed to be voluntary. That’s not a bad start, except that most work is NOT something we’d volunteer to do—that’s why it’s work.  It’s a question that’s been asked—and mostly unanswered—as we continue to apply games to other aspects of life: can work become play? Gee didn’t directly address this question and it’s possible to glean different perspectives:

  • Yes, work can become play. The intent of the model is to make the subject immediately interested by playing a video game and gaining “embodied experience”—then, pouring through forum posts and learning coding becomes an extension of that initial experience. So, even though things become more difficult and less rewarding (fewer breakthroughs, less frequently) than the video game, it’s all still rooted in that ludic framework.
  • No, work and play are fundamentally different. Find your interest in play, then move forward into work. Affinity spaces resemble games in some ways—for instance, they both involve voluntary participation, intrinsic motivation, egalitarianism, and community feedback—but not others. Games are neatly packaged, solvable puzzles involving abstractions of real systems, but affinity spaces ARE real systems. Real-world problem solving often isn’t as clean; sometimes, it’s not even possible. Games are fun to figure out because there’s no uncertainty about the fact that they can be figured out. A lot of motivation is lost when the outcome is unclear. (Furthermore, any potential for immediate feedback is lost whenever there is no experience-oriented design. If someone’s path isn’t set out before them, it’s nigh impossible to know when, where, and how to reward them. Community feedback is nice, but it’s necessarily post-hoc and is not the moment-to-moment feedback most modern gamers have come to expect. )

Regardless of which side you agree with, one fact remains: there is no designed experience when people go to learn in affinity spaces. While some avid fans might create this or that module, there is no authoritative structure demanding a flow from one piece of user-created content to another. People might make one-off “lessons,” but it is up to the individual to create their own “curriculum.” Granted, games like Minecraft also lack purposeful progression; we call them sandbox games—but those titles are games in name only. You play with Legos, you don’t “play Legos.”

So, with this lack of experiential design and the large swath of uncertainty between the first and last steps, here is the impression I got:

  1. Play a video game.
  2. Go online.
  3. Look at stuff, ask questions.
  4. Try things, get feedback.
  5. Repeat 3 and 4
  6. ???
  7. ???
  8. ???

97. ???

98. ???

99. Become a self-selected contributor to collective intelligence.

How likely is it that players will take that leap? The analogy of games and manuals only goes so far. Let’s face it: Portal is fun and it does teach some physics, but nobody could pass even the most basic physics test by playing through either Portal game, or even both. Played a hundred times with commentary and an online guide that talks you through what principles your actions indicate, you still would only learn… what, four things? Five? Gameplay does part the job, but there’s a big gap between playing Portal and writing in a science journal. And, as a motivator, how far does the essence of the game really carry a person? It’s not like everyone who played with toy dinosaurs became a paleontologist, or anyone with a cap gun joined the police force because they played “cops and robbers” as a child. It is one thing to say that games provide a playful introduction to some mildly complex topics, but it’s quite another to say that “playing a video game” is anywhere near a significant predictor of deeper exploration or skill acquirement through online affinity spaces.

The Portal series has sold millions of copies, but I doubt that more than a few hundred people have gone further than merely finishing the game. And, of those relatively few who made it a capital-G “Game,” most made some computer wallpaper or a Companion Cube tote bag. Even if some Portal players are future winners of the Nobel Prize in Physics, correlation isn’t causation. Seriously, it won’t be long before some future genius cites 2007 (the year Portal debuted) as the year in their childhood that ‘changed everything’ and placed them on the path to scientific achievement. That I do not doubt. However, I have to question the likelihood that a video game is itself enough to set someone down a career path, that it would give them enough background and/or motivation to take the leap from player to scholar.

Society

The types of affinity spaces that Gee described—with the focus, complexity, and agency of an institutional force—do not yet exist. Except, perhaps, for a couple of burgeoning exceptions (like Wikipedia), no online community is even ready to begin competing on that level. Logically, that’s either because it hasn’t happened yet, or because it will not happen. Affinity spaces have to be natural, which limits how fast and efficiently they can grow. At the moment, it can only be said that they have not grown enough—but it is too early to determine how far they can go. The greatest strength of affinity spaces is also the greatest roadblock toward the model reaching the critical mass it will need to supplant other existent systems.

If they weren’t natural—as in “not forced,” or intrinsically motivating—they wouldn’t attract people. If it was mandatory, it would be work; the exact same behavior can be either work or play—that’s why voluntary participation is key. A compulsory system based on affinity spaces would be a different form of what we have now, but would still based on the fundamental mentality of “suck it up and do it, anyway.” Since they must be natural, they will evolve organically. Without any “intelligent design,” there will be plenty of redundant organs and inefficient processes. People who participate in a forum discussion might experience a truly enlightening flow of information, but the system doesn’t help initiates into the fold. Currently, entering an online community is a messy affair. Board posts become buried in threads and links to external content can fall into disrepair. Foraging for nuggets of knowledge makes people more devoted archeologist than casual searcher—the way things are “organized” on the internet makes it work to look up information… to do work that’s already thinly framed as play.

In addition to form, there’s also the matter of content—specifically, subject matter and ownership.

Any space where large amounts of people gather with common purpose is something to be celebrated. But what do affinity spaces coalesce around? Sure we can celebrate them—but what are they celebrating? Well, for one thing, yes: education. The limitless supply of how-to videos on YouTube and the clutter of responses in Yahoo! Answers are more than sufficient as face-value proof. To offer a bit more depth, though: as I learned in my first Informatics class this semester, plenty of stats junkies find cool new ways to display large datasets. They learn programming and valuable interpretive skills.

Some good things for which you can find an affinity space:

  • Curing diseases: Go help researching protein structures by playing FoldIt or, if you’re busy, just select Folding@Home on your Playstation to donate processing power. (Pro tip: Look inside the portal called “Life with Playstation.” It’s okay, I couldn’t find it at first, either.)
  • Standing up for people’s rights:  Affecting real-world change during the Arab Spring and controlling virtual bullying in Second Life—both within the purview of affinity spaces (check out the work of the group “The Wrong Hands” if you’re interested in the latter).
  • Sharing knowledge: Wikipedia = best site ever. Free in every sense of the word, somewhere between peer-reviewed journal article and a half-baked science paper some fourth-grader put on their GeoCities page a decade and a half ago, the Wiki format lends itself well to the affinity space concept.

Many affinity spaces, though, are for geeky fandom—and most are not advancing the species in any meaningful way. You’re likely reading this in a web browser right now. When you leave this page, where are you off to next? Curing any diseases with your “new tab” button? Ten to one, your next online social interaction will involve something far more mundane, like reviewing your last purchase or posting in the comments section of an article—because everyone needs to know that you’re glad the newest Spider-Man sticks to canon with homebrew web-shooters (pun intended). Most of our online social interactions are vapid, more opinion-spewing than fact-building; they are also perpetrated on top-down corporate sites, not grassroots affinity spaces.

The internet was seen as a potentially great equalizing force but, increasingly, media scholars have resigned themselves to the reality that “legacy platforms”—sites built by pre-internet media corporations, like CNN.com—will create a familiar, safe, glossy and relatively homogenized upper crust of the internet. The vastness of the Web will (hopefully) remain, but the average user will chat on Facebook, shop on Amazon, and watch videos on YouTube.

“Imagine no possessions,” John Lennon offered, “it’s easy if you try.” We live in a world where the very concept of socialization is more or less Zuckerberg’s plaything. Sorry, John, but it’s just not happening.

So, who will own affinity spaces? I hope they appreciate the irony of their Midas touch.

Education

Teaching nothing but abstractions and obtuse, manual-like lessons is a travesty and it needs to change—but lest we forget, that is not what traditional education is really supposed to be about. There is an essential part of learning that will be inadvertently discarded if we abandon classrooms for forums and fan sites. Perhaps more significantly, ditching the classic model will still not remove Gee’s biggest complaint about the foundering education system: its “content fetish.”For all the railing against “content,” it cannot be avoided. A medium contains a message; a space is filled with stuff. By definition, a field or subject is already full or writing that explicates concepts, details methods, and offers opinions—and we consider these things a part of the body of knowledge.

Reading is important. Literature gives people common-ground terms. If we didn’t have that, we would be coining terms and reinventing language with every publication; we wouldn’t be able to communicate—not effectively, at least. Existent content also obviously lets us know what came before, what doesn’t need reinventing. Pragmatically, reading—or “content” in general—is where people actually learn. People must spend time with reading material, with collected knowledge. Not everything can be taught experientially; one of the most beautiful things about the human brain is its ability to imagine so much more than what we get through sensory experience. Words are annoyingly abstract, but that impediment is, in reality, a great strength. When we learn language, we learn so much. Abstraction of concepts helps us generalize, to compare things and balance them in complex mental networks. Scroll back up and look at my confused model of progress in affinity spaces. Many of the steps between 5 and 99 will unquestionably involve reading content. Affinity spaces may change who writes the manual and when/how people refer to them… but there will always, always be a manual.

Pedagogy is important, too. Ted Castronova, expert on virtual economies, is nothing if not a believer in the power of online spaces. However, “some knowledge you have to talk to people about,” he says, “and that’s the magic you won’t get in an affinity space.” The “magic” Castronova refers to might not be essential for learning how to program, but it’s vital for a field like anthropology. In his talk, Gee treats all knowledge as homogenous—but it’s not! “A market-based logic of education,” Gee said, “encourages students to focus on its instrumental value—that is, as a credential—and to ignore its academic meaning and moral character.” Vocational training is one thing, but scholarship is quite another. It’s not enough to know what someone thought or observed; as my graduate director might say, there is a “texture” to learning in a university system that is inextricable from a proper graduate-level education. It’s not just about the stories, but the way they are told that can really flesh out things. In fact, I would go so far as to say that, for more scholarly subjects, reading books and sitting in a classroom IS embodied learning; “academic meaning” is the experiential framework college students use to recall what they learn. Academia could never become a full-fledged affinity space because it needs those intonations during lectures, the chance meetings in the hallway. Education as a holistic concept seems to violate the rules of an affinity space, which exclude interpersonal connection as a primary goal. A complete education needs personality, not just people.

Even if we don’t need professors in person, even if the classroom is an outmoded method of knowledge transference, it can’t be acceptable to leave people to their own whims.

  • Motivation: Think back to when you were growing up—if you didn’t have a spelling test every week, would you have read a list of vocabulary words? Didn’t think so. Even with things we enjoy, some stages of learning are more enjoyable than others. There will always be a point between “novice” and “expert” where something is not intrinsically enjoyable; that’s when we need an external system to frame things and keep us motivated. Games are built on this principle.
  • Efficiency: As mentioned earlier, the internet is a heaping mess of user-generated content. Even if you can eventually find what you’re looking for, isn’t it great when somebody organizes things for you? That’s not a cop-out, that’s deference to intelligence and experience. I know of people who sign up for classes just to get the reading list. Furthermore, the do-it-yourself mentality only fares worse when it comes time to absorb and implement the material. Not everyone can learn by reading and tinkering on their own; not everything can be taught that way, either.
  • Equality: What kind of society results from this? On principle, we all want egalitarianism and achievement-based reward. It’s only fair. However, the truth is that some people achieve more than others—and leaving learning up to individual pseudo-students is just going to widen the gap. Societal rebalancing might occur, and it may be based on fair moral principle, but it will still be disproportionate. In a way, this system is more brutally Darwinian than what we have now.

Despite my critiques, I still think the concept is fascinating. It is one logical extension of what is being talked about in the large conversation about “games and society,” and it is important that we consider where fads and trends might lead. What if game-like systems permeate the core of our societal structure? We can’t advocate for changing “the system” unless we’re willing to offer a solid suggestion for what should assume its place. We also have a responsibility to make sure it won’t repeat old issues, or create unsolvable new ones. That all begins with outlining large-scale models, like Gee’s affinity spaces, and continues when we talk about those models. Please, continue the discussion.

Gee, what a future: A response to James Gee’s talk by Kenneth Rosenberg, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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