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The Cake Is a Lie, But the Learning Is Real: Video Games and the Next Generation of Literacy

What is the link between literacy and video games? At Museum London on February 10th, I attended a lecture by Dr. Paul Gee, Mary Lou Fulton Presidential Professor of Literacy at Arizona State University, titled “The Cake Is a Lie, But the Learning Is Real: Video Games and the Next Generation of Literacy”. The event was presented by Digital Extremes, United Way of London & Middlesex, London Public Library and the Child & Youth Network. Video games are an increasingly popular choice in the wide variety of entertainment media available, but I hadn’t given much thought about how they play into building literacy skills. As a librarian and mother of a 3 year old boy who loves to play games on my iPhone and laptop computer, I was very interested to hear what Dr. Gee had to say about this “next generation of literacy”.

Dr. Gee started out by saying that he was not going to spend the hour debating whether or not video games are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for society, but that he’d rather make the argument that there are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sides to all media – books, TV, films, websites, newspapers, magazines etc. He pointed out that there is just as much potential violence in a book as there is in a video game and that video games are not all just mindless entertainment, but that each game is about solving a ‘problem’ and actually works to build problem solving and literacy skills as they are played. Dr. Gee pointed out that in gaming, there is usually a story or moral choice to be made and that the choices made earlier on in the game affect the eventual outcome teaching players moral lessons. I hadn’t thought of video games this way. Gaming involves active problem solving and those who really dive into these games really do experience learning, just on a different level than what we are used to in schools using textbooks and manuals. For example, gamers have formed communities to help each other with problem solving in their games. It is still worrisome to me that some children and youth will be affected by the violence in some of these games, but it is nice to hear something positive about them and how they are affect learning. To make his point, Dr. Gee showed a list of game sales that showed that the more violent games had the lower sales to point out that they are not as popular as we might think.

After Dr. Gee spoke, two other guests joined him in a discussion panel to answer questions about their experiences in the gaming industry. Allen Goode, Lead Level Designer at Digital Extremes, and Greg Picken, Co-founder/Editor in Chief of and Communications Manager at TechAlliance. Both spoke about their experiences in the gaming industry and Greg Picken shared his experiences as a father with two young children who already love to use his iPad and Nintendo DS. Greg made a great point that I hadn’t realized - that there are hardly any real reviews of video games for young children and that it is often difficult for parents to figure out which games are worth buying. He is actively changing this by writing and reviewing them himself. Visit to check it out.

There is no doubt that children in this day and age are going to be growing up with many different gaming devices all around them. It is almost inescapable. As a parent, it is always a fine balance between all of the things that compete for our attention. Just like anything, too much of one thing is good for nothing. It was refreshing to hear a positive take on video I think I will feel a bit better saying “yes” when my son wants to play because clearly, this “next generation of literacy” is here to stay.


-- Barb