• 1 Mary Lou Fulton Presidential Professor of Literacy Studies Regents’ Professor Arizona State University
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Like other creatures on earth, we humans are types of beings. We act, think, learn, and flourish better in some ways than in others (Sapolsky, 2017). Humans are great at face recognition; it is one of our super-powers. Calculating large sums in our heads is not, for most of us, a power at all, let alone a super one. And we humans simply cannot fly unaided, no matter what anyone demands of us.

Other animals cannot create institutions that force them into ways of being that go against their “nature”. If cats could pass laws outlawing meat eating—and they proceeded to do so—they would all starve. They are not “made” (in terms of their internal structures) for a vegetarian diet. Humans, however, can and do pass laws and design institutions that demand that humans do, be, and become what they cannot. Traditional schools are one good example.

Based on research from a variety of different areas, here is how the human mind actually works (Gee, 2017): Humans have embodied experiences in the world. If they care enough (emotionally) about these experiences, they store them in their long-term memories (LTMs). They connect and integrate the elements of their memories into a large resource base. Then they use this resource base—mixing and matching elements of their memories—to do the following (Seligman, Railton, Baumeister, & Sripada, 2016):

  1. Anticipate. In contexts of acting in the world, humans use past experiences to anticipate what might happen in the near future and get ready to respond to it.
  2. Plan. Humans use their past experiences to plan for future action by role-playing scenarios in their mind so they can “think” before they “act” and make good choices.
  3. Imagination. Humans use their past experiences (mixed and remixed) to imagine, hope, and create.
  4. Sense Making. Humans use their past experiences to make sense of what has happened, is happening, or might happen to themselves and to the world around them.

Here are two things humans are quite poor at: recall and truth. Humans change their memories as they use them to engage in the four tasks above. When they use memories, they mix, match, construct, and reconstruct elements of these memories. Since they change their memories through use, humans are, for instance, very bad at giving eye-witness testimony, as a great deal of research clearly shows (Loftus, 1976). In the sense of being a veridical record of the past, humans do not actually have memory. In humans, memory is future oriented, not past oriented.

The human mind is made in such a way that only a very small part of the processing the brain does—and the decisions it makes (and why) about how to feel, what to think and believe, and how to act—are open to consciousness and reflection (Gazzaniga, 1988). Thus, our unaided views about ourselves and others are often wrong. However, it turns out that, in any case, humans are tropic to sense making—to believing that things make sense, happen for a (good) reason, and are meaningful—and not to unvarnished truth or “facts” out of the context of meaning, sense-making, mattering, and hope.

Now what do we get in traditional schooling? Facts and recall. What do humans need: to learn how to use to use our experiences in the world (and media) to make good choices and good futures; to anticipate, plan, imagine, and make sense in ways that allow us to flourish with each other in a flourishing world (Schwartz & Arena, 2013). School is a vegetarian diet for carnivores.

Now, unlike other animals, humans can greatly expand what they can experience in the world by using tools (that allow them to see things they cannot see unaided) and media (that allow them to experience things they cannot do in real life). These is exactly what science and art are for, though rarely is science used in school this way. Rather than being a new way of seeing and experiencing the world, science in school is too often the facts and just the facts. And, at least in the United States, we don’t much bother with art any more at all in school. Furthermore, since humans, are tropic to meaning and not truth, the truths of science and art must be placed into patterns of meaning and hope.

Humans learn from experience and use that experience for the tasks we have discussed. However, humans do not learn well from just any old experience (Gee, 2013). They learn best when they are in an experience where they have an action to take or a problem to solve; where they care affectively (emotionally) about the outcome (this usually means that they feel something important to them is “at stake”); and where someone or something helps them to know when and how to pay attention in the experience (which is too replete with details, especially for “newbies”) to explore and try things and to accomplish their goals (and persist past failure). This last feature (managing attention) means that people need good “teachers” whether these are people or smart tools.

Now, what has this all to do with video games? Video games are a technology that can offer us just the sorts of experiences that are best suited for human learning and development. They focus on problem solving. They help players persist past failure. They create caring (mattering, making something “at stake”). They order problems in good ways (level design) and mentor players (through good game design) to manage their attention; use feedback fruitfully; and learn to solve problems often in multiple ways. They offer players tools that allow them to see and experience the world in new ways (for example, the portal gun in Portal allows players to see new affordances for action even in the real world).

Game play in good games precisely makes players use past experiences (in and out of the game) to anticipate, test, choose, create, imagine, and plan, just as human experiences are meant to be used by humans as they are and not as school imagines them. In the end, they learn to be better problem solvers and better choosers, just what we need in a world faced with many complex systems running out of control thanks, in large part, to human stupidity on the part of people nearly all of whom have gone to school (Gee, 2013).

Games, however, will not do good all these things by themselves. Like any powerful technology they can be used for good, bad, or trivia. Like other technologies, games supplement and enhance capacities that are already in the setting into which they are placed (like, for example, the ability to see failure as a form or learning), otherwise we need to curate these capacities, not just trust they will arise (Toyama, 2015).

Games, even in the entertainment industry, reach their true learning heights, when players move beyond unreflective play to think like designers and join with others in affinity spaces (Gee, 2017) to discuss strategy; to create new tools to enhance playing and understanding a game; and to create new levels or even new games (“modding”). This “transfer” (moving between the game and a critical, reflective, design-centric social group) does not happen all by itself. It happens socially and with mentoring.

The chapters in this book are among the earliest explorations of this new technology for “teaching” humans (in and out of school) as they actually are, as they live in the world, and as they will need to be to change the world.


  • Gazzaniga, M. S. (1988). Mind matters: How mind and brain interact to create our conscious lives. Boston: Houghton Mifflin

  • Gee, J. P. (2013). The anti-education era: Creating smarter students through digital media. New York: Palgrave/Macmillan.

  • Gee, J. P. (2017). Teaching, Learning, Literacy in Our High-Risk High-Tech World: A Framework for Becoming Human. New York: Teachers College Press.

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  • Loftus, E. F. (1976). Memory: Surprising new insights into how we remember and how we forget. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

  • Sapolsky, R. M. (2017). Behave: The biology of humans at our best and worst. New York: Penguin.

  • Schwartz, D. L. & Arena D. (2013). Measuring what matters most: Choice-based assessments for the digital age. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

  • Seligman, E. P. M., Railton, P., Baumeister, R. F., & Sripada, C. (2016). Homo prospectus. New York: Oxford University Press.

  • Toyama, K. (2015). Geek heresy: Rescuing social change from the cult of technology. New York: Public Affairs.