Learning involves taking on and playing with identities in such a way that the learner has real choices (in developing the virtual identity) and ample opportunity to meditate* on the relationship between new identities and old ones. —James Paul Gee
After days of running around on my own two hooves and days after that lumbering along on my sweet elekk Elmer, I couldn’t wait to fly again. Finally I reached level 60, went through the Dark Portal to the Outlands, and bought Snowfly, my white gryphon.
Here we are over the Zangermarsh on another quest. I paused to snap this pic. Looking at it now, I reflect: Snowfly is Snowfly and will always be Snowfly, a mount designed by Blizzard, who, as far as I know, cannot be modified. But unlike Snowfly, I, Lotoa, the character riding Snowfly, have a tangled identity. Blizzard designed Lotoa too, but as I’ve leveled up, I’ve modified her in various ways – from the gear she wears and carries to the skills and strengths she has.
Lotao is not simply a World of Warcraft (WoW) toon; she’s me too, the “me” who modified “her.” So what’s going on with this pronoun shift and why does it matter? The question of personal identity is a time-honored one in academic philosophy, e.g., “Who am I?” “Am I the same person today that I was five years ago – or even yesterday?” It’s also an issue that James Paul Gee discusses in his book What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy (2007), which I first heard about in Games MOOC, an intriguing course I’m currently taking. I’m only a third of the way into the book, but it’s prompted me to reflect on my identity as a gamer who has several digital personae.
Ah, above is another identity shift, this time from the “I” who is leveling up her toon Lotoa in WoW to the real-world educator who is reading a book about game-based learning. And it’s even more complicated than that: I as real-world educator am taking the Games MOOC under the name Lotus* Greene, an avatar in Second Life who keeps a blog and meets with other educator avatars in Second Life (some of whom also have WoW toons).
James Paul Gee argues that having a game identity is, on the whole, a good thing because it teaches us – and our children and students – how to form “bridges from one’s old identities to the new one” (45). He uses the example of the science classroom in which active learning is taking place, where students are engaged in scientific thinking and are thus developing a new identity – someone who can do science. This is powerful – not simply to learn what scientists do and say but to engage in scientific inquiry, in short, to be a scientist initiate. Good teachers, I suspect, initiate their students into a discipline by helping them extend their sense of identity – as scientists, mathematicians, writers, artists, and so on. Good students, Gee suggests, are those who can navigate among an assortment of identities. He argues that video games are excellent tools for preparing students to embrace academic identities because they “recruit identities and encourage identity work and reflection on identities in clear and powerful ways” (46).
Gee discusses three types of identities that gamers hold (49-63):
1. Virtual identity (I the educator as Lotoa or Lotus*), which emphasizes the digital persona, especially when the gamer is in-world.
2. Real-world identity (I the educator as Lotoa or Lotus*), which emphasizes the gamer as the wizard behind the curtain, the one who creates or adopts a digital persona.
3. Projective identity (I the educator as Lotoa or Lotus), which emphasizes the gamer’s project of developing the digital identity and is a projection of the gamer herself.
I would like to propose a fourth identity: Interrelated Virtual identities ( e.g., I the educator as Lotoa and Lotus) in which the gamer has two or more digital personae who interact socially with other gamers – in my case where other gamers know the virtual me as both a WoW toon and a Second Life avatar. Related to this are gamers’ relationships with their “alts,” alternate avatars or toons within the same virtual realm or world. But, really, this additional complexity is outside of Gee’s mission (at least so far in the book).
Gee claims that “all deep learning – that is, active, critical learning – is inextricably caught up with identity in a variety of ways,” beginning with students’ willingness “to see themselves as the kind of person who can learn, use, and value the new semiotic domain” (biology, say) and who believe that others in that domain (or within their relationship circle) will value and accept them “if they are successful learners” in that domain (54).
Often Gee brings his points home by using personal examples. His first acquaintance with video games was watching his young son play games like Winnie the Pooh and Pikman and then playing some of the games himself – “just to help him” :^). Although he didn’t think of himself as a gamer, he decided to try a more adult game and chose The New Adventures of the Time Machine because of “its tie to literature” (58). And he got hooked: “I discovered new powers in myself. I felt the dawning of a new identity growing, one to be added to my other real-world identities. Of course this is true of all good learning – we gain a new valued identity that gives us new powers…” (61). I can “identify,” so to speak, with his discovery and feelings in relation to both Lotus and Lotoa.
For Gee, good teaching and learning entail three things: (1) enticing learners to try out a new domain (stories a cousin told me last summer about his Second Life avatar piqued my interest), (2) building bridges from real-world identities to a virtual one (or from one virtual identity to another, as in my case from avatar Lotus to toon Lotoa), and (3) creating a safe learning space for taking risks (58, 61). How teachers can entice students, help them build bridges to new academic identities, and create conditions for (playful) risk-taking is, in part, what Gee’s book is about. His first three chapters have enticed me. I look forward to reading and learning more.
[*Asterisks after a word in this entry are my attempt to block double-underlined links that showed up without my permission.]