Revisiting Gee and affinity spaces

I found a book review that I had written but never submitted for publication, mainly because I found myself wondering why or if anybody reads book reviews published in scholarly journals, especially ones that require a subscription. Book reviews are essentially well-constructed opinions, and who really needs to pay for that? But book reviews in the blogosphere make sense, and I’ve found myself hunting for them from time to time.

This is a review of an ‘old’ 2004 publication of Gee’s, but the topic is still very much relevant: the intersection of school as a cultural practice, literacy, and video games. I reviewed it in 2005, and I have to say that I’m surprised that his notion of affinity spaces hasn’t really caught on in any big way in the ed tech world. Anyhow, if you’re up for a longish read, it follows.

Gee, J. P. (2004). Situated Language and Learning: A critique of traditional schooling. New York : Routledge. 130 pages.

As many will know, James Gee is a well-known linguist turned new media literacy theorist who has made outstanding contributions to the field of education, in particular, reading and literacy. Lately, Gee has been playing a lot of video games. He has also been busy writing, having published three new books in less than two years, all of which address the topic of video games. In Situated Language and Learning: A critique of traditional schooling he presents a seductive thesis: if schools could apply some of the learning principles that are applied to mainstream video games, the literacy achievements of students, in particular poor and minority students, would be a lot different. Gee treats the subject of video games with considerable enthusiasm, and devotes his book to deconstructing them to illustrate how these learning principles are not being applied to learning in schools. He succeeds in challenging educators to think differently about both video games and our own practices within literacy education.

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a linguist/literacy theorist/academic, Gee begins his introduction with a rationale for his writing style, which he situates as a tension between using academic jargon or being too “folksy”, while recognising that the time has come to challenge “new ways with words and new ways of thinking and learning (p. 2).” This, in essence, is Gee’s objective in the development of many of his arguments that form his book.

Gee’s second task is to address the issue of why some students learn to read well while others don’t. Gee attacks policy-driven approaches to literacy education, which he claims to be skill-focused, phonics influenced, and driven by testing of these skills. He also addresses the link between poverty and race variables and not learning to read. Here he introduces examples of children, who, despite their income level or race, are able to acquire considerable literacy around the ubiquitous Pokemon characters before they even begin school. Gee then asks the question of why school transforms good learners into bad learners. Much of his argument is based on his belief that learning to read is less effective as an instructed process, but very effective as a cultural process. Although this will not be new to language educators, he describes language has having vernacular and specialist varieties, with academic or school language forming a subgroup of specialist varieties. Language varieties are learned in apprenticeships of the social practices of their communities. Therefore, children either bring early prototypes of academic language to school or they don’t, as a result of the types of home based cultural practices that they have been exposed to. He then devotes an entire chapter to illustrating this argument, through some excellent examples of the literacy practices of different children.

Up until this point the connection between flawed literacy education and video games is relatively loose. Gee shifts gears in the second part of the book, where he attempts to draw parallels between gaming experiences and school experiences, while highlighting how schools fail and games succeed. Gee argues that simulations, be they situated in life or the game world, are a natural and important part of learning. According to Gee, we are continually engaged in the process of building model simulations to help us makes sense of things and to help us prepare for action in the world. Gee is essentially claiming that video games, especially multiplayer games, can scaffold real life experiences in that they allow collaborative problem solving through both talk and action in a virtual world, where dialogue and reflection are taking place as a result of situations that have triggered them. Gee isn’t unconvincing in this argument, but despite his attempt to ground it in research on perspective taking and moral reasoning, the idea that that fantasy and reality are so seamless as to allow the transfer of experience from video games to life could be seen as a bit of a stretch.

Despite this limitation, Gee does a good job of describing his own experiences with gaming to make the claim that “Good video games have a great deal to teach us about how to facilitate learning…(p. 57).” Gee also makes the strong case that video game developers have made better use of cognitive science learning principles than education has. He presents an excellent observation that in good games there is no distinction between learning and playing. In addition, there are various mechanisms in place to facilitate learning on a just-in-time bases—tutorials, sandboxes for developing skills, and tools that enable distributed knowledge—which readers will recognize as being built on social constructivist, learner-centred, self-directed approaches.

In this chapter, Gee also introduces the concept of affinity spaces, which despite the loose connection with video games, is probably the strongest contribution of this book to the field of education. Gee is building on Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger’s (1991) concept of communities of practice, but in contrast to their definition which labels a group of individuals, Gee defines affinity spaces as a “place, or set of places where people can affiliate with others is based primarily on shared activities, interests, and goals, not shared race, class, culture, ethnicity, or gender (p.73).” More importantly, affinity spaces allow for distributed knowledge through interaction with and over the space. Gee makes a very valid statement about his rationale for re-conceptualizing communities of practice in that “if we start by talking about spaces rather than “communities” we can then go on and ask to what extent the people interacting within a space, or some subgroup of them, do or do not actually form community (p. 78).” Gee also puts forward a provocative observation that many of the spaces found in schools do not have the features of affinity spaces, since distributed knowledge, networking, and collaboration across and beyond the school rarely occurs. Educators who have observed many of their so-called ‘Millenial’ students spending most of their out-of-class time connecting through cell phones, weblogs, and instant messaging, will confer with Gee, especially in light of the recent move by some schools to limit or block these types of ‘disruptive’ technologies that facilitate the types of interactions that students engage in with their affinity spaces.

Why should the apparent lack of affinity spaces in schools be a concern? Gee illustrates how current generations find themselves caught in a new economy, a new type of capitalism that emphasizes the importance of new literacies, team work, projects, and distribution of knowledge, giving way to the need for “shape-shifting portfolio people” who can adopt and adapt to new identities as needed, as facilitated by affinity spaces and networks. Schools, on the other hand, are still caught in the ways of an older capitalist society, and are quickly becoming irrelevant.

In many ways, Gee does not really present new ideas around the topics of literacy, education, and technology. His narrative is obviously influenced by foundational education thinkers such as Vygotsky, Leontiev, and Dewey, as well as newer educational theorists such as Prensky (2001). What is original about this work is Gee’s ability to weave a thread through two seemingly unrelated areas—video games and literacy—and stimulate new ways of thinking about how they converge.

However, although Gee’s book is both insightful and informative, at times he is caught making sweeping generalisations in the effort to emphasize his points. For example, in laying the foundation for an argument about the importance of embodied learning, Gee states: “When people learn as a cultural process, whether this be cooking, hunting, or how to play video games, they learn through action and talk with others, not by memorizing words outside their contexts of application (p.39).” We are left to construct an assumption that educators are still teaching memorization in literacy education, which for the most part is probably not the case. Furthermore, educators would likely argue that current teaching approaches are largely about constructing experiences that facilitate learning through dialogue and action. Therefore, Gee might have been more convincing here if he had questioned the authenticity of the types of experiences that schools can provide, instead of constructing his argument on potentially incorrect assumptions about the teaching approaches of schools.

Nonetheless, Gee has done an admirable job of providing a wider educational audience with a highly readable book that will likely be considered a key addition to the field of new literacies.


Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Prensky, Marc. (2001). Digital Game-Based Learning. New York: McGraw Hill.

One Comment

  • Stian Håklev

    Great idea to post it here. It’s too bad with all the pieces people have written that end up languishing in digital or physical closets. Get it out there – we’ll decide whether it’s valuable or not 🙂

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