Lev Vygotsky and John Dewey: Video Gamers From Days Past?

Lev Vygotsky and John Dewey: Video Gamers From Days Past?


Education technology companies are eager to sell their products to teachers and students, and academics excited about games are eager to justify their study and use as learning tools. To demonstrate that serious thinkers have long embraced the educational value of games, academics trot out Lev Vygotsky and John Dewey as patron saints of gaming and playfulness.  In most of the modern world, “gaming” has largely come to mean “video gaming”, and these two thinkers from pre-digital history are still cited eagerly as proponents of video games. This paper will address a few of the problems with this. One is that these selective citations simplify Dewey’s and Vygotsky’s positions about play and games. While true that these both have a lot of positive things to say about the role of “play” in human development and education, their overall endorsement of play and games comes with some rarely cited qualifications, and which indeed seem to anticipate the problematic relationship that many teenagers and adults have with video games today. Furthermore, it’s difficult for me to think of Dewey or Vygotsky (died around 1950 and 1930, respectively) as champions of something that didn’t exist in their time. When Vygotsky and Dewey write about “play”, are they thinking about a fundamentally different kind of activity than modern video game playing?  Even if the spirits of these two thinkers should rise from the grave, play X-Box for a few weeks, and then tell me that “of course this is the sort of play we were writing about”,  their overall endorsement of play comes with some conditions in their writings. In other words, games aren’t good just by virtue of being games. If gamers are excited about finding common ground with provocative thinkers like Lev Vygotsky and John Dewey, they should also pay attention to when these thinkers write about how play can be a bad thing, or at least a mixed blessing.

First, I want to look at a few passages from Dewey where he writes about play. As Dewey writes in Democracy and Education, games can be constructive activities which should be regarded as more than “agreeable diversions”.  The popular distinction between play and work, Dewey writes, is misinformed, since these two activities correspond with each other in important ways. By doing either, someone is learning how to do something and “gaining acquaintance with things and processes gained in the doing”.  Play and work also align in that they are both done with an aim towards some future goal, “a directing idea which gives point to the successive acts.”  As we grow older and our activities become more complicated, play blurs into and becomes work, since both are intrinsically motivated.  Work is play, just with a longer timeframe and requiring more attention. When work isn’t playful, ie when it’s done primarily for the sake of something other than the work itself (such as money or coercion),  its drudgery, not real work.  If we stopped here, it would be easy to see why Dewey is cited in so many defenses of gameplay.

Dewey repeatedly adds, though, that everything depends on the way games are employed. Play has to be conducted with an eye towards “facilitating desirable mental and moral growth”, since it’s not enough “just to introduce games”. This alone should give people pause before saying that Dewey was pro-gaming, since it’s hard to argue that all video games “facilitate moral growth”. Dewey elsewhere writes that when young kids role play as parents or builders, they begin to try to think like parents and builders, and so such games enlarge the players’ range of interests and sympathies in socially productive ways. What about when kids are trying to think like mobsters or warriors, as the most popular video games (e.g. Grand Theft Auto, World of Warcraft) ask them to do?

Dewey also observes that people whose daily lives consist of playless drudgery at work or school will develop a burning need for play, but this usually manifests itself either in an extreme desire for stimulation through such things as gambling or alcohol, or, as Dewey writes, “in less extreme cases, there is recourse to idle amusement; to anything which passes time with immediate agreeableness.”  I suspect that Dewey would regard a lot of video gaming as this kind of idle amusement, enjoyable respites from playless days of school or work.  I remember most of middle and high school waiting until I could get home and play on my computer as long as I could. This was not constructive play.

In another piece about the role of play in early education, Dewey describes how imagination is the inner, mental side of play. When children play with toy boats, they are imagining that the toys stand for a larger reality.  But cultivating the imagination shouldn’t be the only goal of a game, writes Dewey, since the imagination should be exercised constructively, in that it eventually finds outlet in some “actual building up of what to the child is reality.” As if anticipating one of the criticisms of popular video games, that they are absorbing but pointless, Dewey warns that it’s a problem when the imagination is stimulated but then not exercised constructively:


To arouse imagination and leave the matter there is to appeal simply to the sensational and emotional side, and thus to weaken character and dissipate mental energy, hence the danger in too many stories.


When teens play a game like Grand Theft Auto, they play the role of violent criminals. I suspect Dewey would find it difficult to see how this kind of imaginative stimulation could play out constructively for its players. Our country would not be a safe place if those who played such games began reshaping their realities according to the logic of the game (kill people, survive, get rich, win). Thankfully, most players of Grand Theft Auto don’t do this.The fact that they don’t doesn’t vindicate GTA for Dewey, because when imaginative fancy doesn’t lead to a constructive reshaping or improvement of reality, it “becomes an indulging in fantasies which bring about withdrawal from all realities” (Human Nature and Conduct). I don’t think Dewey would be surprised to see how many people today are unhealthily addicted to video games, living more in the world created by the game than in the world outside of it, with no clear benefit to their own development or society at large.  

In sum, Dewey wrote a lot of positive things about play and games, but our conversations about playing video games would be made richer if we also consider his arguments about the problematic dimensions of play. For Dewey to endorse a video game as more than just a rebalancing release valve after a day of drudgery, the game would have to exercise the imagination constructively, facilitate mental and moral growth, and be more than “immediately agreeable”.  I’m a video game lover, but I don’t think Dewey would write favorably about most video games, despite his overall endorsement of playful activity.

Game enthusiasts also cite the ideas of Lev Vygotsky, something of an intellectual renaissance man who, like Dewey, had a lot to say about play, learning, and their significant role in human and societal development. Just like Dewey, Vygotsky writes about how habits of mind from play find later realization in work, since play entails voluntary intentions, the formation of real-life plans, and volitional motives. He writes that “play contains all developmental tendencies in a condensed form and is itself a major source of development.” (Mind and Society). Work is play with more rules.

Of particular relevance for this paper is Vygotsky’s theory about the “zone of proximal development”, since this is an idea widely cited in discussions about the educational value of video games. Vygotsky defines the ZPD as “the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers” (Mind and Society). The adult providing guidance or the more capable peer is elsewhere referred to as “the more knowledgeable other”.  Read now this excerpt from Scott McLeod’s blog post about the educational value of playing video games:


Video games are structured so that learners constantly operate at the outer edge of their competence. Participants are continually challenged but the challenges are not so difficult that learners believe they are undoable…Lev Vygotsky, a famous developmental psychologist, called this concept the zone of proximal development – the area in which students are ready to grow. Video games are similar to teachers in that they take the role of what Vygotsky called the ‘more knowledgeable other,’ the entity that helps students bridge the gap between their current ability and new capabilities.


Seems like a plausible idea, or at least one worth thinking about.  Can a video game play this role of “the more knowledgeable other” that Vygotsky describes? Chris Craft’s response to the above cited blog post gives a resounding no:


You’re right in calling that a growth area, but Vygotsky would not support interaction with video games as a form of this growth. In fact, he advocated interaction between a child and the Ideal Form of Behavior, which he meant as an adult.


Vygotsky does write, though, that play on its own creates a zone of proximal development, since play is accompanied by strict subordination to rules.  In one beloved line, Vygotsky writes that children in play are “a head taller”, behaving beyond their average age.  That being said, I don’t think it’s easy to call the structuring logic of a video game “the more knowledgeable other”, however tempting it will be in the future to replace teachers with games. The issue is further complicated when learning games are artificially intelligent, adaptive to each user, and ostensibly excellent at maneuvering a user through their ZPD. Nevertheless, it’s still hard for me to think that Vygotsky, who characterizes development and learning as social and interpersonal, would feel comfortable being cited in support of learning through a single-player video game, which is inherently an asocial, personal activity.

What about multiplayer games, wherein gamers work with or against other human players and communicate with each other throughout? One scholar writes that “in multiplayer games, Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development comes into play. In a recent paper, authors describe a game as “Vygotskian” because it is multiplayer and features communication amongst human players. These features thus make it more “social” than a single-player game. The study shows that, in the example being studied, the  “Vygotskian” version of the game was more effective than the single player version.  The author writes that this study provides “some empirical evidence that in contexts of online gaming, the presence of interpersonal communication, collective goals, and social activities has measurable beneficial effects on children learning.”

I don’t doubt their conclusion, and my own personal experience with multiplayer games corroborates it. I’m just not sure that video games should rightfully be described as “Vygotskian” simply because they have player-to-player interaction. Vygotsky thought that learning was social and societal. He writes that that many of the activities taking place within school are determined by the broader, societal context in which schools are incorporated. It seems unlikely that Vygotsky would endorse a game just because it had multiplayer gameplay. For instance, how much sense does it make to describe the massive, multiplayer online game World of Warcraft as Vygotskian? One obvious problem to this is that thousands of World of Warcraft gamers become more reclusive with respect to broader society because of the game.  In many popular video games, even those that are multiplayer, it’s still not clear how they productively shape or are shaped by broader society. In fact, one could argue that separate societies are formed within these multiplayer gaming communities, and these micro-societies are so alluring that they cause withdrawal from broader society amongst thousands of gamers.

People often play these games in order to escape from other aspects of their life, rendering them poorly functioning members of broader society (hence, for example, the recovery group WoWaholics anonymous). One need only read the 140 page document left by Elliot Rodgers, the individual who recently wreaked havoc at UCSB, to see how a multiplayer game (in his case, World of Warcraft) can cause a person to replace society at large with one of these micro-societies. Yes, Elliot was interacting with people in his game-world.  However, this did not lead to more effective interaction with society at large, and he admits that his addiction to WOW and its own micro-society contributed to his societal dysfunction. His case is not unique.  

As someone who is convinced of the educational value of some video games and who is generally eager to defend video games, I’m glad to see theorists looking back at the provocative writings of John Dewey and Lev Vygotsky, since these writers took play seriously. However, I think many are perhaps over-eager to find support for their predilections in these writings. I also think that conversations about the educational value of video games would be deepened if we looked closely at what kinds of play Dewey and Vygotsky were praising, and also what kinds they weren’t.  If one is citing Dewey or Vygotsky in support of video games, it’s not as simple as “they wrote favorable about play and games, so they would support video games.” That doesn’t do justice to the complexity of their writings or that of video games.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s