Gee’s (2007) description of semiotic domains reminds me of what my language peers refer to as multiple literacies; that’s the literacy required to perform a task beyond reading, writing, and arithmetic. Semiotic domain refers to the ability to detect the signs, symbols, merit, value, and language of a particular activity in order to function properly within it. For example, children who play video games are learning the semiotic domain of that particular game environment. If they’re playing Minecraft, then they’ll learn to appreciate their physical surroundings, system alerts, personal alliances, and any help section embedded within the game. In essence, the game’s affordances, and their role within it, become the semiotic domain that must be learned in order for the learner to be successful.
I don’t think that children should play violent video games for these same reasons. Even though the Supreme Court declared no age-limit to graphically violent video games in 2011 (due to the lack of evidence in inciting violence among young players), I believe the semiotic domain of those violent actions become imprinted on the child. Due to the potentially harmful activity, scientists cannot properly study this phenomenon.
Gee stated that video gaming offers important semiotic domains which include active problem-solving, critical thinking, and unique language functions (“design grammar”) in-world as an avatar and in real life as a gamer playing the game. Additionally, the learner discovers how they would react in new situations; they can replay the situation to manipulate outcomes. In this way, the learner is able to make corrective actions on their own or through resets by termination. We seldom get the opportunity to manipulate our outcomes in real life. These are a few of the reasons why I think that nonviolent gaming is a valuable learning domain.
When I taught preschool at the University of California’s laboratory elementary school, I encountered parents who disliked my use of the series called Rotten Ralph by Jack Gantos. It’s a story about an undisciplined cat that always gets into trouble. I thought the book would make a nice counter match with the popular Clifford the Big Red Dog series by Norman Bridwell. Clifford causes trouble not because he’s undisciplined but rather because of his large size. Hence, he was not really ever in trouble for misbehaving. I liked how Rotten Ralph showed that even if you act badly, your family will still love you and want you around. Children need to know that there’s room for error in their development of knowledge about the world around them. In a sense, gaming can provide that error-safe environment—a world of resets.
Children should participate fully in semiotic domains to produce virtual objects, create alliances, and develop new meanings. In Minecraft, they can create Lego-like structures for their alliances (guilds) and learn to survive various physical threats to self and environmental threats to their structure(s). This affords the child the feeling of accomplishment. Children still learn about life and death but not in a graphically violent way. Play is beneficial for humans’ assimilation and accommodation throughout life. Piaget first posited this in his theory of cognitive development in the 1950s, which stated that play and imitation are essential human strategies. Nowadays, there’s little time during the school day for play. There is, however, an emphasis in computer literacy and developing critical thinking. Perhaps gaming could meet that demand and allow for playtime, too.
Gee, J. P. (2007). What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.