The Affinity towards Groups, Spaces and Learning

In the final chapter of his book, Gee explores the social and collaborative learning endeavours which is perhaps the most fascinating chapter of the book as it explicitly addresses the issue of group / team work that can take place within a given shared task, aim or objective. Although this chapter focuses upon group work within the sphere of playing a video game (either together in one room or remotely); the principles could be applied to any number of discussion boards; mailing lists; Web 2.0 technologies; classrooms; offices and community halls across the world.

Gee favours the term “affinity groups” (Gee, 2007; 2001) to, say, Wenger’s (1998) “communities of practice” because:

it has been given various meanings and because I wish to avoid the romantic notions that seem to accompany the word ‘community’; affinity groups can be good, evil, or anything in between. (2007, p. 206)

For Gee, “affinity groups” can be viewed as:

groups wherein people primarily orient toward a common set of endeavours and social practices in terms of which they attempt to realize these endeavours. In such groups people orient less towards shared gender, race, culture, or face-to-face relationships, although all of these play a secondary role. (2007, p. 196)

Affinity groups, therefore, allow for shared thinking, knowledge and reasoning to be inherently social and distributed and can, though not necessarily, be augmented by technology – this concept is quite similar in principle to the crowdsourcing or collective intelligence phenomena where nodes and networks of people get together, either physically, though mostly virtually to solve problems or to produce a product, such practices have largely been enabled by the introduction of Web 2.0 type technologies.

In terms of e-learning courses or even traditional face-to-face classrooms this approach to gathering knowledge; solving problems; or completing a task suggests a change in practice as well as changing the power structures of teacher / student in what Gee describes as “reciprocal teaching” (after the work of Ann Brown and Joseph Campione) whereby students take it in turns to teach something that they have learnt or mastered.

Following on from, and extending, the concept of “affinity groups”, Gee and Hayes (2009) present a paper that develops the notion that informal learning outside of school seems to fair better than formal learning inside of school. They go on to suggest that “humans seem to learn more deeply, and more equitably … when they learn outside of school in areas they choose and for which they are motivated” (2009, para. 2). They quickly put to bed the myth that suggests that informal learning does not involve any teaching, arguing that “teaching in informal learning in … today’s popular culture involves three things: design, resources and … ‘affinity spaces’” (2009, para. 7) which they bind together as a form of “public pedagogy”. At the centre of Gee and Hayes’ paper is their concept of “affinity space” which they describe as “spaces – real world ot virtual world on Internet sites or in virtual worlds like Second Life – where people interact around a common passion” (2009, para. 17).

Unlike the “communities of practice”, the “affinity space” does not segregate the “apprentices” from the “masters” – they co-exist. This space also allows for the generation of shared user content and encourages and enables people to:

  • gain “individual knowledge” (in their heads);
  • contribute to “distributed knowledge” that can be picked up from other people, shared links or materials on a site or via mediating devices;
  • use “dispersed knowledge” that can be found on other sites.

Gee and Hayes (2009, para. 19) make the claim that “affinity spaces” are “well-designed spaces that resources and mentor learners, old and new, beginners and masters alike” which can offer learners an identity, knowledge and status as well as encouraging and resourcing critical learning and reflective thinking. In their example, they have used the instance of the Yu-Gi-Oh! collectible card game (CCG) which is heavily supported by other players (face-to-face and online); video games; books; comics; posters; stat sheets; television shows; movies and websites (both official and non-official) which all fuses together in what Jenkins (2006) calls “media convergence” creating an enormous pool of “collective intelligence” and “collective resources”.

In his blog post, Henry Keil (2009) discusses Gee and Hayes’ paper and asks the pertinent question:

Are we over-teaching during formal contact hours, and if [so] how can we engage students to learn more informally outside reduced class time?


Gee, J.P. & Hayes, E. (2009). Public Pedagogy through Video Games. Game Based Learning. [online]. Available at: [Accessed?24 March 2009].

Gee, J.P. (2007). What Video Games Have To Teach Us About Learning And Literacy (Revised and Updated Edition). New York, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

Gee, J.P. (2001). Identity as an Analytic Lens for Research in Education. Review of Research in Education, 25 (2000-2001), pp 99-125.

Jenkins, H. (2006). Convergence Culture: Where old and new media collide. New York: New York University Press.

Keil, H. (2009). Teaching in Informal Learning. Holyrood Park blog. [online]. Available at: [Accessed 24 March 2009].

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of Practice: learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge, England; New York: Cambridge University Press.