Learning by Design: good video games as learning machines

Danyelle Bossardet, Sarah Peterson, and Eleanor Stuart

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In "Learning by Design: good video games as learning machines," James Paul Gee addresses the possibility of utilizing learning concepts seen in popular video games to engage students in learning in academic classroom settings by answering the question: How do game designers hook people into wanting to learn their difficult games? Gee analyzes and discusses the usage of a wide array of learning concepts that engage learners and enable teachers to use innovative new methods of instruction to capture their students' interest. His study focuses on the following learning concepts, categorized into one of three domains (Empowered Learners, Problem Solving, and Understanding):

Empowered Learners
Problem Solving
Well-ordered problems
System Thinking
Pleasantly Frustrating
Meaning as Action Image
Cycles of Expertise

Manipulation and Distribution of Knowledge
Information on Demand and Just in Time

Fish Tanks

Sand Boxes

Skills as Strategies

Below, you will find information on each learning principle described by Gee with a brief explanation of each principle, in addition to possible applications in the academic classroom setting.

Empowered Learners

  • Principle: Co-Design—good learning requires learners feel active; they are not passive recipients.
  • Games: Castlevania: Symphony of the Night; Tony Hawk's Underground
    1. Players make things happen, game responds, players act again, game responds again, etc.
    2. Players determine where the game goes
    • Application to Education: Co-design (instructor and learner) means engagement and ownership for both parties. Student actions can determine curriculum, and students help design their own learning.
      • Example: Have students complete a simple spoke chart to determine what they already know about the curriculum. Ask students what methods of instruction they prefer at the beginning of the year and provide instruction based on student requests when possible.

  • Principle: Customize—different learning styles work for different people.
    1. People need to control how they learn and be encouraged to try new styles.
    • Games: Rise of Nations
    • Application to Education: Students are allowed to control/influence how they learn; allows students to try new learning styles without fear.
      • Example: Allow students to choose between two or three variations of an assignment (this really doesn't take that much time to create....I did it for BTSA and the results were AWESOME) so they can control the way in which they interact with and show their understanding of material.

  • Principle: Identity—Games become heavily invested in a new identity
    • Games: Metal Solid Gear, Animal Crossing
    • Application to Education: Students need to know how to take on certain identities in school in order to have meaningful learning experiences. Playing a certain identity allows facts to come freely.
      • Examples: Have students play the role of an archaeologist while teaching a unit about early civilizations.

  • Principle: Manipulation and distribution of knowledge-Perception and action are deeply connected. Fine-grained action at a distance allows gamer to feel they have stretched into a new space.
    1. Distribution of knowledge: Knowledge split between two elements (player and character) allow knowledge from two sources to be combined.
    • Games: Tomb Raider, Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell
    • Application to Education: Smart tools –students have knowledge that allows them to manipulate the tools, and the tools allow students to do things they otherwise would be unable to do.
      • Example: Allow students to move graphics around using the Smart Board; have students use selector tools to perform assessments and provide feedback immediately.

Problem Solving

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1. Principle: Well-ordered problems—the problems learners face early are crucial and should lead them to hypotheses that work well both on small problems and when applied to problems that later need solutions.
  • Games: Return to Castle Wildenstein, Fatal Frame 2: Crimson Butterfly
  • Application to Education: The order in which learners confront problems is important. Problems can be designed to be solved in a way that makes sense to learners.
  • Example: 7th grade language arts teachers know better than to give a student a writing prompt and expect beautiful results. The students need to be instructed in how to break down the prompt, recognize what type of writing they are being asked to do (expository, narrative, persuasive), outline the paper, create a rough draft, do three peer edits, and then write a final version.

2. Principle: Pleasantly frustrating—learning works best when new challenges are pleasantly frustrating, within their “Regime of confidence.” Challenges are hard yet doable. Learners feel and receive evidence that their effort is paying off.
  • Games: Halo, Ratchet and Clank: Going Commando
  • Application to Education—students need to be able to adjust the difficulty level of the curriculum, while still remaining on the “outer edge” of their competency level.
    • Example: Students are given two choices for homework. Both measure the same domain and require students know the same information, but they can choose the way in which they interact with and represent the material.

3. Principle: Cycles of Expertise—“expertise is formed in any area by repeated cycles of learners practicing skills until they are nearly automatic, then having those skills fail in ways that cause the learners to have to think again and learn anew” (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1993). Learners then practice their new skill set to a point of mastery. This is the point of levels and bosses. Bosses force players to use their mastered skills, paired with new skills that push them further.
  • Application to Education: Experts master skills and challenge themselves with new problems, integrating the old and new skills together and expanding their knowledge base, which is then refined and mastered. Learners that are in the cycle of expertise manage their own learning and learn HOW to learn.
    • Example: Students master "spelling list A" before moving on to "spelling list B." Students might only be comfortable with "spelling list A" for an entire year, which allows them to learn within their "Regime of confidence." Other students might master "spelling list A" quickly, moving on to "B" and possibly "C."

4. Principle: Information on Demand and Just in Time—Humans use verbal information best when it is given at a specific time when they can use it, and on demand when they feel they need it.
  • Application to Education: Learners need to receive information when it is ready to be used or when they will actually need the information. Otherwise, students go into cognitive overload.
    • Example: Using a "10-2" rule allows students to process information for two minutes after each 10 minute block of instruction. This allows students to use the information and encode it before receiving more, so they are not overloaded.

5. Principle: Fish Tanks—If we create simple systems based on complex ones that stress a few key elements for students to master, they have taken the first step in mastering the more complex system.
  • Application to Education: By showing students small elements of larger concepts and allowing them to master these smaller elements first, we allow them to begin conquering the more complex content, albeit at a slower pace.
    • Example: Practicing outlining of a paper before actually writing the paper.

6. Principle: Sandboxes—If learners are put in a situation that feels real, they can learn well, feeling authentic and accomplished. Problems and threats are much diminished, so mistakes are not as dangerous as the actual real world.
  • Application to Education: Learners need time to play around with the content before they actually move to conquer the content. If students are comfortable playing around with the material they are about to learn and are permitted to take risks and make mistakes, they will feel more confident when they actually move on to tackle the content.
    • Example: Provide advanced cues to students and have them discuss the advanced cues with a shoulder partner. Have each pair share out to the class. Then, link students' responses to the content to be covered.

7. Principle: Skills as Strategies: Learners are more likely to want to learn skills when those skills can be used as a strategy for solving a particular problem.
  • Application to Education: When students are taught skills that enable them to solve larger problems, they are more likely to want to learn the skills.
    • Example: Teaching students simple division concepts before moving on to long division, decimals, and fractions as division problems.


1. Principle:System thinking—the ability to develop skills that enable learners to understand how they fit into a larger system to which they give meaning.
  • Application to Education: In today's high tech world it is important to be able to develop skills necessary to understand a myriad of systems and the way that certain systems can interact with one another.

Example: Providing a group activity in which each students has a specific role enables the student to understand their role and the way they fit into the environement as a whole. Role playing opportunities also enable students to develop an deeper understanding for the activity. An example would be to provide a small scene from "Romeo and Juliet." Students would be assigned roles as well as jobs such as director and stage manager in order to understand theatircal hierarchy as well as gain perspective on the many aspects that go into putting together a play.

2. Principle: Meaning as action image—humans do not think through experiences from a purely logical perspective but rather through experiences they have had and imaginative reconstructions of that expereince. Words and concepts have deepest meaning when tied to a perception and action in the world.

Application to Education—A learner can't really understand what they are reading, hearing, or seeing if the only information they have is verbal, dictionary-like information.

Example: Students are learning about Wartime Bosnia and in order to gain an insight to the complicated history, they are given excerpts from "Zlata's Diary: A Child's Life in Wartime Sarajevo."

More Information

For more information on James Paul Gee:
James Paul Gee's Blog
Wikipedia Article: James Paul Gee

You Tube Video of James Paul Gee:


Gee, J. (2005). Learning by design: good video games as learning machines. E-Learning, 2(1), 5-16.
James Paul Gee. (2011). Wikipedia. Retrieved July 7, 2011, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Paul_Gee