What Good Games Can Teach Us About Learning


Credit where credit is due: this post draws heavily on James Paul Gee’s book What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, especially where he outlines 36 principles of learning we can derive from stellar games.

Last week I mentioned how gamification may be a very limited, unsustainable way to motivate and teach. Gee, however, doesn’t argue for gamification, at least not in any superficial sense. Instead, his book is an almost anthropological look at how certain select standout games create a compelling and immersive experience that is, at its heart, a kind of education. From his observations and reflections, Gee draws out these principles about why these games are so effective at sustaining interest, attention, effort, and learning.

I’ve recently been reading Benny Lewis’s book on learning foreign languages, and it made me recall and revisit these principles for the umpteenth time. Here’s my attempt at re-framing and regurgitating what I think to be true from Gee’s thoughts.

The environment is the teacher

Marble Maze (Labyrinth)

There’s a popular saying among the Reggio Emilia crowd: The environment is the third teacher. In a game, the environment is the teacher. Gee says that any rich learning environment presents a “sign system,” and students learn by encountering or interacting with elements within the environment. The meaning of the signs are “situated in embodied experiences.” By messing around, experimenting, and discovering what is or isn’t allowed, what does or doesn’t work, the student/player gradually comes to an understanding of the world that they’re in.

Lecturing or direct instruction is minimized in this model. The teacher is less a conveyor of information than an architect, constructing a Wonderland for Alice.

Active engagement is protected and encouraged

Lego Silver Samurai

You can think of this environment as a sandbox or playground, an artificial construction that both encourages and confines the freedom of play. It manages the consequences of exploration, which encourages risk-taking. At the same time, it amplifies the results of particular actions to encourage and give feedback to those actions. This is because “thinking, problem-solving, and knowledge are ‘stored’ in tools, technologies, material objects, and the environment.”

Let’s say, for example, that I wanted to teach the identification of different kinds of wildflowers. I might take you to a patch of forest where I know there are at least 5 different kinds of wildflowers represented, and I arm you with a simplified reference sheet with a key of identifying features. I’ve set you up in an environment where there’s a high likelihood of positive results. You might think of the reference sheet as the teacher or text, but it’s actually only one element in the design of this learning environment. Knowledge is stored not only on the information on the reference sheet but in the nature of the place, the flowers themselves, the boundaries of exploration, the reduction of complexity, and so on.

This kind of environment fosters learning through exploration and experimentation instead of passive consumption. The learner probes and tests her environment, making hypotheses, reflecting on results, and trying alternative solutions. Even attempts to “break” the environment can be educative.

All learning is language learning


Gee has another name for his “sign systems”–“semiotic domains.” Since meaning is embodied in all the different elements of this environment, you can think of these elements as akin to words in a text. Figuring out what everything means becomes a kind of translation into your prior comprehension. Navigating through the environment is then like learning a new language.

In this metaphor, taking on a new domain of learning means learning a new vocabulary; figuring out the syntax and grammar — the rules of how basic elements are put together; memorizing common scripts and phrases; tackling texts of varying sophistication, purpose, and genre; embracing a different way of thinking and expressing oneself.

And like the best kinds of language acquisition, learning is not done in isolation or abstractly. It must be done in the context of active use and participation, trying and fumbling to master and develop fluency in basic interactions.

Things get harder

Who's the Boss?

Every learning environment is analogous to a level in a video game. Each level is only a controlled subset of what is possible.

Levels earlier on emphasize the fundamental content and skills and patterns that are the building blocks for tackling more sophisticated challenges. They are easier and provide lots of engaging practice.

As soon as the student reaches a level of fluency or mastery, however, new variables are introduced, or old variables change or disappear. The player is forced to change his strategy, adapt to the changes, and re-learn what he thought he knew. She may come to realize the limitations in certain tactics and be forced to try alternative routes to prior solutions. At the same time, constant practice and repetition fixes into the memory tacit knowledge about the domain.

Each level tries to target a sweet spot of difficulty for the learner. You want to try to get “within, but at the outer edge, of personal resources,” what Gee calls the “regime of competence.”

The clothes make the man

"Who wants to play video games?"

One thing that happens to learners in playing in these environments is that they play with their own identities. All play is a kind of role-play, and games permit players to take on, try out, and fashion virtual identities. You enter a new realm and, in order to fit in, you sort of pretend to be someone else — or you, but not quite you, maybe an enhanced you, or a part of you that you don’t often get to explore or express.

I think this may be the most powerful aspect of this model of pedagogy. People don’t change their minds unless they’re willing to get out of their heads, step outside of their normal mindset. Once you have a student “go native,” one might say, in this new world of learning, you’ve got an opportunity to make profound changes or insights. Learners then have an opportunity to deeply reflect on their choices, the differences in worldviews, the nature of knowledge, what they are capable of, etc.

Part of this level of pretend is the potential for social learning. Players can bond in affinity groups over their travails and discoveries in learning and playing. These groups can share knowledge, accountability, affirmation, and reflection. Teams can distribute a diversity of strengths and skills across its members. And the malleability of identity can support the investigation of different loyalties and relationships.

Final thoughts

Star Wars Republic Commando Boss

I find this way of looking at learning both stimulating and tough. The challenge is to figure out how this can all translate into off-line learning environments. Learning in life is not a game, but we can take steps to make that learning and life more enriching and immersive, showing consideration to the design of what our kids encounter. We can take lessons from how easily video games can suck us all in to improve the thoughtfulness of our “classrooms.”


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