Gee on Video Games and Learning

James Gee is a professor at Arizona State University who researches video games and learning. Here, Gee explores the characteristics of video games as a learning environment:

Good video games have a great deal to tell us about how we facilitate learning, even in domains outside of games, even in school. Good video games are complex, challenging, and long; they can take 50 or more hours to finish. If a game cannot be learned well, then it will fail to sell well … Shortening or dumbing down games is not an option, since most avid players don’t want short or easy games …

The learning principles that good games incorporate are by no means unknown to researchers in the learning sciences … Many of these principles are much better reflected in good games than they are in today’s schools … With the current return in our schools to skill-and-drill and curricula driven by standardized tests, good learning principles have, more and more, been left on the cognitive scientist’s laboratory bench and … inside good computer and video games …

[L]et me collect together here a list of some of the learning principles [of games]. I believe that these principles would be efficacious in areas outside games, for example … instruction in schools … Young people exposed to these principles so powerfully in [games] are engaged in a form of learning that, in my view, makes schools look uninspired and out of touch …

  1. Interactivity: In a video game, players make things happen; they don’t just consume what the ‘author’ (game designer) has placed before them. In good games, players feel that their actions and decisions—and not just the designers’ actions and decisions—are co-creating the world they are in and the experiences they are having … All deep learning involves learners feeling a strong sense of ownership and agency, as well as the ability to produce and not just passively consume knowledge.
  2. Customization: … [P]layers are able to customize the game play to fit their learning and playing styles, for example through different difficulty levels or the choice of playing different characters with different skills … Customization, in the sense of catering to different learning styles and multiple routes to success, is an important learning principle in many different areas.
  3. Strong Identities: Good games offer players identities that trigger a deep investment on the part of the player. This identity is often connected to a specific virtual character, though sometimes it is attached to a whole “civilization” …
  4. Well-ordered problems: Problems in good games are well ordered. In particular, early problems are designed to lead players to form good guesses about how to proceed when they face harder problems later on in the game. In this sense, earlier parts of a good game are always looking forward to later parts …
  5. Games are pleasantly frustrating: Good games adjust challenges and give feedback in such a way that different sorts of players feel the game is challenging but doable and that their effort is paying off. Players get feedback that indicates whether they are on the right road for success later on and at the end of the game …
  6. Games are build around the cycle of expertise: Good games create and support what has been called in the Learning Sciences the ‘cycle of expertise’ … with repeated cycles of extended practice, tests of mastery of that practice, then a new challenge that leads new practice and new mastery. This is, in fact, part of what constitutes good pacing in a game.
  7. ‘Deep’ and ‘Fair’: … A game is ‘fair’ when it is challenging, but set up in a way that leads to success and does not design in features that virtually ensure failure over which the player has little or not control. A game is ‘deep’ when game play elements (e.g., a fighting system in a turn-taking game) that initially seem simple, and, thus, easy to learn and use, become more and more complex the more one comes to master and understand them.

Gee, James Paul. 2004. Situated Language and Learning: A Critique of Traditional Schooling. London: Routledge. pp. 57, 73.

—. 2006. ‘Are Video Games Good For Learning?’ in Technical Paper. Madison WI: Games and Professional Simulation Group, University of Wisconsin. || Amazon || WorldCat


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