Gee - Learning by design

James Paul Gee has written an interesting paper called “Learning by design: Games as learning machines” (1). In the article he describes thirteen principles that characterise the learning behind (successful) games. Being a gamer himself he probably has a lot of experience with theses games, and I sense that authenticity in the article. That makes me want to try out some games, I’m not a gamer myself J. It is really a very interesting idea to look at learning principles behind success stories. That could be transponed to other areas as well. Successful companies that share their vision on professionalising their staff. What makes a certain app a hit, and can that be used as a strategy in schools?

So, the question he anwers is: ‘How do good game designers manage to get new players to learn long, complex, and difficult games?’.

An overview of the principles:

Empowered Learners

  • Co-design: good learning requires that learners feel like active agents (producers) not just passive recipients (consumers).
  • Customise: people cannot be agents of their own learning if they cannot make decisions about how they are learning.
  • Identity: deep learning requires an extended commitment.
  • Manipulation: humans feel expanded and empowered when they can manipulate powerful tools.

Problem Solving

  • 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.
  • Pleasantly frustrating: challenges feel hard but doable.
  • Cycles of expertise: expertise is formed in any area by repeated cycles of learners practicing skills
  • Information “on demand” and “just in time”: humans use verbal information best when it is given “just in time” (when they can put it to use) and “on demand” (when they feel they need it).
  • Fish tanks: use simplified systems with a few key variables. Learners are not overwhelmed by a complex system.
  • Sandboxes: safe havens for learners where ‘things can’t go wrong’.
  • Skills as strategies: people learn and practice skills best when they see a set of related skills as a strategy to accomplish goals.


  • System thinking: People learn skills, strategies, and ideas best when they see how they fit into an overall larger system to which they give meaning.
  • Meaning as action image: humans do not usually think through general definitions and logical principles. Rather, they think through experiences.

How can we bring this more into schools?

Every principle can be somewhat transferred to the school. For example: let teachers and students co-design the course. The curriculum is still too much top-down and teacher-centred. Students should feel “agents” of their own learning (‘agency’ as the capacity to act in a world). Beware of the balance between skills of the students and the level of the challenges in a course (when the problems are well-ordered there will be less anxiety with students). This principle of well-ordered problems is exactly what Csikszentmihalyi means with his graphic (2):

At the third level of “Understanding”: the teacher-training program can use a more holistic approach to form teachers instead of breaking apart every task into sub-sub-sets of target goals.

Conclusion: When we think of games, we think of fun. When we think of learning we think of work. We should see schools more as places of fun. Teachers and students should have more fun in the classroom.

(1) Gee, J. P. (2003). What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, New York: Palgrave/Macmillan.

(2) Csikszentmihaly, M., 1999. Flow: the psychology of Optimal Experience, HarpersCollinsPublishers, p.107.