Annotation of “Learning By Design: Games as Learning Machines” by James Paul Gee

This was written as part of a Learning Agreement for my first KAM (Knowledge Area Module, a three month, three part research project). It is a sample of what I will include in my annotated bibliography.


Gee, J. P. (2005). Learning by design: games as learning machines. The journal of media
literacy. 52(1&2).

James Paul Gee (2005) introduced a very clear research question in his introduction: “How do good game designers manage to get new players to learn long, complex, and difficult games?” (p. 24) He explored the answer to this question in contrast to the solution used by many schools when trying to get students to learn long, complex, and difficult tasks; schools can force students to perform these tasks, and schools often “dumb down” (p. 24) these tasks. In contrast “the designers of many good games have hit on profoundly good methods of getting people to learn and to enjoy learning” (p. 24). Gee also suggested that “these methods are similar in many respects to cutting-edge principles being discovered in research on human learning” (p. 24). Gee proposed thirteen “good principles of learning built into good computer and video games” (p. 25), and these thirteen principles he organized into three sections: I. Empowered Learners, II. Problem Solving, and III. Understanding. After stating each principle he offered a brief discussion of games in relationship to that principle and a comment on games that exemplify the principle.

With respect to Empowered Learners, Gee articulated four principles of learning. The principle of Co-design captures the idea that learners should “feel like active agents (producers), not just passive recipients (consumers)” (p. 25). The customize principle rests on the concept of differentiated learning, that “different styles of learning work better for different people” (p. 25). The principal of identity, then, suggests that “deep learning requires an extended commitment and such a commitment is powerfully recruited when people take on a new identity they value and in which they become heavily invested” (p. 26). Finally, the manipulation principle draws on the deep inter-connection between perception and action (p. 26).

Under the Problem Solving section fell seven more principles. Good games provide learners with well-ordered problems that “lead them to solutions that work well, not just on [early] problems, but as aspects of the solutions to later, harder problems” (p. 26). These problems should also be pleasantly frustrating such that learners feel them “to be at the outer edge of, but within, their ‘regime of competence’” (p. 26). Part of keeping the learner in such a place is to facilitate cycles of experience that include “practicing skills until they are nearly automatic” (p. 27) before they are once again challenged to grow. In games, information is given “on demand” and “just in time” so that it is received in context at a time when the learner can apply it. Using the metaphor of fish tanks, Gee suggested that “if we create simplified systems, stressing a few key variables and their interactions, learners who would otherwise be overwhelmed by a complex system… get to see some basic relationships at work and take the first steps towards their eventual mastery of the real system” (p. 27). Similarly, the metaphor of sandboxes suggests that “if learners are put into a situation that feels like the real thing, but with the risks and dangers greatly mitigated, they can learn well and still feel a sense of authenticity and accomplishment” (p. 27). Finally, “people learn and practice skills best” when the see skills as strategies to “accomplish goals they want to accomplish” (p. 27).

Gee shared two more principles concerning Understanding. In his discussion of system thinking he focused on the way “any experience is enhanced when we understand how it fits into a larger meaningful whole” (p. 28), and when discussing meaning as action image he related that “words and concepts have their deepest meanings whent hey are clearly tied to action in the world,” or in the case of games and learning situations, a virtual or simulated world.
In his Conclusion, Gee suggested that many of these principles are not only missing from traditional classrooms, but also from so-called educational game, while they are clearly apparent in seemingly non-educational commercial games. As to why this might be, he blamed not only the monetary cost, but the cost “of changing people’s minds about learning – how and where it is done… this may also change some people’s minds about computer and video game, as well” (p. 28).

The principles in this article are considerably more accessible that the 36 principles in his 2003 publication What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. The discussion of each is brief and includes up to date references to exemplars of each principle. While this work does not represent the results of a formal study, this article certainly makes an original contribution to the existing body of knowledge – a framework that others can use to discuss games and learning. However, the lack of a formal study makes it very difficult to judge his research methods and to adequately account for the researcher’s bias. Still, due to the examples he shares, his experiences are in some sense replicable, and the principles he shares are designed to be generalizable to other games and other learning situations.

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