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Are video games good for learning?

James Paul Gee
James Paul Gee, Tashia Morgridge Professor of Reading, University of Wisconsin-Madison, United States

This article is adapted from James Paul Gee's keynote address to the Curriculum Corporation 13th National Conference, Adelaide, August 2006


The hypothesis that video games are good for learning (Shaffer, Squire, Halverson & Gee, in press; Gee, 2003, 2005) rests on two main claims. The first is that good commercial games are built on sound learning principles. The second is that video game technologies hold great promise for moving beyond entertainment to serious learning purposes in and outside of school.

Different types of video games are likely to be better suited to meeting different learning goals than others. Features of video games with high learning potential fall into two categories: ‘non-game’ features, which may also appear in non-game contexts, and ‘game’ features, which relate more to the ‘gameness’ of games. Despite this distinction, it should not be assumed that the ‘non-game’ features will work as well for learning if they are detached from the ‘game’.

‘Non-game’ features of games with high learning potential

1. Empathy for complex systems

In scientific simulations of complex phenomena such as weather systems, atoms or cells, scientists often talk and think as if they were ‘inside’ the system to gain a deeper feel for how variables are interacting. Similarly, in a game like Thief, a player ‘becomes’ the virtual character within a complex virtual world. It may be that video games could create this kind of empathy for complex systems in domains beyond entertainment, such as science, urban planning, space exploration or global peace.

2. Simulations of experience and preparations for action

Humans think and understand best when they can imagine or simulate an experience. Simulation prepares them for the actions they need to take to accomplish their goals in real-life situations (Barsalou, 1999b; Clark, 1997; Glenberg & Robertson, 1999). In video games, players see the virtual world in terms of how it affords the sorts of actions they need to take to accomplish the goal of winning. If games existed which enabled players to prepare for action from different perspectives, such as a scientist, political activist or global citizen, they might address one of the deeper problems of education: that many students who can pass paper-and-pencil tests cannot apply their knowledge to solving real problems (Gardner, 1991).

3. Distributed intelligence via the creation of smart tools

Good video games distribute intelligence (Brown, Collins & Dugid, 1989) between a real-world person and artificially intelligent virtual characters. For example in Full Spectrum Warrior the player gives orders to squads of soldiers who understand part of the task, and the player must come to know another part. Distributing knowledge in this way allows the player to act with some degree of effectiveness before being really competent. The player gains competence through trial, error and feedback rather than having to wade through a lot of text before being able to engage in activity.

Distributing knowledge to the squad also enables the player to learn not only the specific skills of a soldier, but also the broader values which underpin the development and application of knowledge in a military context. Could other occupational roles, for example scientists, doctors or urban planners (Shaffer 2004), be modelled and distributed in this fashion as a deep form of value-laden learning? The deep learning generated by simulated professional practices could subsequently be transferred to school-based skills and conceptual understandings.

4. Cross-functional teamwork

Good video games may be able to teach collaboration and cross-functional teamwork for institutions like schools and workplaces. In multiplayer games like World of WarCraft groups are composed of different character types, such as hunter, warrior or priest, who each play the game in a different way. Players interact with each other not in terms of their real-world characteristics but through their functional gaming identities. They may also choose to use their real-world race, class, culture and gender as strategic resources but they are not forced into pre-set racial, gender, cultural or class categories.

5. Situated meaning

Words can have specific meanings in particular situations (Gee, 2004). Dialogue and experience are essential for people to be able to relate words to actual actions, functions and problem solving. Since video games are simulations of experience, they can situate language in specific contexts. Furthermore, good video games give verbal information ‘just in time’ – near the time it can actually be used – or ‘on demand’, when the player feels a need for it (Gee, 2003). Given the importance of oral and written language development to school success, it is crucial to explore how the complex language learning children readily experience through games can be utilised for the development of specifically school-based language.

6. Open-endedness: melding the personal and the social

In good open-ended games, such as The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, Arcanum or The Sims, players construct their own goals, which are based on their own desires, styles and backgrounds. For example, in Grand Theft Auto III, the player can choose to be good or evil. This marriage of personal goals and ‘in game’ goals produces a state of high motivation.

When people are learning or doing science, they must discover the goals established by the scientific enterprise; these are equivalent to ‘in game’ goals. However, effective learners will marry these goals to their own personal goals to integrate their scientific identity and their everyday world. Just as good video games readily allow such a marriage, so should good science instruction.

Features of a ‘good game’

The six features of good video games discussed so far may facilitate good learning but they are not particular to video games. They are also somewhat removed from the pleasure we derive from playing these games. The next section explores the features that make a video game a ‘good game’, and how these features might also relate to effective learning.

1. Motivation

Video games are profoundly motivating for players, and it is important to understand the sources of this motivation if it is to provide a foundation for learning. One hypothesis is that problem solving and learning, along with display of mastery, are themselves a key source of motivation in good video games. If this is true, then why is learning and mastery so motivating in this context and not always as motivating within school?

A second hypothesis is that good video games are motivating because they make use of deep learning principles, including the six features discussed above. If so, can the same level of motivation occur when a video game is based on more academic content? Some argue that science, for example, can never be made as enticing as fighting fictional wars in America’s Army, yet motivation and enjoyment are evident in the work of many good scientists.

2. The role of failure

In good games, the price of failure is lowered. When players fail, they can, for example, start again at their last saved game. Furthermore, failure is often seen as a way to learn the underlying pattern and eventually to win. These features of failure in games allow players to take risks that might be too costly in places such as classrooms, where stakes are higher or where no learning stems from failure.

3. Competition and collaboration

Many gamers, including young ones, enjoy competition with other players in games but may not see competition as pleasurable and motivating in school. Competition in video games is seen by gamers as social, as much about gaming as winning and losing. Furthermore, collaboration and competition seem often to be closely related and integrated in gaming whereas that is not usually the case in school.

4. The design of games

Beyond issues of motivation, failure, competition and collaboration, some features of the very design of video games appear to be closely associated with well-known principles of learning:

Interactivity. 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. In a good video game, players make things happen; they don’t just consume what the game designer has placed before them.

Customisation. Customisation, in the sense of catering for a variety of learning styles and providing multiple routes to success, is an important learning principle in many contexts. In some games, players are able to customise the game play to fit their learning and playing styles, for example through adopting different difficulty levels or choosing to play different characters with different skills.

Strong identities. Many people have argued that a sense of identity (for example ‘being–doing a scientist’ in order to learn science) is crucial for deep learning (see, for example, Gee, 2004; diSessa, 2000; Shaffer, 2004). Good games offer players identities that trigger a deep investment on the part of the player and which are clearly associated with the functions, skills and goals one has to carry out in the virtual world.

Well-sequenced problems. In connectionist approaches to learning, it is argued that sequencing is crucial for effective learning in complex domains (see, for example, Elman 1991a, 1991b). In good games, the presentation of problems is carefully sequenced, with earlier parts always looking forward to later parts.

A pleasant level of frustration. DiSessa (2000) has argued that pleasant frustration is an optimal state for learning in areas such as science. Good games adjust challenges in such a way that a range of players can experience the game as challenging but do-able.

A cycle of expertise. Good games create and support what has been called in the learning sciences the ‘cycle of expertise’ (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1993), with repeated cycles of extended practice and tests of mastery.

‘Deep’ and ‘fair’. In the gaming community, a game is ‘fair’ when it is challenging but set up in a way that leads to success. A game is ‘deep’ when game play elements that initially seem simple, and easy to learn, become more complex the more the player comes to master them. These two characteristics might also be put to good use in the learning sciences.


Six features of video games, but not particular to games, have been discussed as having high potential for learning. The basic ‘game’ features of good video games have also been shown to be important features of effective learning. It therefore seems worthwhile to explore how these features may be combined to deliver new and highly effective learning systems.

However, video games will not do all these good things by themselves. Success depends on how they are used and what sorts of wider learning systems (activities and relationships) they are embedded within. Further research in the field of games and learning must investigate the sorts of wider learning systems will best leverage video games’ powers for learning, and what the most effective roles for teachers in these learning systems might be.

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Subject Headings

Information and Communications Technology (ICT)
Computer-based training