Saturday, November 06, 2021

Gee - 36 learning principles in games


James Gee, a Professor in the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin, was one of the first to add some academic credibility to the use of games in learning debate, in his book What Videogames Have to Teach us about Literacy and Learning (2003). He took 36 principles from game design and applied them to learning. This took the debate on from the pure evangelism of games and gamification to a theoretical plane, where principles can be put to the test.

36 learning principles

He describes his experiences in learning how to play computer games, as someone  new to the world of computer games. As he entered this world, he duly acknowledged that he found games difficult; but his joy in mastering Deux Ex or Half Life is evident, and this voyage of discovery is accompanied by insightful reflections on their worth as learning experiences. 

He starts with "I want to talk about video games--yes, even violent video games - and say some positive things about them." He then goes on to tease out 36 different learning principles which he validates by reference to cognitive research to show that games support an incredible array of useful skills.

1) Active, Critical Learning Principle: Sophisticated active not passive environments

2) Design Principle: Appreciation of design of learning experiences

3) Semiotic Principle: Complexity of media and systems in learning experiences

4) Semiotic Domains Principle: Master social, group learning

5) Meta-level thinking about Semiotic Domain Principle: Active and critical thinking

6) "Psychosocial Moratorium" Principle: Safe risk taking with no real consequences

7) Committed Learning Principle: Extended engagement

8) Identity Principle: Relate and reflect on real and digital identities

9) Self-Knowledge Principle: Learn about self, current and potential capabilities

10) Amplification of Input Principle: For little input, immense output

11) Achievement Principle: Personalised, intrinsic rewards and levels

12) Practice Principle: Lots of practice, on task.

13. Ongoing Learning Principle: Continuous learning in changing environments.

14) "Regime of Competence" Principle: Stays challenging, not too hard, not too easy

15) Probing Principle: Allows learner to probe and explore to learn.

16) Multiple Routes Principle: Multiple routes to success.

17) Situated Meaning Principle: Multiple reading of signs, words, symbols, texts.

18) Text Principle: Reading in context and with embodied purpose.

19) Intertextual Principle: Reading groups of related texts.

20) Multimodal Principle: Many modalities; text, images, sound, animation, to learn.

21) "Material Intelligence" Principle: Thinking and problem solving.

22) Intuitive Knowledge Principle: Tacit knowledge built up in repeated practice.

23) Subset Principle: learning in small chunks and stages.

24) Incremental Principle: Learning builds from simple to complex.

25) Concentrated Sample Principle: Intense learning of small skills - useful later.

26) Bottom-up Basic Skills Principle: Learning in a building context.

27) Explicit Information On-Demand and Just-in-Time Principle: Learner gets or can pull relevant knowledge when needed.

28) Discovery Principle: Minimal telling, maximum discovering and doing.

29) Transfer Principle: Transfer of what is learnt into later tasks and problems.

30) Cultural Models about the World Principle: Expands cultural knowledge.

31) Cultural Models about Learning Principle: Learn about their learning.

32) Cultural Models about Semiotic Domains Principle: Learn about varying content.

33) Distributed Principle: Distribution of meaning across different media.

34) Dispersed Principle: Learn about the sharing of knowledge.

35) Affinity Group Principle: Group learning and group goals.

36) Insider Principle: Learner is also teacher, customiser and producer.

By abstracting out his 36 key principles he allows us to see how games are, in fact, learning experiences. To take just one example, when people play games, he claims, they are learning a sophisticated form of visual literacy. These principles cover learning how to learn and lots of principles around success through failure. 

Social learning

Gee’s analysis shows that there is much more to computer games than many realise and that they involve many forms of learning, especially collaboration. People who do not play computer games often misunderstand this. Computer gamers play games together online with people they have never met and engage in rich communities of practice or what Gee calls 'affinity groups'. In addition to team play there’s a huge social world that surrounds games; cheats, walkthroughs, videos, social media influencers and visited game sites. 


One downside of the analysis is the fact that he is a disciple of the semiotic movement. This is the theoretical grounding for some of his 36 principles. However, if you are not a follower of 'semiotic domains' or 'text-internal relationships' you can cluster this stuff under 'media literacy' and ignore it. Much is made of a new type of visual literacy in the form of symbols, images, video and so on. This is valid to a degree, but falls down somewhat when applying his 36 principles at actual real-life behaviour and recommendations for using games in learning. Although he takes the high ground on games, showing us their virtues, he explores few of their vices. Again, like Prensky in Digital Game-Based Learning he is light on counter-arguments. Games may be wonderful, but are still unsuitable for many types of calm, reflective learning.


Gee’s book was among the first to spark off academic interest in games and gamification but is now largely forgotten as the research and writing has expanded. It remains one of the few truly theoretical texts on the subject.


Gee, J.P., 2007. Good video games+ good learning: Collected essays on video games, learning, and literacy. Peter Lang.

Gee, J.P., 2003. What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy. Computers in Entertainment (CIE), 1(1), pp.20-20.

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