Good Video Games and Good Learning Overview

March 2nd, 2010


After reading a Theory of Fun, many of the principles in James Paul Gee’s Good Video Games and Good Learning are likely already apparent: video games are inherently teachers of their rules and mechanics. In which case, Gee’s book, which further analyses how video games are a powerful education tool, is a fantastic continuing point if you’re a newbie to academic games studies (like me!). Gee explores how video games—or rather the situated learning in which video games offer—can be adapted to a classroom environment and provides thorough analysis of all facets of implementation. If you’re remotely interested in education alongside games then I can’t recommend this book enough.


It’s actually been maybe 6 months since I first read Good Video Games and Good Learning, so some of the core ideas have have meshed in with the words of other authors, but in any case, here are the more interesting ideas covered with my own ideas leveled in for good measure.

Games are Inherently All About Learning

Gee argues that games are deeply rooted in education. After all, games are simply a system of rules (like the laws of the universe) that create a simulation (reality) in which mastery (education) is the intention. Without learning the basic rules, continual practice and eventual mastery one cannot complete a game, unless that game is too easy and therefore unengaging. Therefore, at the heart of every game is education.

Situated Texts

Games are texts (think textbook) in which the player (student) is situated within and the rules (formula) are externalised. In science, sociology, maths and other subjects you learn about the invisible rules which govern your world, in video games, these rules are no longer invisible, but made explicit (think of how rules are embedded into the design of the game world visually, aurally and through agency).

Schools are Giving Kids a Manual and Asking them to Learn

For this point, Gee often discusses his experiences with the first-person RPG Deus Ex, in which he initially read the game’s manual and thought it was too hard. It was dense with information, just like a text book. A glossary of specific terms which are interlinked, a complicated keyboard layout, multifaceted functions which changed depending on certain situations, variables obeying a set criterion. Gee says that he did what any kid would have done and just started playing. Hours later Gee returned to the manual and understood most of its content because he’d learnt by experience. In which case he only needed to use it for reference; the same way a text book ought to be used.

Schools, Gee argues, are giving kids the manuals (text book) and asking them to learn for themselves, in an environment that doesn’t effectively cater to their personal needs and issues (see next heading) where the rules are unclear. In video game, the rules are easy to learn because they’re a part of your experience and if the rules aren’t taught properly, the game isn’t very successful.

Games Provide a Variety of Information in Different Forms Right When the Player Needs it

Gee makes many claims about video games being effective educators and fortunately he provides a wonderful evaluation of the RTS game Rise of Nations to evidence his argument (as a player though, you’ll likely start think of examples yourself as you read). In Rise of Nations, like any well designed game, information is delivered to the player in different forms. Information is delivered visually, aurally and/or through on-screen text cues as the player approaches the exercise. Information is also given based on agency, if the game notices the player is playing incorrectly, they will advise the player on how to play correctly. Furthermore, the player can also consult the physical manual, look online for a guide or engage with external fan sites. This is all unlike a classroom where help is limited and teacher support enqueued up with other students. Video games provide the player with information right when they need it. Instant feedback results in faster, more effective education.

Games are clearly doing something right

Contrast for a moment your experience of learning in school and your experiences of learning within a video game. Games are fun and engaging for players, school is often disliked and unengaging for students. Education is central to both. With this notion in mind, Gee argues that video games are clearly doing something right in which most schools are not, therefore it’s worthwhile to investigate how video games are successful educators.

Passion Communities are superseding traditional education

You’d think that what Gee is advocating is to replace the pen with a controller and the textbook with a video game, however this isn’t it. Video games create an environment which works well for education, Gee is interested in recreating this environment within the classroom. As also explored by Henry Jenkins of MIT, popular culture and the internet actually provide an already existing framework for this new form of education, it’s call passion communities and its education is already exceeding the institutions.

Passion communities are groups of people who have a shared interest and together participate in activities which nurture their interest. Think of any fan site community which produce fan-related material such as graphics, music, translations, writing, podcasts and you get the idea. Many of these communities reside on the internet and maintain very high standards of production (see Convergence Culture for many examples). This blog is part of a passion community, and unlike in school:

About adopting a role, learning a doctrine

The question of what we learn in a video game is crucially important and Gee answers this surprisingly well. I mean, how can the rules of God of War stack up to the thoughts of Plato? Gee believes that because we co-author video games, that is, we inherit the avatar while maintaining our own identity, we therefore inherit the respective doctrine that comes from the avatar’s occupation/role.

If I remember correctly, Gee references Supreme Commander, where he discusses the way the game’s mechanics force the player to adopt the principles of a soldier by working as a team and obeying a strict set of playing requisites. This doctrine, Gee says, pertains to all parts of the game, from the way your instruction are given and objectives presented, the realistic graphics and even in the wording of the instruction manual. You are constantly forced to act with the responsibilities of a respectful soldier.

Other titles also teach the doctrine of their avatars. By playing Splinter Cell; you see the world in a series of darkness and light, Resident Evil; in conserving ammo and avoiding danger, Guitar Hero; playing a song accurately and titling the guitar head to be a rock star, Tetris; spatial awareness.

Pleasantly Frustrating

I quickly discussed this concept in DP’s Games Crunch 2009 Part #2. Although, if you’ve played games for any amount of time, you’re probably already familiar with the idea: games that are frustrating because they engage our interest and test our abilities in ways just outside of our reach.

The Education Crisis – India and China

This is quite interesting. As China and India out rote-learn western kids in our current industrial revolution-based education system, we’re presented with a crisis. Innovation in education is the antidote which can keep western countries competitive and this is why a new education system is so important and why video games are worth a look.

Parents and Critical Thinking, the teacher takes role as a mentor

With the internet and all this new software which can provide accurate, precise information instantly, the conventional role of teachers as the possessor of all knowledge just doesn’t work. Teachers can’t beat Wikipedia or Google, education wants to become communal but the system doesn’t allow it. In which case, teachers (and parents too) should act as mentors, facilitating the means for kids to critically engage in their learning.


I think that’s most of it covered, albeit pretty quickly. All the points I’ve made here are explored in great depth and with solid justification in Jim Gee’s book, so I strongly urge you to hunt down a copy of Good Video Games and Good Learning and read it yourself. I have quite strong feelings towards education and this book really hits on some important topics which are worth considering.

Additional Readings

Gee whiz – Brainy Gamer