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Games and Learning: Teaching as Designing

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There is something of a rage these days for game-based learning in and out of schools. However, what I have always found interesting about video games is how they "teach." The method they use can be implemented with or without games.

How do they teach?

  • First, they focus on well-ordered problems, not facts and information.
  • Second, they give players good tools with which to solve the problems (including other players in multiplayer gaming and facts and information as tools) .
  • Third they have clear goals, but, nonetheless, encourage players to rethink their goals from time to time.
  • Fourth, they lower the cost of failure so that players will explore, take risks, seek alternative solutions, and try new styles of play and learning.
  • Fifth, they put performance before competence and they put experiences and actions before words and texts. This means players learn by doing and that they have images and experiences to give deep meaning to the words and texts they read later in order to resource their play and learning.
  • Sixth, games give copious feedback and they assess all along the way to ensure that the player is always well prepared for what comes next.
  • Seventh, they connect playing and learning to social interaction and mentoring through collaborative and competitive play, as well as through interest-driven fan sites where players can extend and articulate their knowledge and even produce new knowledge and designs.
  • Eighth, they ensure that at each new level, players face new problems that challenge the routine mastery they have developed through lots of practice on the last level (this has been called "the cycle of expertise").
  • Ninth, they use narrative in two ways to create engagement. They often have stories that make clear why the players are doing what they are doing and what it means. And they allow players to create their own stories through the consequential choices they have made in the course of game play.
  • Tenth, they hold everyone to the same high standard (everyone, for example, fights the same "bosses"), but allow players to reach these standards in different ways and in different amounts of time (so it does not really matter where or when one started, only where one finishes).
  • Eleventh, they deal with transfer as "preparation for future learning." You can see how well players have learned by seeing how well they do in similar later and harder games or problems in life.
  • Twelfth, gamers have to think like designers even to play, since they have to figure out how the "rule system" in the game works and how it can be used to accomplish their goals. They can go further and "mod" the game (make new levels or versions) by using the design software by which the game was made.

We do not have a name for such teaching, teaching that is designing, though it is increasingly pervasive out of school. So let's just call it Teaching as Designing (TAD). TAD is on offer out of school, and is and will be the fuel for many a new startup. But it will not come to schools any time soon, unless we change our testing and accountability regime. In the interim, it is becoming the basis of a new out-of-school "school system", often centered on 21st century skills.