Principles of Game Based Learning

children-593313_1280I am not a gamer. I am baffled at how my kids can spend hours playing games like Minecraft and Circles. Part of me feels like they are wasting their time. I’ve been known to list a variety of ailments they will experience if they keep staring at the screen like that. But they are completely, totally engaged to the point that they often don’t even hear me when I try and ask a question. No, I don’t think they are just being teenagers but are in ‘flow’, that state of being completely absorbed in what they are doing.

What is it about games that grab their attention? Jim Gee (2013), in “Principles on Gaming”, describes 13 Principles of Game-Based Learning grouped into three categories; empowering learners, problem-solving and creating a deeper understanding. As I watched his video, I found myself thinking that many of his principles seemed like good teaching and learning strategies in general. I even recognized a few as principles that I follow in my classroom, despite the fact that I generally don’t use games in my teaching practice.

Problem-solving is often overlooked by students (and teachers) in favour of memorizing facts. There is always a long list of things they need to know and sometimes it seems quicker to simply give students a list of facts and tell them they need to know it. However, as Gee puts it, “you can’t be an effective citizen in the world if you can’t solve problems”. Two of his principles of problem-solving, using well-ordered problems and ensuring problems are pleasantly frustrating fit well with my teaching philosophy and my own approach to learning. When teaching a subject like chemistry or math, I like to begin with a basic type of question, allow time for practice, and then add one more piece to take the question to the next level. I like to see students working their way up to the more complex problems, filling their toolbox with tools along the way. This is much like a game; as Gee describes, each level is designed to teach a player how to solve one type of problem which sets them up for the next level. When problems do not connect to each other, students often have difficulty buying in to the importance of what they are learning.

I also think it is important for problems to be a little challenging for students. Gee describes a game as “good problem solving with a win state”. A sense of accomplishment fills a classroom when students successfully answer a problem (complete a level) that at first seemed overwhelming. Jane McGonigal (2010), in “Gaming can make a better world”, describes how successful we feel when we can start with a problem (or level) that is something we can achieve, but still hard enough that you need to work at it. If problems are too easy many students often tune out, feeling like they already know the content.

Deep understanding is achieved when you can remember and use knowledge throughout your lifetime. System thinking, one of Gee’s principles in the “creating deep understanding” category, fits well with my approach to learning and teaching. My passion has always been science, and system thinking (or model based reasoning), as Gee points out, is “the foundation of scientific thinking”. The world around us contains many complex systems, each with different variables that interact in a variety of ways. As a science teacher, I try to encourage students to explore the interconnectedness of the world around them. For example, in biology I have students make mind maps to connect various human body systems together, explore how they interact and find ways they are similar to one another. In chemistry we bring together many different tools to solve more complex problems. The potential of systems thinking is such that McGonigal posits if we could tap into the collaborative power of gamers we could solve all the world problems.

Even though I tend to avoid them, I can see the strengths of well-designed games. The principles that Gee has outlined are not restricted to a digital world; they are practical principles that can be applied just as effectively to a classroom lesson.


Gee, J.P. (2013, Nov 13). Jim Gee Principles on Gaming. [Video file]. Retrieved March 23, 2015 from

McGonigal, J. (2010). Gaming can make a better world. TED2010. [Video file]. Retrieved March 23, 2015 from

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