Exploring, taking action, and failing:

What games teach us about learning.

My mind is officially blown

For class, we had two videos that were offered to help us learn various principles about gaming. The videos explored why games are so engaging and how the principles behind why they work should be understood and applied all around us.

I have to admit, I loved games as a kid. But, it’s been a long time since I was a kid and a long time since I have played games other than simple card games.

My daughter, who is 5 years old, loves games. For her, the harder the better. I’m often amazed at how she can navigate these games, even at such a young age.

And, what I have found interesting is that she is okay with failing over and over again. She keeps at it. And, when she succeeds, she goes back to the same thing that took her 30 tries to beat and she’ll try to do it again. She, in essence, wants to know how she did it, not just that she can. I love that. I thought it was very telling of her personality and the way she tries to solve problems, yet, she doesn’t universally do this outside of games. Why?


In one of these videos for class, a man named James Paul Gee, professor at Arizona State University, talks about games and what we should realize about games that could help us understand how we learn and therefore how we could teach.

He first gave the example of a game in which you were required to have at least 5 other players. But, not 5 players like yourself, 5 players that have different skill sets. Because, in order to be successful at the mission or goal, each team member had to have a specific expertise or skill set but also understand everybody’s else’s in order to integrate that into the big picture of the goal. He pointed out that in the workplace – this would be called a cross-functional team.

I thought this was such a great concept because if you really think about it, we can’t all be good at everything. And, when we realize that, we start to appreciate the different skills that other people bring to the table and how we can work together to solve problems and achieve our goals. So, in games, we understand this and embrace it. We lean on each other to pull through a challenge and to solve problems. Such a great lesson.

Should I read the directions first?

Where this blew my mind is when he described the decision-making process and the learning that takes place in games. He states that because action is required in games, the person has to get ready to take that action. And, most people will want that action to be successful. Therefore, this leads to the person really engaging and thinking about how to proceed, using what they know, and considering how they can solve the problem or proceed.

He compares this to traditional classes or other forms of teaching and sharing knowledge. He states that when you ask someone to think about things in which no action will be required and for which they have no reason to care about the outcome, they will think very poorly.

Even more mind-blowing is this. He talked about when he first started trying to play games, late in life. He states that the manuals didn’t make sense and were overwhelming. He then decided to just play. Later on, he revisited the manuals and suddenly they made sense. He argues that words written in books, manuals, etc are just words. He states (and I’m going to directly quote because I don’t want to take away from his message) “ These words are about a world and if you haven’t lived in that world and you can’t see it in your mind, they are just words”

He states that in schools and especially with kids, we have worlds full of manuals and words without games.

I found this to be an eye-opening way to consider learning – all the way from learning in schools when we are kids to how we learn to do our jobs or learn about anything.

I have heard this same concept before but he worded it in such a way that it made me pause – which I love. It’s just like riding a bike. You could read a book about riding a bike but until you try it and “play” – the words are just words. It’s only after you get to experience that “world” that the words come to life more meaningfully.

Play the Game

This has sparked so many thoughts about where all we could use these principles, as well as how we can apply this to our own lives and our own personal learning. How can we make it a game, one in which we feel safe to explore, safe to fail, safe to learn, free to engage, free from having to be good at everything, and free to lean on one another for help. Because, if we don’t play the game, all of our knowledge might end up as just a stack of words.

Final Thoughts and Resources

There is so much more to explore on this fascinating topic. I have only scratched the surface of a few of the principles. If you are interested in learning more about Gee’s Principles and about why the principles underlying games are so powerful, see the resources below.


James Paul Gee on Video Games and Learning

Ray Dalio shares his unique approach to finding the best ideas where ideas are “believability weighted” and are encouraged from everyone.


You can also follow me on instagram @brandylrhodes

(article originally published on LinkedIn)

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