Currently, there is a tendency in the advertising world to create advergames and mistakenly refer to them as educational games. Gee (2003) cites 36 learning principles that make the task of differentiating between the “good” and “bad” educational video game easier. In particular, he develops these learning principles and explains why they are of value (see the Appendix A). Among the 36 principles, two principles are central to the understanding of the learning process: the principle of active, not passive learning, and the principle of metalevel thinking about an issue.
Gee does not offer a specific definition of what active learning is. However, he describes the attributes of active learning and its consequences.
Give people well designed visual and embodied experiences of a domain, through simulations or in reality (or both). Help them use these experiences to build simulations in their heads through which they can think about and imaginatively test out future actions and hypotheses. Let them think about and imaginatively test out future actions and hypotheses. Let them act and experience consequences, but in a protected way when they are learners. Then help them to evaluate their actions and the consequences of their actions (based on the values and identities they have adopted as participants in the domain) in ways that lead them to build better simulations for better future action (Gee, 2003, p. 81).
To delineate the attributes of active learning process further, Gee (2003) adds:
Video games externalize the search for affordances, for a match between character (actor) and world, but this is just the heart and soul of effective human thinking and learning in any situation…When we see such a match, in a virtual world or the real world, between our way of seeing the world, at a particular time and place, and our action goals – and we have the skills to carry these actions out – then we feel great power and satisfaction…Such games would involve facing the sorts of problems and challenges that type of scientist does and living and playing by the rules that type of scientist uses. Winning would mean just what it does to a scientist: feeling a sense of accomplishment through the production of knowledge to solve deep problems (p. 149).
Metalevel thinking requires weighing alternatives when thinking about an issue and allows the player to think about the relationships presented in the game as opposed to real life. The “psychosocial moratorium” principle allows players to take risks and to get to know the nature of the unknown within the game, a place where the real-world consequences are minimized. Learners participate in the game process as extensions of their real-world identities “in relation to their virtual identity” to which they feel a commitment. The game, which is constructed according to the self-knowledge principle, allows the players “to learn not only about the domain, but about themselves.” Players are constantly involved in the cycles of learning and probing, taking into account the fact that there are multiple ways to move ahead. Within a purely educational game (e.g., an informative game) the meaning is built up not just through words, but through various modalities (symbols, interactions, design). Intuitive knowledge that is built up and repeated in practice and expertise is honored.
Overall, Gee (2003) argues that, “the power of the video games…. resides in the ways in which they meld learning and identity” (p. 199). He continues by saying that video games are “powerful devices for shaping identities” (p. 199). Based on the learning principles developed by Gee (2003), it is easy to recognize that learning could occur in a multitude of places, including a game that is trying to achieve something more than just educating players (e.g., a persuasive game). For example, in Darfur Is Dying, a video game with that aims to spreading awareness about the crisis in Darfur, the player’s identity is blended with the identity of the refugee struggling to get water to survive. While performing different tasks within the game, the player is able to experience different strategies of survival in Darfur. And that is how the process of learning begins. After the player is successful in the mission proposed by the game, players learn about ways to avoid being captured and killed. Learning continues, and although Darfur Is Dying is a persuasive game, it has elements of an educational game if it is judged by the learning principles introduced by Gee because it educates people about crisis in Darfur while spreading awareness about it and calling for actions to be taken.
To help to distinguish the good games from the bad, Gee (2006) developed a dozen principles. He argues that “[t]he stronger any game is on more of the features on the list, the better its score for learning” (p. 175). The principle of co-design states, “[g]ood learning requires that learners feel like active agents (producers), not just passive recipients (consumers)…co-design means ownership, buy-in, engaged participation” (p. 175). The better the game is customized to the needs of a particular player, the more learning will occur, because “different styles of learning work better for different people” (p. 175). Customization is crucial when talking about game-player interactions. The good game is about players customizing the game play to fit their learning and playing styles. For instance, The Redistricting Game provides different levels of difficulty for players to educate themselves about gerrymandering. According to Gee (2007), good games allow players to identify themselves with strong identities, “good games offer players identities that trigger a deep investment on the part of a player” (p. 131). Moreover, “[d]eep learning requires an extended commitment, and such a commitment is powerfully recruited when people take on a new identity they value and in which they become heavily invested” (p. 176). According to the principles of manipulation and distributed knowledge, “humans feel expanded and empowered when they can manipulate powerful tolls in intricate ways that extend their area of effectiveness” (p. 177). Challenges in good games are well-ordered and pleasantly frustrating, which “feel hard, but [are] doable” (p. 179). With each new cycle of game expertise, players form particular skills “until they are nearly automatic, then, having those skills fail in ways that cause the learners to have to think again and learn anew” (p. 179). Good games create and support such cycles of expertise (p. 180). Overall, people “learn and practice skills best when they see a set of related skills as a strategy to accomplish goals they want to accomplish” (p. 182).
 Gee, J. P. (2003). What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy? New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.