MET:Epistemic Games

From UBC Wiki

Created by Aran Levasseur (2011).

Epistemic games are computer games that are essentially about learning to think in innovative ways. These games are designed to be pedagogical tools for the digital age where the player learns to think like professionals by playing a simulated game of such professions as engineering, journalism or urban planning.


David Williamson Shaffer, in the landmark book, How Computer Games Help Children Learn, demonstrates how particular kinds of video and computer games can cultivate innovative thinking. Shaffer outlines how modern schools developed in a particular time and place to meet the specific economic and social needs of industrialism. Yet times have changed and he contends that education needs to change with them. The traditional educational paradigm prepared students for a world of standardization, whereas today’s world puts a premium on independent thinking and creativity. As a result of the social and economic sea change schools need to foster innovative thinking. Shaffer believes one of the best ways to do this is through what he calls epistemic games: video or computer games that are essentially about learning to think in innovative ways in a postindustrial, global economy and society (Pink, 2006; Shaffer, 2006).

Epistemologies of the Digital Age

Epistemology is the study of knowledge. Every age has their epistemology, i.e. what is means to know something, and computers – which are increasingly becoming ubiquitous in work and school - provide the means to think in new ways, which will fundamentally reconfigure our thinking and theories of knowledge. Computers in general, and epistemic games in particular, are structuring new epistemologies for our digital age (Gee, 2004; McLuhan, 1994; Shaffer, 2006).

“The epistemology of School”, in Shaffer’s words, “is the epistemology of the Industrial Revolution – of creating wealth through mass production of standardized goods. School is a game about thinking like a factory worker. It is a game with an epistemology or right and wrong answers in which Students are supposed to follow instructions, whether they make sense in the moment or not” (Shaffer, 2006, p.37).

While this kind of epistemology may have been appropriate and even innovative for the Industrial Revolution, it is outdated for our informational economy and digital age. Being literate in the digital age uses reading and writing as a foundation to build upon, but they are no longer solely sufficient. Students must learn to produce various kinds of media and learn how to solve problems using simulations (Jenkins, 2009).

Epistemic Frames

Epistemic games are organized around epistemic frames. Any profession is structured around a culture that is composed skills, values, knowledge, identities and an epistemology that anchor how creative professionals operate. Shaffer calls this configuration an epistemic frame: an integral theory of learning that sees how the collection of a profession’s knowledge and skills synergistically work together to create a learning community (Shaffer, 2006).

Professionals learn to acquire their epistemic frames, i.e. their knowledge and skills, in ways that are very different from traditional classrooms because the creative thinking today’s jobs demand require more than knowing a standardized answer. In addition, their thinking, problem solving and communication need to be integrated into the real world of work (Wagner, 2008).

Epistemic Games

Fundamentally epistemic games are interactive simulations that help players learn innovative ways of thinking, making them a powerful epistemology for the digital age. As schools aim to prepare students for life outside of school, they need to realize that the world now values knowledge and skills that can be applied in creative ways. Epistemic games fit the learning requirements of today’s world because they allow students to role-play professions while learning knowledge and skills that that they apply in the game (Shaffer, 2006; Trilling & Fadel, 2009).



One epistemic game Shaffer writes about is SodaConstructor, which uses the epistemic frames of engineering and physics. SodaConstructor lets players construct a virtual creature of their own design and then simulate how that creature would operate once gravity, friction and muscles enter the equation. In order to get their creatures to successfully walk in this virtual world they need to understand a couple fundamental physics and engineering concepts: center of mass and cross bracing. Once key concepts are understood players then begin to frame their project in a way real engineers creatively think: creating designs, building them, and then testing alternatives as well (Shaffer, 2006).

SodaConstructor creation

Land Science


External Links


Epistemic Games


Epistemology. In Wikipedia. Retrieved February 20, 2011, from

Gee, J. P. (2004). What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Jenkins, H. (2009). Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century. Cambridge, MA: MIT.

McLuhan, M. (1994). Understanding the Media: Extensions of Man. Cambridge, MA: MIT.

Pink, D. (2006). A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future. New York: Riverhead.

Shaffer, D. W. (2006). How Computer Games Help Children Learn. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Trilling, B., Fadel, C. (2009). 21st Century Skills: Learning For Life In Our Times. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Wagner, T. (2008). The Global Achievement Gap: Why Even Our Best Schools Don't Teach The New Survival Skills Our Children Need - And What We Can Do About It. New York: Basic.