Instructional design: Video Games & ZPD

Identifying the common level of inexperience allows for ways to start students within their zone of proximal development (ZPD) and stretch beyond that. Vygotsky’s (1978) zone of proximal development emphasizes the difference between what students are capable on their own given their previous experience compared to what they can grow to achieve with the assistance from others.

Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development represents the “distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers (1978, p.86).”

Gee makes the point, in previous publications and again in Good Video Games + Good Learning, that Vygotsky’s ZPD is applied on a regular basis through tutorials and other introductory stages in video games. Video games fill the role of peer or teacher when they guide players through the initial stages of a game, helping the player learn the gameplay mechanics and strategy. Games scaffold the player by introducing basic gameplay elements and then building on top of them, adding complexity that requires mastery of the initial skill set. Games often take two distinct approaches applying Vygotsky's ZPD: either setting aside the first level or two that step a player through the skills they will need throughout the game; or by staggering the scaffolding throughout the game, introducing new and advanced skills throughout the game that apply to the coming levels and depend upon the understanding of the previous skills.

Being aware of how and where games apply education theory help in understanding why games are engaging for the players and successful in creating consistent - yet achievable - challenges. The awareness of video games application of education theory reminds us, as educators, to look outside our fields and outside the realm of academics to find successful applications... and inspire us in our own classrooms.

Images of Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops (PSP) and Metroid Prime 3: Corruption (Wii) - 2 games that provide strong examples of applying Vygotsky's ZPD were taken from


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Ah thank you so much for sharing this!

I am studying for a degree at the moment and my major final is on Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development!