Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Affordance and educational games

Roel Cantada

What is an affordance?

James Jerome Gibson an American psychologist, proposed the theory of affordance. He coined the term affordance in this way, "The verb "to afford" is found in the dictionary, but the noun "affordance" is not. I have made it up. I mean by it something that refers to both the environment and the animal in a way that no existing term does. It implies the complementarity of the animal and the environment (Gibson, 1986, p. 127)." Furthermore, he stated that "The affordances of the environment are what it offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes, either for good or ill” (1986. p. 127). Affordance is identified with the school of psychology that grew from Gibson's work called ecological psychology (Young, 2001). Ecological psychology emphasizes the importance of the environment or ecological niche in cognition, hence it considers cognition as situated. That is, the "what and how" people think depends on the situation they found themselves in.

Michael Young (2001) stated that “affordances can be thought of as possibilities for action. Affordances are detected by a goal-driven agent as they move about in an “information field” that results from the working of their senses in concert with their body movements.”

Another coherent interpretation of Gibson's conception of affordances states that, "Affordances, or clues in the environment that indicate possibilities for action, are perceived in a direct, immediate way with no sensory processing. Examples include: buttons for pushing, knobs for turning, handles for pulling, levers for sliding, etc. (Learning Theories Knowledgebase, 2010)". Speaking of knobs and buttons here is an example.

In the figure above the affordances are push-able, flip-able, and rotate-able. The objects in the environment are buttons, switches and knobs. The action of pushing are for buttons rather than knobs, the constraint on buttons allows it only to be pushed, rotating it will not turn on the light bulb. The light from the bulb is considered feedback which tells us whether our action is successful or not. In the case of the switch and the knob, it tells us which way is on and off. Up or down for the switch, clockwise and counter clockwise for the knob.

Interestingly, this electrical system will supposedly teach us about itself even if we had no prior experience with push buttons, switches and knobs. Handling these objects (since they are constrained to work only one way) will allow us to discover how they work. Even trial and error will be reduced as supposedly, flip switches looks like they should be flipped rather than turned. In a way this is a very simple example of experiential learning.

This example satisfies what Michael Young (2001) identified as the three basic principles that are fundamental to an ecological psychology perspective on learning and thinking. They are the following:

  1. Learners are self-directed by personal goals and intentions (intentionality)
  2. Learning improves with practice
  3. Learning improves with feedback

The goal is to turn on/off the light bulb. Practice involves manipulating a switch, and feedback comes in the form of light or absence of light. Young also said that ecological psychology may appear to resemble behaviourism but this is not so (2001). For instance in the example, the light bulb may be said to condition the individual to move the switch in one direction. Young said that “a fundamental distinction rests in ecological psychology's presumption of intentionality driving behaviour on the part of the learner. While behaviourism in its purest form would have the environment selecting the behaviours of the learner (operant conditioning), an ecological psychology description of behaviour begins with the definition of a “goal space” … that consists of a theoretical set of paths that define a trajectory from the current state of the learner to some future goal state selected by the learner.” I will not go any deeper into ecological psychology but I think it is appropriate to understand the concept of affordance within its theoretical framework, and to settle any confusion with behaviourism. Sometimes when concepts are borrowed by another discipline, the concept is orphaned and loses its meaning because the connection with other concepts in the original discipline is severed. Thus it loses its meaning. Let us now return to affordance.

The example given above shows the presence of manmade objects in the environment. For the design of educational toys the concept of affordance is important not only to the analysis of existing toys but the creation and modification of toys. Gibson recognizes that man can change his environment. He states that man changed his environment “to change what it affords him. He has made more available what benefits him and less pressing what injures him. (1986, pp. 129-130)”. It is exactly our goal in using affordance in the design of educational toys. To make more available what benefits learning and less what obstructs learning.

Relational nature of affordance: Is affordance a property of the environment or is it a relation between the environment and an agent?

Wikipedia, though not a scholarly source, has an insightful definition of affordance that may help clarify its relational nature. It states that, "An affordance is an action that an individual can potentially perform in his or her environment. (Affordance, 2010)"

An issue discussed by psychologists is whether affordances are properties of the environment that are relative to the animal (Chemero, 2003; Scarantino, 2002); or relations between the environment and the animal? Anthony Chemero (2003) brilliantly clarified the relational nature of affordance. Chemero stated that affordances are relations between the abilities of organisms and features of the environment. He presents the structure of affordances in the formula:

Affords-ϕ (feature, ability)

The symbol ϕ - means phi and in Chemero's discussion appears to represent the actions that results in the interaction of an animal with a particular ability with an object in the environment with a particular feature. In my view, this is surprisingly similar to the Wikipedia definition. An example would be:

Affords-sitting (flat surface, butt and bendable legs)

The ability is not detailed enough, but sufficient for explaining the concept. A flat surface affords an animal with a butt and can bend it legs far enough so that the butt touches a surface to sit. The affordance applies to both man and dogs.

How is this issue related to this games in education? I will not delve into the theoretical argument of Chemero but focus on its use in educational game development. If affordances are properties of the environment relative to an animal then we can state that we can design affordances in a toy, because they would be properties of the toy relative to a learner. But if affordances are relations then we can no longer say that we can design affordances in a toy directly. We can only say that we design features of a toy that may afford learning in individuals with particular abilities. At the same time I believe that we can also say that we can teach individuals to develop particular abilities to exploit the features in an educational toy that affords learning.

For me at least, thinking of affordance as relations will allow me to represent it as links in a network, and the features of the environment would be partition of nodes. Affordances could then be thought of as connections and would be useful in the application of the learning theory Connectivism.

Is affordance applicable only to a real life environment and not to a digital environment?

Donald Norman is probably one of the best known design theorists that had adopted the theory of affordance in product design. Norman does not think screen-based products have affordances. He defined affordance as "the perceived and actual properties of the thing, primarily those fundamental properties that determine just how the thing could possibly be used (1988, p.9)”. This is the environment sided definition of affordance rather than the relational definition. And when he spoke of things he was referring to physical products.

He said, “Now consider only the touch sensitive screen that enables the system to support the affordance of touching. In this circumstance, designers sometimes will say that when they put an icon, cursor, or other target on the screen, they have added an "affordance" to the system. This is a misuse of the concept. The affordance exists independently of what is visible on the screen. Those displays are not affordances: they are visual feedback that advertises the affordances: they are the perceived affordances (Norman, 1999).” And even more clearly in the following: “Far too often I hear graphical designers claim that they have added an affordance to the screen design when they have done nothing of the sort. Usually they mean that some graphical depiction suggests to the user that a certain action is possible. This is not affordance, neither real nor perceived. Honest, it isn't. It is a symbolic communication, one that works only if it follows a convention understood by the user (Norman, 1999)”.

Norman emphasizes the role of cultural conventions in digital environments instead of affordances. In relation, he defined cultural constraints as “constraints that rely upon accepted cultural conventions, even if they do not affect the physical or semantic operation of the device.” Symbols and constraints he categorically stated are not affordances. According to him, “they are examples of the use of a shared and visible conceptual model, appropriate feedback, and shared, cultural conventions (Norman, 1999).”

“Affordances reflect the possible relationships among actors and objects: they are properties of the world... Conventions, on the other hand, are arbitrary, artificial and learned (Norman, 1999).” I disagree with Norman and I would argue against it by differentiating perception and cogitation of the agent instead of differentiating the environment between real and virtual.

Is affordance perceived or does it include features in the environment that require information processing such as symbols or conventions?

Remember the definition presented above that "Affordances, or clues in the environment that indicate possibilities for action, are perceived in a direct, immediate way with no sensory processing. (Learning Theories Knowledgebase, 2010)". That part which I highlighted states a view of affordance founded on perception.

My reading of Donald Norman (1988; 1999) is consistent with this definition. I think that his denial of on-screen items as affordances is that there should be no sensory processing of the features of the product, it should be directly perceived. On-screen items need sensory processing; they are symbols that need to be interpreted in terms of culture, which in turn is prior knowledge. Throughout his book, the “The Design of Everyday Things, 1988”, Norman emphasized the need for things being intuitive to use. One of his examples is that a door must not make you think too much about how to open it during an emergency such as a fire. If it is to be pushed then it should have a visible plate, if it is to be pulled then a handle. Needing to process information like written instructions on an emergency exit door may spell the difference between life and death.

This sounds reasonable enough. But the problem with an affordance that should be perceived; that should not make you think hard is its contradiction with learning. The literature on educational games appears to me to present the reverse, that is, games afford thinking hard, i.e. learning. And learning requires sensory processing or processing of symbols and information.

Although I may be guilty of taking this out of context, J.J. Gibson, seems to take this position as he propose “that the psychology of perceptual learning should be about learning to perceive more of the differentiating qualities of stimuli in the environment rather than acquiring associated responses that cause greater differentiation by enrichment of stimuli as a result of past experience. (Greeno, 1994)”

To make things clearer, let me put up the artificial division between perception and cogitation. Let's say perception be direct acquisition of information from the environment, while cogitation would be the sensory processing of information in relation to prior knowledge such as conventions. Here's an example.

Red color

The word Red

The sound Red (Click to play)

The red colour can be perceived by anyone with normal eyesight, even a baby who does not know how to speak. The printed word red is perceived as a pattern of black and white pixels on a screen within a box that is 12 pixels high (i.e. 12 points font). These pixels would be meaningless to a baby who does not know how to read, it would also be meaningless to an adult who do not know how to read English or the Latin alphabet. Therefore the printed word in a monitor requires additional sensory processing, by interpreting the meaning of the patterns of pixels based on prior knowledge of the alphabet and the English language. The alphabet is made up of symbols that are conventions, i.e. agreed upon by a culture.

The sound of speaking red is a pattern of vibration in the air that stimulates a pattern of vibration in organs in the ear that converts it to signals to the brain. Similarly with the example of images above, even a baby can perceive the sound but may not understand its meaning. In fact we teach babies to associate this sound with the colour by pointing to the colour whenever we say “red.” The meaning of the sound is also mediated by culture and would require extra information processing.

If affordances are perceived and never cogitated then should game based learning abandon the concept? I would not be too hasty, as the concept provides valuable insight on new learning theories like distributed learning and situated learning. What is important about this concept is what J.J. Gibson and E.J. Gibson said that “perceptual learning ... consists of responding to variables of physical stimulation not previously responded to. The notable point about this theory is that learning is always supposed to be a matter of improvement -- of getting closer touch with the environment (as cited in Greeno, 1994).” The idea here is that knowledge does not only exist in the world but also in the environment. And that in order to learn one does not need to be separated from the environment; one does not need to withdraw inside the mind to learn. That separation from the environment would lead to loss of knowledge. The unity and inseparability of man and environment is important.

A solution I propose is to remove the artificial separation between perception and cogitation. In terms of neural networks perception would be concerned with the communication between the sense organs and the neurons directly attached to them, while cogitation would be concerned with the communication between neurons and other neurons in the brain. But all these neurons are connected. When the neurons attached to the eye or the ear fires, other neurons one step removed may also fire. And when neurons separate from the sense organs fire, they may fire neurons attached to our muscles to move them towards acquiring new sensations. When we think, “I want to read something”, we direct our body to get a book and our eye muscles to look at the printed text. When we are awake we continue to get information from our environment, our entire body is continually twitching to balance ourselves in relation to gravity. This is a sense we call proprioception. We don't stop hearing things even if we ignore certain sounds and so on. Perception and cogitation would be a seamless process.

It would therefore make no difference to the individual whether the environment is real or digital. They will both fire the neurons attached to the sense organs and the neurons one step away from these organs. The differentiation is not with the environment but with the ability of the perceiver. In the relational definition of affordance as long as an affordable action is allowed by the environment (real or virtual) in relation to the abilities of the agent then there is affordance.

Recently Norman coined a more inclusive term that includes on-screen items deliberately created by the designer. He replaced the term affordance with “social signifier” (2008). He defined a “signifier" as “some sort of indicator, some signal in the physical or social world that can be interpreted meaningfully. Signifiers signify critical information, even if the signifier itself is an accidental by-product of the world (Norman, 2008).” This may prove to be a more relevant idea but since it's still too recent I will leave it to future work to deliberate.

Pedagogical affordances

This section continues the issue of perception or cogitation of affordances. Zheng mentions "instructional affordances (2006, p. 14)". Squire equated "pedagogical potentials" of using games with affordances (2004). Foster and Mishra used the term "pedagogical affordances (2009, p.33)" in the following context, "Research in game-based learning should connect claims to genres, rather than discuss games as if all games afford the same learning and skills development to disciplinary knowledge/subject matter knowledge (Foster & Mishra, 2009, p. 45).

These terms are used without in depth discussion. I think they diverge from the perceptual meaning of affordances. Digital toys affording learning is far more complex than flat surfaces affording sitting. The latter is the example given by Gibson (1986).

The concepts of digital toys and learning may require sensory processing and falls in the realm of cogitation not perception. For example Zheng said the affordances of chat channel (in a MUVE) “provided non-native English speakers (NNES) opportunities to perceive the language use and act immediately or later on (2006). The chat facility of the MUVE may afford online exchange of written messages synchronously but the recognition of a chat box is culturally defined. Usually it can be mistaken for any input text box. Assuming then that this is as close to perception as we can get, e.g. text box affords typing in text for people who has the ability to read and type. And that it is recognized as a chat application in a game. There is still no link to learning here. We need to go closer to the idea of cogitation, wherein the chat box is known to be useful for learning, rather than perceived to be useful for learning. In order to know it is useful for learning, one has to have prior knowledge of its use in learning. Or one can be told by someone else who had that experience like the teacher. There is mediation, and this is the only way that we can claim that in-game chat affords collaborative learning. The chat facility by itself cannot tell us that, in the same way that a door tells us that we can open it by simply looking at it. As has been discussed in the previous section, actions made possible by affordances seems automatic; a product of evolution rather than learning. Design of affordances emphasizes immediate understanding based on perceived properties of the object. Learning objects on the other hand appears to emphasize prolonged and sustained processing and linking of patterns in the human mind. It looks as if affordance theory and learning are incompatible.

Pedagogical affordance may be illustrated through online assessment. One of the most common online tests is the multiple-choice test. For example is the following item:

The independence of the Philippines was declared by Emilio Aguinaldo on:

a. July 4, 1946
b. October 14, 1943
c. June 12, 1898
d. August 22, 1896

This test item affords an examinee to display his/her knowledge of a fact in Philippine history, in a cognitivist's sense. It's an exercise on memory retrieval of a date. The probable answers are constrained by the choices and clues in the stem. But the action of selecting the right answer depends on the ability of the examinee. If he/she read the history of the Philippines or is a Filipino who had experienced the Independence Day celebrations this would be very easy. But then it also depends on whether he/she can read at all, or if he/she can read English. It may also depend on the absence of any brain abnormality that prevents him/her from retrieving information from long term memory (again in a cognitivist's sense). It also depends on whether the keyboard, the network connection, and the software work.

Anyone who can't read English, is not a Filipino, had not read the history of the Philippines, can't remember dates, and has malfunction computer hardware and/or software cannot answer this question by himself/herself. The only affordance in this situation is the press-ability of the keyboard. Everything else is culturally determined and taking Norman's original perspective on the matter will not be affordances. Therefore there is a need to look at affordances in a different perspective. A perspective that will allow the use of the concepts “pedagogical affordances” and virtual environments.

My interpretation of affordance: affordable actions

I prefer to tentatively use the term affordable actions instead of affordances. This follows the characteristic linguistic construct used by Gibson to refer to affordances, namely (verb phrase)-able (Scarantino, 2002, p. 4) e.g. climb-on-able, fall-off-able, and sit-on-able (Gibson, 1986, p. 128). The reason I'm introducing another term is that I do not want to muddle the concept affordances any further especially due to the fact that I am outside the circle of ecological psychologist debating its meaning. Affordable here means--that can be afforded, or something made available or allowed; and not in the limited sense of finances. I know that this may be confusing but I could not think of a better term.

Affordable actions are relations (see Chemero, 2003) between patterns in the environment and patterns in the behaviour of agents.

The following assumptions are held with respect to this definition.

I assume that the patterns in the environment include digital or on-screen environments aside from real life environments.
I assume that the patterns in the behaviour of agents are directly related to their neuronal network patterns, and indirectly related to their conceptual network patterns.
Finally I assume that abilities or patterns in behaviour include those manifested as embodied behaviour of avatars.

The definition could then be applied to the design of educational video games such that we can say affordable learning actions are relations between features of the digital toy and abilities of the learners.

Typing as an example

Donald Norman mentioned this research example of the knowledge of typist: “One of my graduate students found that when professional typists were given caps for typewriter keys, they could not arrange them in the proper configuration. American students dial telephones properly, and all those typists could type rapidly and accurately. Why the apparent discrepancy between the precision of behaviour and the imprecision of knowledge? Because not all of the knowledge required for precise behaviour has to be in the head. It can be distributed--partly in the head, partly in the world and partly in the constraints of the world (Norman, 1988, p.54).”

I would agree with Norman on the idea that knowledge can reside in the world but I think the typist knowledge problem only makes sense in terms of knowledge being patterns. I also think there is a flaw in the research method. What is remembered are proprioceptive rather than visual patterns. The visual information is left in the environment for people who had yet to strengthen the proprioceptive connections in the neuronal network. This is a case of apples and oranges; the researcher is testing for one pattern rather than another.

I feel that a network-based interpretation of learning using the concept of affordable actions can explain the problem of the researcher much better than above. But let’s use a keyboard rather than typewriter keys, and imagine that we can pull out keys from it. By pulling out the keys we can rearrange them.

In the case of the keyboard the physical arrangement of the keys, their order, layout and distances composes a pattern. The keys' mappings with the software are a pattern. These patterns can be considered knowledge in the world.

The human typist knows what a keyboard is. The human who can touch type has the knowledge i.e. patterns of touch and patters of proprioception. The typist can remember the feel of the bumps in F and J, and this tells him/her to place his/her index fingers in the proper locations on the keyboard. Aside from this the touch typists can remember the distances of stretching and bending that the fingers must perform in order to reach particular keys. This is proprioception, “the sense of the relative position of neighbouring parts of the body. (Proprioception in Wikipedia, 2010)"

The pattern of stretching and bending fingers produce pixels on the monitor is remembered by the body. The connection between the fingers on the appropriate keyboard is remembered. But the touch typists cannot remember the sequence of letters if given keys pulled out of the keyboard. Why? Because touch typists by training are not allowed to look at the keyboard, that is done by novices not experts. They had been trained to weaken the connection between the eye (and therefore the neurons that are associated to images) and the keyboard. The eye is used to see the images on the monitor as feedback for the proprioceptive senses instead. Their ability to remember visual patterns on the keyboard are deliberately weakened.

Did the researcher ask the typist to close their eyes and try to imagine what letter appears in an imaginary paper when they bend a particular finger in such a way? Perhaps if he did, the typists would have better success but still not fast enough.

This is very interesting when we consider that the proprioceptive pattern in the brain, and the patterns of pixels associated with each finger bending/stretching is specifically tied to a particular pattern on the keyboard. If you change a QWERTY to a DVORAK keyboard the patterns in the brain fails. Each bending/stretching of the finger produces a wrong image on the monitor as compared with what is remembered. This time the typist needs to look and relearn the new keyboard.

If you change the distances of the keys such that the fingers have to stretch beyond what is remembered then there is bound to be failure of expertise i.e. more errors in typing and a need to look again at the keyboard. In fact transfer of knowledge from typewriter keyboard to computer keyboard is not perfect. I trained in touch typing on a typewriter, and I tend to hit the spacebar twice after a period. This is deemed erroneous by word processors.

Instead of keeping a conceptual model of the keyboard in the brain my contention is that the typists only keeps in the brain the patterns of the finger muscles bending and stretching, tactile sense of two bumps on keys, and the feedback from the monitor in the form of light patterns due to pixel patterns. This illustrates the relation between knowledge (patterns) in the world and knowledge (patterns) in our heads. Therefore the specific type of keyboard affords the action of touch typing by people with specific abilities. This goes hand in hand, without the other there is no affordable action of touch typing.

Let me close with a final quote from Donald Norman, “As we have seen, knowledge in the world, external knowledge can be very valuable. But it, too, has drawbacks. For one it is available only if you are there, in the appropriate situation. When you are somewhere else, or if the world has changed meanwhile, the knowledge is gone. The critical memory aids provided by the external information are absent, and so the task or item may not be remembered. A folk saying captures this situation well: "Out of sight, out of mind." (Norman, 1988, p. 72).


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Foster, A. N., & Mishra, P. (2009). Games, claims, genres, and learning. In R.E. Ferdig (Ed.), Handbook of research on effective electronic gaming in education (pp. 33-50). Hershey: Information Science Reference.

Gibson, J.J. (1986). The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. USA: Taylor & Francis.

Greeno, J.G. (1994). Gibson's affordances. Psychological Review, 101(2), 336-342.

Norman, D.A. (1988). The design of everyday things. New York: Doubleday.

Norman, D.A. (1999). Affordance, conventions, and design [Electronic version]. Interactions, pp. 38-43. Retrieved June 3, 2010, from

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Squire, K.D. (2004). Replaying history: Learning world history through playing Civilization III. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Indiana University. Retrieved January 22, from

Young, M. (2001). An ecological psychology of instructional design: Learning and thinking by perceiving-acting systems. In D.H. Jonassen (Ed.), Handbook of research for educational communications and technology (pp. 169-177). The Association for Educational Communications and Technology. Retrieved May 20, 2009, from

Learning Theories Knowledgebase (2010, February). Affordance Theory (Gibson) at Retrieved February 1st, 2010 from

Zheng, D. (2006). Affordances of 3D virtual environments for English language learning: An ecological psychological analysis. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Connecticut. Retrieved April 27, 2010, from


  1. David Norman read Donald Norman

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