What Goldilocks Got Right about Learning

Before the age of Minecraft and likely around the time you were playing with Lincoln logs, or perhaps Duck Hunt, you heard a fairy tale about a precocious child named Goldilocks. The story of Goldilocks is really a lesson in psychology. She goes from too hot to too cold to just right. It’s that ‘just right space’ where Goldilocks happily gobbles down the porridge and later takes a little snooze before meeting her unsuspecting hosts.

In the land of psychology we have Lev Vygotsky (1978) who explains how that ‘just right space’ relates to learning. Vygotsky calls it the student’s zone of proximal development (ZPD). Not unlike the story of Goldilocks and her search for the just right solution to her hunger and fatigue, Vygotsky recognizes the limits of student learning. His theory of ZPD acknowledges that there are activities a student can do without guidance or support and other activities, which are beyond the student’s ability regardless of the support or scaffolding of a more knowledgeable other. However there is this sweet spot call the zone of proximal development where the student can do more with the help of a more experienced ‘other’ than they could on their own. This mystical other can be a peer, a teacher, even an outside model (nod to Bandura) whose guidance or action can help an individual move beyond their current knowledge level to a deeper level of understanding.

So what do Goldilocks and the ZPD have to do with gaming? We’re so glad you asked!

Games are innately educational (Wu, Hsiao, Wu, Lin, & Huang, 2012). Even strategy games without real world content require players to constantly hone their skills towards mastery. In our game, Killer Snails: Assassins of the sea, the game itself becomes the more knowledgeable other, effectively boosting what the player can do on their own (Foster, 2008). During game play in this deck-building card game, players are exposed to cards slowly and intentionally. Each card presents information about game mechanics and science content. And each action builds upon the next to grow the players content knowledge about these venomous marine snails while simultaneously growing their strategy for collecting the winning peptides. While there are no right or wrong moves to make, as your strategy develops so too does your knowledge of the scientific process for discovery and your understanding of these venomous creatures and the predators and prey in their diverse environments.

In this way, the game scaffolds learning and acts as the more knowledgeable ‘other’ by providing information at the just right time to ensure continued engagement (Annetta, 2010), which as we know from last post, leads to flow that fosters ongoing game play and learning!

Want to learn how players of Killer Snails: Assassins of the sea become brainiacs during game play? Check out some of our early case studies here.




Annetta, L. A. (2010). The “I's” have it: A framework for serious educational game design. Review of General Psychology14(2), 105.

Foster, A. (2008). Games and motivation to learn science: Personal identity, applicability, relevance and meaningfulness. Journal of Interactive Learning Research19(4), 597.

Vygotsky L.S. (1978) Mind in Society. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA

Wu, W. H., Hsiao, H. C., Wu, P. L., Lin, C. H., & Huang, S. H. (2012). Investigating the learning‐theory foundations of game‐based learning: a meta‐analysis. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning28(3), 265-279.