Stephanie L. Pruss, Reno Fiedler

"The GIS Game": A New Approach to Teaching Geographic Information Science


Teaching Geographic Information Science often focuses on mastering powerful software packages. Undeniably, this approach has proven successful in solving many practical problems. We believe, however, teaching the underlying basic principles of spatial science will lead to an even wider acceptance of Geographic Information Systems (GIS). In "The GIS Game" we try to initiate a group learning experience away from the computer. The objective of the game is to creatively assemble play pieces into themes, analyses, and simulations. One or more players can play the game. It can be useful for self-study, teaching, examinations, or simply nerdy entertainment.



Traditional geographic information science depends upon advanced knowledge of computers and in-depth knowledge of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) software packages. It follows that before GIS can be effectively taught or learned, computer basics must be mastered and that there must be an understanding of the software packages that facilitate GIS. For some students, these may be daunting, if not insurmountable, tasks. One proposed solution to this problem is a group learning experience away from the computer and its associated software, in the form of a game, namely "The GIS Game". In order to play the GIS game, students must possess a basic working knowledge of elementary GIS spatial concepts. In conjunction with GIS technical education, the GIS game aims to enhance the teaching of the basic principals of spatial science through interactive participation by students as they creatively assemble play pieces into themes, analyses and simulations. It is through this interaction of players, that complex GIS concepts are learned, discussed and utilized.

To this day, there are no commonly agreed upon methods for the effective teaching of GIS and its concepts. Additionally, little discussion on how to link content-based GIS education with technical training has taken place. It has been argued that GIS teaching methodology should depend upon two aspects: teaching about GIS and teaching with GIS. Teaching about GIS should concentrate on GIS technology with the instructional focus being on training while teaching with GIS should concentrate on GIS applications with instructional focus on content education (Chen, 1997). An integrated problem-solving approach to teaching GIS paralleled with conceptual knowledge education would provide students with the tools needed for effective GIS use. For this reason, researchers have suggested a project-oriented approach to GIS education (Chen, 1997). Within this approach, students are assigned a class project that has five basic components: project planning and design, database development and management, GIS data analyses, output generation and project documentation. Students learn to work as a team while experiencing all a real world GIS problem contains. Through this GIS project, students develop critical thinking and problem solving skills.

The approach taken by the GIS game differs from the project oriented approach in several ways. The GIS game operates on a reward based system, thus removing the stress associated with a grading system. The GIS game operates largely as a peer based teaching and learning tool where novice to expert GIS users may interact and exchange ideas. The game may be played between individuals or among groups, thus enabling players to learn to work together as a team. The game is played within a relaxed environment that proves conducive to learning and the exchange of ideas.


Educational Theory

The GIS game draws from various educational theories from component display theory to situated learning. The game involves the use of algorithmic memory within the component display theory framework (Merrill, 1983). Algorithmic memory utilizes schema or rules. Additionally, the game allows for the transferring of GIS knowledge and skills beyond the initial classroom learning situation. The information is presented from a variety of perspectives that present diverse examples, following Spiro’s (1988) cognitive flexibility theory of learning. Each time the game is played there exists the possibility for additional avenues to be explored. The players construct new ideas and concepts based on the level of their knowledge, a portion of constructivist theory (Bruner, 1960). The GIS information is selected and transformed into usable themes based on the underlying GIS spatial rules, ensured accurate by player interaction.

Incorporating connectionism theory, the GIS game follows a stimulus-response framework with three laws: 1) law of effect where responses to a situation followed by a reward will be strengthened, 2) the law of readiness where a series of responses can be chained together to satisfy some goal and 3) the law of exercise where connections become strengthened with practice and weakened when practice is discontinued (Thorndike, 1932). Following the law of effect, at the conclusion of the game points are awarded based on the characteristics of the themes designed by each player (or group of players). Successful development of complex themes will lead to higher point totals, greater rewards. Following the law of readiness, game pieces can be stung together to form themes. The inability to collect the necessary theme attributes may lead to disappointment and incomplete or inaccurate themes. Following the law of exercise, the GIS game should be played often in order to ensure continual growth and to enhance understanding of advanced spatial concepts.

In situated learning (Lave, 1988), learning is a function of the activity, context and culture within which it occurs. Social contact is thus a critical component of situated learning. As the game players progress through the learning curve from beginner to expert, learners become more active and engaged within the game.


The GIS Game

The GIS game, a board game (Figure 1), was developed to support the teaching of Geographic Information Science. Although one of the game’s objectives is to entertain, it is mainly focused on the teaching aspect. Players will visualize concepts, be challenged in their knowledge, and will learn from each other.

Photo of The GIS Game

Figure 1. The GIS Game consists of a board, play pieces, three types of action cards, play figures and dice.

Real world phenomena are described in spatial sciences through abstract digital representations. Often, these representations break the described phenomenon into layers that contain information about one class of elements only. These layers are also called themes. This game subscribes to the layer approach.

Themes have certain properties and supportive constructs that aid the visualization or combination with other data within the context of GIS software. These elements include, but are not limited to, data sets, data set types, legends, projections, key fields, relationships and many more. All these elements are represented through octagonal play pieces. The objective of the game is to combine these pieces creatively into valid themes. These themes can then be combined into analyses and simulation to fulfill the initial objective of describing a real world phenomenon.

One to six players or groups of players can play the game. Single players can use the play pieces to visualize concepts and problems. Each player receives a number of the octagonal play pieces, a notepad, a pencil, a board, and a play figure. Players will role dice and move the respective play figures along the path according to the number on the dice. If a play figure comes to rest on a field that has a number of yellow dots on it, the player (or group of players) will receive as many play pieces as there are dots. In this way, with luck the players will obtain the necessary pieces to build valid themes.

The game also contains three types of special cards, knowledge, activity, and luck cards. The knowledge cards have two questions, the player chooses one to answer. For a correct answer, the player receives the indicated amount of play pieces. The activity cards are divided into three categories, activity (pantomime), drawing, and verbal explanation. In all cases the player has to communicate a term or concept from GIS utilizing expressions (but no words, writing, etc.), drawing skills (without letters or numbers), or oral skills (must avoid the terms on the card) respectively. If the player can communicate the term or concept, he/she will receive three play pieces. The luck cards are self-explanatory.

During the creation of themes, the collected play pieces can be held on the board and kept secret from the other players/teams. If a player has the elements required to start a theme, he/she may lay them out so they are visible to everyone. As a minimum a valid theme consists of either a Dataset, a Dataset Type, a Legend, and a Projection or it consists of a Table with X,Y-Fields, a Legend, and a Projection. The player has to explain what the theme represents and note this down on the notepad as metadata. More play pieces can be added to the theme in later rounds, as long as the explanation from the beginning is still valid. For example, a player may have a theme made up of a Table, X,Y-Fields, Legend and Projection that was interpreted to represent wells. A Key Field element and a Relationship element can be added to connect this theme with some other Table element that also has a Key Field element. The interpretation could then be that of a well data set combined with a water level table. If individual players team up they can append to their own and their partners' themes.

Tools can be employed to create derivatives from the themes. Again, metadata should be kept on the pad to avoid later confusion. If a player or team has more than one theme, they can use an Analyzer to combine the themes into an analysis. If a player or a team has more themes (three minimum) they can combine these themes into a simulation using a Simulator. A theme may be used in analyses and simulations simultaneously. Each of the combinations has to be explained within the context of a possible real-world problem to the fellow players. They in turn can ask for more detail and point out problems, for example inconsistencies with previous explanations.

The Joker can be used in place of any missing play piece. If another player of any team has that missing piece, he/she can replace the Joker. A Joker card can only be replaced by a player who already has a theme laid out. However, if another player has an Error piece, he/she can replace the Joker also, making participants aware of the problem of error when dealing with spatial data.

If one player reaches the finish the game is over and the pieces that have been laid out are counted according to their value for each player. One player may keep track of the scores over time.



The GIS game is a non-imposing and consensus building tool that can be utilized for educational purposes. The GIS game allows for the integration of a variety of educational theories and various modes of learning. It facilitates the movement of teaching GIS from a one way street to a multi-directional level where students learn not only from the instructor but also from each other. By tying the imaginative capabilities of the students to the technology involved in GIS, the GIS game allows for the expanded use and exploration of GIS concepts.

The GIS Game:



Bruner, J. (1960). The Process of Education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Chen, X.M. (1997). Integrating GIS Education with Training: A Project-Oriented Approach. Journal of Geography 97:261-268.

Lave, J. (1988). Cognition in Practice: Mind, mathematics \, and culture in everyday life. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Merrill, M.D. (1983). Component Display Theory. In C. Reigeluth (ed.), Instructional Design Theories and Models. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum Associates.

Spiro, R.J., Coulson, R.L., Feltovich, P.J., & Anderson, D. (1988). Cognitive flexibility theory: Advanced knowledge acquisition in ill-structured domains. In V. Patel (ed.), Proceedings of the 10th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum. [Reprinted in Ruddell, R.B. & Ruddell, M.R. (1994). Theoretical Models and Processes of Reading (4th Ed.). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.]

Thorndike, E. (1932). The Fundamentals of Learning. New York: Teachers College Press.

Author Information

Stephanie L. Pruss, M.S. Watershed Management
GIS Specialist
Scientific Technologies Corporation

Reno Fiedler, M.S. Geological Engineering and Geophysics
Director of GIS Services
Scientific Technologies Corporation

4400 E. Broadway Blvd. Suite 705
Tucson, AZ, 85711
Tel: (+1 520) 202 3333
Fax: (+1 520) 202 3340

For information regarding copyrights to "The GIS Game", please contact Reno Fiedler.