Semiotic Domains

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This page was originally authored by Mike Hoven and Chris Torrie (2007).
This page has been revised by Cari Wilson (2008) and Peter Cameron (2008).


The term “semiotic domain”, as proposed by Paul Gee, a PhD in linguistics, refers to a distinct collective consciousness shared by people with similar interests, attributes or skill sets. The domain is defined by modalities such as images, words, sounds, gestures and symbols; in other words, the design grammar associated with that domain. The modalities convey meaning to people who understand the language, or literacy, of a specific semiotic domain. These people are said to belong to the affinity group for that particular domain. Gee argues that a person who joins an affinity group for a particular domain must learn the literacy and distinctive set of social practices of that domain in order to participate effectively. A person becoming a grad student in the ETEC program must quickly become literate in the semiotic domain of Vista. The literacy needed for that affinity group might be very different from that needed for the rock band the student is also a member of. We are all, therefore, multi-literate. It is the acquisition of these literacies and their significance for learning that interest Gee.

Semiotic domains as described by Gee (2003) refers to a variety of forms that take on meaning such as images and symbols, sounds, gestures and objects.


Images are perhaps one of the first forms of literacy humans engage in. Many two-year olds can “read” the sign for McDonalds and 12 year-old IMers are certainly familiar with all the various emoticons that exist. Images can have different meanings within different semiotic domains. The image of the swastika means one thing to people who associate with White Supremacists and another thing entirely to people of the Hindu faith.


Sounds come in many forms. Some, like the sound of a mother singing a lullaby, are recognizable and understood by people from many cultures and across many semiotic domains. Others, like the song of a male humpback whale can many different things, depending on the semiotic affinity group of the listener. A marine mammal researcher, a musician and a female humpback whale will all have a different understanding of what they hear.


Gestures can convey meaning in a visual and kinesthetic manner. Hockey fans will quickly recognize and understand the referees gesture for hooking and will react accordingly! Gestures that mean one thing to a certain affinity group, may have an entirely different meaning to members of another affinity group.


Objects can comprise an essential part of a semiotic domain. Members of the affinity group “chess players” are required to learn the meaning and role of objects such as a castle, bishop or pawn and how to use them properly and effectively.

Knowing and Learning Through Semiotic Domains


Gee separates knowing into active and passive modes (2003). In passive knowledge, a person may know a fact but not truly understand it or be able to manipulate or apply it. When a person engages with knowledge in an active manner, they learn to experience the world in new ways. Gee gives the example of two kinds of physics students. The first has passive knowledge of Newton’s Laws. He can recite them but is unable to apply them. The second student not only knows the laws but is able to apply them and possibly even manipulate them in order to create new knowledge.This student has learned to be literate in the semiotic domain of “physics”.


The New London Group states the mission of education would be in general, to ensure that students benefit from learning in ways that "allow them to participate fully in public, community, and economic life" (New London Group, 1996, p. 1). The New London group emphasizes the role of literacy pedagogy and in an ever expanding digital world, they discuss literacy pedagogy as multiliteracies. Gee states that we are all literate in many different semiotic domains. A MET student, for instance, might be literate in the domains of “grad student”, “Grade 7 teacher”, “busy parent”, and “kayak guide” to name but a few. A person can become literate in a given domain in various ways: through direct instruction, observation, and experimentation to name a few.

Implications of Learning New Domains

According to Gee learning a new domain needs to be both active and critical. Gee postulates that when we learn a new domain in an active manner, we stand to benefit from three results:

  a)experience of the world in new ways
  b)affiliation within a social group
  c)attainment of resources for future learning or affiliation with other domains

Yet it is not enough to simply participate actively in a domain. In order to be literate within a domain, a learner must adhere to a number of learning principals outlined by Gee, such as the ability to actively produce critical, metalevel thinking about the design grammar and consequently be able to manipulate the design space of the domain itself. (Gee 2003) This, according to Gee can also be found in many video games.

Semiotic Domain of Gaming

In his work, What Video Games have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, Gee discusses the semiotic domain of gaming, both online and platform based. Gee begins by describing games as 'multimodal texts' belonging to distinct 'semiotic domains' that employ a range of strategies in which images and words, sounds, music, movement and bodily sensations are factors, and their recognition and production evidence of the learning of these emerging literacies (Gee, 2003). He argues that effective games have the potential of immersing the individual into an environment that is engaging, challenging and fun, and most importantly, educational. Playing games as a means to know and learn extends the learning environment of the player from passive to active. Players need to learn the symbols, sounds and language of the game in order to play successfully. In addition, players need to learn the culture of the game, as perceived and perpetuated by the affinity group. In becoming literate in the semiotic domain of a given game a player learns to solve problems in both predictable, and later, novel ways. Gee argues that the mastery a gamer gains in a given semiotic domain can prepare them for future learning and problem solving in the domain or even quite possibly related domains (Gee, 2003).


Gee, James P. (2003). What Video Games have to Teach us about Learning and Literacy. In C.M. Reigeluth (Ed.), Instructional-design theories and models: Volume II (pp 13 - 49). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Merriam-Webster Online (2007). Retrieved February 24, 2007, from

New London Group. (1996). A pedagogy of multiliteracies: Designing social futures. Harvard Educational Review, 66(1), 60-92.

Walther, Bo K (2003). Playing and Gaming: Reflections and Classifications. In Game Studies, the international journal of computer game research: Volume 3 Issue 1. Retreived Mar 1st, 2007 from

See Also

Game Studies

Semiotics of SimCity

Marc Prensky - Games for Learning

YouTube: Second Life

Second Life

Science Games

Lizard Point

Sheppard Software

Serious Games

Henry Jenkins on Serious Games

International Literacy Conference, Capetown, 2001

Darfur is Dying

Games and Learning