The Primer isn’t a viable enabling environment

Many people are excited about implementing The Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer in real life. Unfortunately, the The Primer is fundamentally an educational game, so it’s not a viable Enabling environment for the same reasons that Educational games are a doomed approach to creating enabling environments—plus a few more.

Enabling environments’ activities directly serve an intrinsically meaningful purpose, but The Primer’s activities are only intrinsically meaningful to Nell because her life is impoverished.

The Primer’s goal is to help Nell become a creative, “interesting” thinker, but instead The Primer’s explicit learning quests teach Nell to delegate her curiosity and interest.

Powerful enabling environments focus on expert use, but The Primer doesn’t make experts better at anything.

Authored environments are significantly colored by authors’ motivations; the Primer’s authors are motivated by improving society, not puzzles and adventures. The Primer also fails the heuristic described in Powerful enabling environments usually arise as a byproduct of projects pursuing their own intrinsically meaningful purposes.

Enabling environments focus on doing what’s enabled. The capacity for original thought is the most important thing the Primer tries to enable, but Nell doesn’t do any original thinking inside the Primer, and in fact, Nell doesn’t know or share the Primer’s goals.

The Primer is better understood in this way: The Primer is one big “onboarding” experience for the rest of Nell’s life.

For a “by example” comparison, see Minecraft vs. the Primer.

But: one exculpatory point! People have the intuition that the Primer is a viable enabling environment because The Primer reminds people of their own experiences with profound enablement. Indeed, Enabling environments focus on creating opportunities for growth and action, not on skill-building. The Primer is indeed mostly focused on personal growth, rather than specific skills, though it fares less well at creating bridges to action (The Primer is one big “onboarding” experience for the rest of Nell’s life).


Stephenson, N. (2003). The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer (Reprint edition). Spectra.