The Primer is fundamentally an educational game

The Primer’s goal is to produce creative, subversive youth, but practically speaking, the activities in The Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer have the same goals as an Educational game: building skills, instilling values, and conveying knowledge. The fundamental theory for both forms is that it’s possible to design activities which achieve those goals as an inevitable consequence of participation, without coercion (The Primer doesn’t appear to coerce its students).

Like an educational game, the Primer often obscures its activities’ true goals, appealing instead to aesthetics, fun, or storytelling: Nell doesn’t know or share the Primer’s goals. Oddly, the Primer actually expresses this theory directly to Nell in one of its stories: “‘But we are so busy with our drills and exercises,’ I said. ‘Do we have time to play games with the child, as you promised?’ ‘What is a game but a drill that’s dressed up in colorful clothing?’ Dojo said.” (p. 182)

The Primer removes much of that veneer as Nell grows, but then the activities’ goal becomes skill-building itself, not some intrinsically meaningful purpose (contra Enabling environments’ activities directly serve an intrinsically meaningful purpose).

This is one of the main reasons that The Primer isn’t a viable enabling environment.


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

Last updated 2023-07-13.