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Postcard from GDC 2005: SGS - Playing Games with Jim: Demonstrating the Important Learning Found in COTS Games

In his talk, Gee demonstrated what consumer off-the-shelf (COTS) games have to teach us about design, and about the process of learning in general. The specific game used was Ninja Gaiden, described by the professor as a tough game that will be hard, but always fair. The game teaches you to be good at it, which is not very sophisticated learning, but teaches you basic things very effectively without beating you over the head.

Brandon Sheffield

March 9, 2005

8 Min Read


James Paul Gee, Professor of Learning Sciences at the University of Madison-Wisconsin , started his serious games talk with a question: Even if you learn from games, aren't you just learning how to play that game?

Though a serious games talk, Gee used this particular talk to demonstrate what consumer off-the-shelf (COTS) games have to teach us about design, and about the process of learning in general. The specific game used was Ninja Gaiden, described by the professor as a tough game that will be hard, but always fair. The game teaches you to be good at it, which is not very sophisticated learning, but teaches you basic things very effectively, and without beating you over the head. He outlined this process with nine major points.

  1. The intro quickly sets up a strong sense of identity. You are a ninja, and you are informed in brief what sorts of things a ninja does. It answers the question of who you are within the world, and why you are doing what you are doing.

  2. At the start of Ninja Gaiden, Gee asked the audience what they would do first. The character is positioned in between two rocks, with an obvious path forward. The audience responded almost in unison that they would turn around to see what's behind them. The game, Gee says, gives you a play-space where you can discover the limits of your world. Behind the character, there's an impasse - but almost every other time you check behind you at a time like this, you are rewarded. Further, the two rock-walls on either side of the character allow the player to practice wall jumping and running, should they choose to do so. The ability to use abilities before their methodology is introduced, leads to the third point:

  3. The game encouraged exploration. You are invited to look around, and play with the bounds of your environment. Gee says that the baby boomer generation was taught that the fastest, most efficient person was the smartest. But gamers in general are neither fast nor efficient, when playing a game of this nature. They won't take the most obvious path, choosing instead to discover what everything about the world around them.

  4. Verbal information is given just in time, not before you need it - but also after you've had the opportunity to discover it for yourself. As an example, you're taught how to run up walls, and this information is couched within the identity of being a ninja, informing not only how to play, but how a ninja might interact with an environment. Gee says that this is something most traditional schools do wrong - they give you all of the information up front, before you can actually use it, which hurts retention, and discourages interactive learning.

  5. Half of learning is automaticity. Failure only serves as additional opportunities to practice. Practicing allows the learned skills to become internalized, and automatic. But Gee warns that once a skill is automatized, it must be repurposed, or else the game or experience just becomes a button masher, and the player loses interest.

  6. A good game will give initial problems that are simple, but teach you the best path towards later, more complicated problems. An example of this is seen in the next point:

  7. Once something is learned, it must be taken away temporarily in order for you to learn new things. At one point you learn that the wall jump attack is very powerful. Right after you learn this, you must fight several enemies in an open area with no walls. So the problem is set up that you must learn to fight without this powerful technique as well. As a result you learn to move and block, or else you die in the process.

  8. Failure turns into success. As mentioned earlier, failure leads to more practice, which improves the player's skill and association with the character identity. In another sense too, success can come from perceived failures. For instance, in one level, you fall accidentally through a trap door. But there's actually a necessary item in the area you fall into. So you are never fully punished for not knowing the rules yet.

  9. The players learn that they must turn skills into strategies, which is part of a cycle of expertise. The game inspires you to master certain techniques, making you feel confident in your abilities. Then the player is put into a position where these techniques don't work well enough on their own, or as they did before. These techniques must be combined into strategies to solve a certain problem, such as a boss that blocks all of your attacks, and moves much faster than you can.


James Paul Gee


Gee says that the principles of learning and design are the same here. In Ninja Gaiden, you add your gamer skills to the character's ninja skills. The character is just a tool.

Using another example, Gee discussed Full Spectrum Warrior. The soldiers in the game don't have gaming knowledge, they have U.S. Army knowledge. As an example, the characters cannot run and shoot simultaneously, as this is a military policy. The gamer may not know this initially, but the characters, and the rule-set knows this. That makes the characters that the player plays with become smart tools. They are tools that inform the player about the bounds of that particular world.

This concept, Gee says, can and should be applied to serious games. If a designer builds professional knowledge into games, the tools will teach the player. This is a performance before competence learning model, like learning a language. Nobody tells a child all of the language information it needs, and then expects it to speak fluently. The child learns by trying, failing, succeeding, and ultimately just experiencing the limits and bounds of what it is learning.

Another way in which traditional schooling fails, according go Gee, is a lack of that aforementioned sense of identity. School does not instill in students, an appealing concept of being a student. In a game like Animal Crossing, where players are told they can leave home and live in their own world, an appealing identity is immediately constructed. So too with Ninja Gaiden: in the game world, the player knows he or she is a ninja. In training videos for Blockbuster, do viewers really feel as though they are being informed as a Blockbuster employee? Are they being given incentive to become one?

People can pass physics tests, Gee says, without ever knowing the how something is done, or why it would be necessary to do so. If a student is not informed how to think like a physicist, and is not inspired to do so, how, other than rote memory, can that student be expected to become a physicist?

Ninja Gaiden

Games succeed in teaching because they make us feel smart for figuring things out. What's more, they make failure a conduit for success. Failure inspires success, in a game that is designed well. Certainly they can be dangerous when a player cannot see through to the strategy, and are just button-mashing. Then a game may inform incorrectly, or perhaps not inform at all.

In answer to his initial question, Gee maintains that while yes, when you play games you are just learning to play that particular game, this learning process can be applied all across the spectrum. There's no reason why the basics of biology couldn't be taught this way, Gee says. Certainly Ninja Gaiden does not teach the player how to become a ninja, but it does inform the player about the world of the ninja, and introduces some of what a ninja can do, while also introducing what might be appealing or even dangerous about being a ninja.

In this way, games are already shaping the ideas of the people that play them. This is something that should be applied to the world of serious games, and should be considered by those concerned about the ethical direction of the industry.


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About the Author(s)

Brandon Sheffield


Brandon Sheffield is creative director of Necrosoft Games, former editor of Game Developer magazine and gamasutra.com, and advisor for GDC, DICE, and other conferences. He is a member of the insert credit podcast, and frequently participates in game charity bundles and events.

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