Monday, March 14, 2005

GDC 2005: Serious Games Summit - Playing Games with Jim

Playing Games with Jim: Demonstrating the Important Learning Found in COTS Games
James Paul Gee

James Paul Gee, author of a great book about games and learning, did something I have yet to really see in a videogame talk. His only visual aid for the entire talk was live gameplay. He showed Ninja Gaiden and Animal Crossing, though he had wanted to play Full Spectrum Warrior as well. Just as in his book, Gee's point was that COTS games (that's Commercial, Off-The-Shelf games... it took me a while to figure that out) already embody solid learning principles.

Ninja Gaiden, according to Gee, is a game of mastery and therefore a game of learning. It starts off by establishing a strong identity for the learner: You are a ninja (plus some backstory). Gee argues that taking on an identity is important for good learning. You should think of yourself as a scientist when you learn science. As you learn skills, you learn to see the world through the eyes of your assumed identity. You see the world in terms of opportunities to use those skills. So Ninja Gaiden gets off to a good start (as does Animal Crossing). Gee pointed out that exploration is always rewarded in Ninja Gaiden; no matter what you do, you'll probably find something, either an ability, an item, or a pathway. Verbal information (ie tutorial tips) show up "just-in-time." Rather than reading a book on playing Ninja Gaiden, you just play, and you get important info just before you need to apply it.

Some people call Ninja Gaiden hard, even punishing, but Gee frames the difficulty this way: failure leads to practice and eventually to success. The level design, however, constantly challenges the player to be flexible. Once a set of skills has been learned, a powerful wall attack, for example, the level takes it away, giving you a battle with no walls, for instance. The boss at the end of the first level forces the player to begin thinking consciously of their skills as elements of strategy, adding a further level of complexity to grasp. Gee cites games as engaging the player in "performance before competence" learning. The player is thrown immediately into play and eventually "gets it." Schools, on the other hand, engage students in "competence before performance" learning, where students are expected to learn material before they are allowed to apply that learning. Naturally, Gee sees the later method as counter-intuitive.

I totally buy into Gee's ideas. Games are super good at teaching players the skills they need to excel at the game, and these techniques ought to make brilliant learning techniques for real education. My main issue with Gee's thesis is that there's no way any of it will make it into schools anytime soon. With standards-based teaching, is there room for game-based (or game-modelled) learning? Perhaps these are techniques that should be used in designing educational games, intended for after-school audiences.


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