Creating the First Person Learner: Educational Applications of the First Person Shooter game genre (Me, 2008)

Creating the First Person Learner: Educational Applications of the First Person Shooter game genre.


Many students’ initial experiences of Vocational Education and Training (VET) involve spending large amounts of time methodically developing foundation skills and knowledge in their chosen discipline. They are often taught a specific skill, practise it for a period of time and when they have adequately demonstrated it, they are given the opportunity to develop more advanced skills.

This has echoes in the gameplay of First Person Shooter (FPS) games, which is generally highly structured, giving the player limited options in terms of the paths they can take and the decisions that they can make. It also involves developing skills in a scaffolded way.

This study investigates a potential use of First Person Shooter style games as a learning tools for students in the VET sector. It evaluates the elements of FPS game in terms of appropriate pedagogical strategies that might be applied to them and draws from a wide body of research into the use of games in learning.

Based on this evaluation, I have developed a game design statement for Mandarin Madness, an engaging and pedagogically sound FPS style game which can be used to support the teaching of characters to Mandarin language learners.


Computer games have been used widely in education since the rise of the personal computer in the 1980s with popular titles such as The Oregon Trail and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?. Games can immerse learners in challenging and enjoyable activities in authentic environments, offer positive feedback and enchance the learning experience. (Paras, 2003)

As the medium has evolved and expanded, so too has the range of uses that have been found for games, with a particular emphasis in recent years on Virtual World environments such as Second Life. (Kay, 2007) Interestingly however, the First Person Shooter (FPS) genre, one of the most popular types of games among game players (Nelson, 2008), has been relatively ignored in terms of its educational potential.

FPS games are played in the first-person perspective, which means that rather than controlling a visible avatar in the game world, the player feels more like they are acting in this space. This enhanced sense of immersion in the game experience gives players a stronger emotional connection to their actions in the game (McMahan, 2003) and therefore can offer a richer and more authentic learning experience. (O’Regan, 2003)

This study focusses on the possible uses of FPS games in a VET context because the parallels between the scaffolded nature of knowledge/skill practice in FPS games and in VET suggest that this kind of game could be beneficial to these learners.


The first step taken in this study was to investigate existing research on games and their use in education, with a particular focus on the FPS genre, informed by a set of questions developed after an initial scan of research in the field. This information was used to produce a detailed examination of the FPS game genre including the elements of an FPS game and potential educational applications. The questions used were:

  • What is the anatomy of an FPS game?

  • How do FPS games differ from third person perspective and virtual world games and what advantages do they offer?

  • How can FPS games be educational?

  • What kind of educational approaches lend themselves to this type of games based learning?

  • What are the factors that might determine the most appropriate target audience for an FPS based learning game?

  • What impact might game violence or destruction of virtual objects have on the learning experience?

  • In what circumstances might game violence or destruction of objects be appropriate in a learning activity?

  • Do single player and multiplayer games support different educational approaches?

  • To what extent does the level of realistic representation of the learners’ environment affect their engagement with the game?

  • What makes a game enjoyable and what makes a player want to play a game repeatedly?

Following this, I discussed potential VET usage of games in education with teachers at the Canberra Institute of Technology (CIT), the leading VET provider in the A.C.T. This was primarily to identify a suitable subject content area which an emphasis scaffolded development of knowledge and skills.

After speaking to teachers and education managers in the languages, automotive, horticulture, design and health sciences areas of CIT, I decided to try to design a game for language learners.

Learners of Mandarin at CIT are required to memorise five characters a week for a total of fifty for the semester which is currently done via an extensive drill and practice regime. This simple learning strategy seemed well suited to the Behaviourist oriented directed type of learning that I felt the FPS genre epitomised. I decided to give the game a working title of Mandarin Madness, partly because it’s self evident and also in tribute to the game Marble Madness.

My initial research into the use of FPS game environments also suggested it would be possible to add meaning to the experience by making use of cognitive learning strategies in the design of the learning space and activities. (Fuchs & Eckermann, 2001).

These discussions informed the next step of the process, which was the production of a game design statement. I applied the ADDIE (Analyse, Design, Develop, Implement, Evalutate) educational design process to my development of this statement in the interest of emphasising a “learner-centred approach” (O’Connell, 2008).


Jarvinen (2007) identifies nine elements that all games must have at least seven of to be considered games.

  • Players – those who play

  • Game mechanics – actions players take to attain goals in the game

  • Components – resources for play

  • Environment – the space for play

  • Ruleset – the goals and constraints of play

  • Information – what the player needs to know

  • Theme – the subject matter of the game

  • Interface – a tool for accessing game elements

  • Context – when, where, why, how and by whom the game is played.

These elements can be found in any computer game and provide a structure for my analysis of the FPS games and their educational aspects.

McGrath and Hill (2004) provide a decent definition of FPS games in their paper about developing an emergency response simulator using the Unreal Tournament game engine.

First person shooter games are organized
around “levels”, with the idea that a player
will complete the objectives of one level,
and then move on to another level with a
new environment and challenges. In each
level, players move through the
environment “picking up” weapons, health,
and ammunition. Multiple players can
move through levels, interacting with the
environment, objects, other players, and
non-player characters (NPCs).”

As mentioned already, the key difference between an FPS game and Virtual Worlds lies in the fact that the FPS player experiences the game with a first-person perspective of the actions of their character/avatar. The use of third-person perspective in Virtual World game environments can be seen to enhance the range of actions that the player’s avatar can perform in the game but it can equally be argued that this reduces the player’s sense of immersion in the game by removing them from the actions by a degree and this lessens their emotional connection to the experiences. (McMahan, 2003)

From a technical standpoint, one of the reasons that Virtual Worlds may be more widely used in education is the ease with which user-designed spaces and simulations can be constructed in them, which is a large part of their purpose. (Kay, 2007). The FPS genre is much more restrictive, with a singular focus on shooting games. Repurposing the game development software for other purposes can be challenging. (McGrath & Hill, 2004)

While both types of game are set in 3D worlds in which the player can interact with objects and other characters, Virtual Worlds tend to be designed more for multiplayer use with an attendant focus on social interaction, simulation and roleplay. (Kafai, Fields & Cook, 2007) FPS games take relatively different forms depending on whether the game is designed for single-player or multiplayer gameplay. This has a significant impact on the pedagogical approaches needed when considering FPS games for educational application and is addressed in more depth in the Player segment of the FPS game analysis below.

The Anatomy of a First Person Shooter game.


Jarvinen (2007) describes players as “Those who play, in various formations and with various motivations, by performing game mechanics in order to attain goals.”(p.135)

It’s interesting that he uses the plural rather than the singlular form in this instance as there are significant differences between FPS games designed for one player (single-player) and those designed for groups of players (multiplayer).

A single-player FPS game sets the player against a series of computer controlled opponents while completing a series of increasingly difficult tasks. These tasks guide the player from one location to another in the game and are invariably linked to a narrative. (Guttler and Johansson, 2003). This takes a fairly linear and scaffolded form, with the player practicing a skill (generally using a certain weapon) or devising strategies and reaching a point where this skill or strategy is tested. If they pass this test, they are given a better weapon (or other skill) and the cycle starts over.

Some FPS games (e.g Army of Two, Halo) offer a limited multiplayer form of this, having two players simultaneously collaboratively work through the story against the computer controlled opponents to the same ends. The players still develop their essential gameplaying skills in the same way but playing collaboratively has been shown to be highly effective in immersing players in games. (Campanella Bracken, Lange and Denny, 2005).

Multiplayer FPS games on the other hand generally involve a minimum of four players and can expand to hundreds of players in Massively Multiplayer Online First Person Shooters (MMOFPS). These games aren’t driven by narrative and either take the form of free-for-all deathmatches or team games where both sides attempt to achieve a particular goal such as capturing a flag from the opponents base. (e.g Team Fortress 2)

Steinkuehler (2004) conducted extensive ethnographic studies in multiplayer gaming environments and found that players learn how to play the game and develop their skills and strategies in collaboration with other more experienced players. This form of learning is more in line with Vygotsky’s Social Development theory.

For Mandarin Madness, I felt that players could work either collaboratively or competitively to collect objects with the correct characters on them in a large space when they were told the character (in either English or Mandarin). It would also be worthwhile providing a single-player version enabling the player to practice in their own time.

Game Mechanics

Game mechanics are the actions taken by a player to achieve the goals of the game. These include interacting with objects (e.g crates, opponents, doors) in the game environment (or the environment itself) and changing them in some way. (Jarvinen, 2007)

This ability to act and make creative decisions within the game is at the heart of a game’s interactivity and its appeal. (Gee, 2004) Without actions, a game is just a movie.

Educationally, this has strong links to theories of Embodied Cognition and Situated Cognition, which according to Rambusch, Jakobsson & Pargman (2007) holds that “sensori-motor activity is inextricably intertwined with higher cognitive processes such as learning, reasoning, problem-solving and decision-making” (p.158)

This is supported by research conducted by Kearney (2005) which measured improvements in cognitive activity – in this case multitasking – in two groups of study participants. Only the group that played the teamplay based FPS multiplayer game Counterstrike for two hours “showed a statistically significant improvement in their multitasking abilities”. (p.1)

This suggests that whatever is happening in Mandarin Madness, it is important that the players are able to be active and interact in some way. The main actions available in FPS games are moving (be that walking, running or jumping), shooting or hitting targets, opening doors and picking up game objects and moving them elsewhere. This suggests a shooting gallery level in which the player has to shoot only the nominated character as it appears on screen, scoring points for each hit and losing points for incorrect hits.


Game components include all of the objects in the game environment that a player can interact with including furniture, other characters and in-game videos (i.e. displayed on a wall in the game rather than as a cut-scene).

By using components which accurately reflect the reality of a learning activity or context that we are trying to portray, we can set the stage for the learner/player to carry out what feels like more authentic actions.

Brown, Collins and Duguid (1989) observe that “the activity in which knowledge is developed and deployed, it is now argued, is not separable from nor ancillary to learning and cognition”(p.32). This is a core facet of Situated Learning.

Another way in which Situated Learning principles can be applied in a game environment is via Legitimate Peripheral Participation. (Galarneau, 2005) This would involve the player witnessing an in-game video or 3D animation of an “expert” performing a task. The learner may even be able to repeat this action in the game however this would be dependent on the capabilities of the game engine.

For a learner trying to memorise Mandarin characters in Mandarin Madness, the characters could appear as three dimensional objects which they can navigate freely around and manipulate. Ideally, they would be able to stack parts of the object to create the entire character.

These objects may be accompanied by other objects which illustrate the meaning of the character. (Fuchs & Eckermann, 2001) (E.g the character for chair could be located on a chair, by a chair or in a group surrounding a table as chairs might ordinarily be found.)

Game Environment

The game environment, the (virtual) physical space in which the player experiences the game is another element which can be used to shape and enhance learning.

As with the use of authentic game objects, it would be relatively easy to design an area which reflects the reality of the learning situation and supports the use of authentic learning experiences in line with the principles of Situated Learning,.

The game environment can also be used to enhance the learning materials and experiences within a slightly more symbolic manner. This is a Cogntivist technique explored in some depth by Fuchs and Eckermann (2001) in their Expositur – A Virtual Knowledge Space project and has its roots in ancient Greek mnemotechniques. They developed a virtual space which “housed” exhibits from ten different museums around Vienna and added meaning to them by changing their context. This meant that

the user of the virtual museum has to jump into a water zone in order to hear about the extinction of an ancient fish once populating the Danube River. The user has to operate triggers and barriers to learn about the dangers of machinery provided by the Technical Museum. Or he/she has to walk down a spiral staircase to reach the hall of Sigmund Freud’s subconsciousness

In addition to the manipulation of context, Fuchs and Eckermann (2001) considered “the freedom of the user to go his or her own way in the virtual environment as an important feature that allows for individually shaped relational networks inside a complex field of knowledge”(p.84), which ties in well with Ertmer and Newby’s description of knowledge acquisition under Cognitivism as “a mental activity that entails internal coding and structuring by the learner”. (1993, p.58).

The game environment also includes the ambient sounds of the game, which can serve to enhance the player’s sense of immersion in the game environment, add additional meaning to objects and events and enhance the three dimensionality of the space. (Grimshaw and Shott, 2007)

For Mandarin Madness, the use of the space to enhance and reinforce the meaning of the characters would be an obvious choice. The colours, shapes, sizes, light levels and forms of movement in the space could all be tied to the themes or meaning of the characters.

Rule Set

The rule set defines all that is possible in the game as well as goals and obstacles.

Jarvinen (2007) defines it as “ the procedures with which the game system constrains and moderates play, with goal hierarchy as an especially important subset” (p.135)

Practically, the rule set is determined by the boundaries of the game software and the decisions of the game designer. It can include things like how, when and where a player might save their game progress, whether they can fly in a space, what happens if they step in the lava pool and how many times they can be shot before their character dies.

The rule set is interesting educationally because with the introduction of limitations and decision making comes the possibility of failure.

Gee (2004) sees high educational value in failure, stating that “Expertise is formed in any area by repeated cyles of learners practicing skills until they are nearly automatic, then having those skills fail in ways that cause the learners to have to think again and learn anew”.

One of the strengths of games and simulations as a learning environment is that failure becomes much safer – the learner is able to take risks that they couldn’t normally take in a real world environment and they are able to try again and again until they can see why something doesn’t work and consider alternate strategies.

The research conducted by Oliver and Pelletier (2005) in the course of testing a methodology for analysing how learning occurs in computer games revealed that the ability to apply a trial and error approach to problem solving in the FPS game Deux Ex was greatly enhanced by the player knowing that she was able to save the game on demand. This enabled her to overcome an obstacle and save the game, meaning that if she failed the next obstacle, she wouldn’t have to repeat the previous one as well and thus the cost of failure was significantly lessened. This freed her to experiment more with the approaches that she took because the cost of failure was reduced.

The rule set also determines the goals of the game and thus the learners motivations for completing the activities. The rule set can also be used to control the difficulty of the game.

It makes it possible to have alternate levels of challenge, which can enhance replayability and give the learner more control of their learning experience.

Sophisticated gaming engines make use of “adaptive difficulty”, which is able to monitor the player’s progress through the game and make it easier or more challenging for them if they are progressing with ease or finding themselves stuck.

The rule set is probably the most complex element of the game as the goals and activities are the essence of the educational design and require the most consideration. This is the area where the most suitable pedagogical approach to the learning requirement is applied and will vary depending on game style and content.

One design focus identified for Mandarin Madness stems from concerns about other educational software used by the language department at CIT. The issue is that the player should not just be able to random click in the game to complete it. Strategies for countering this include making the game engaging enough that the learners want to play and ensuring there are clear failure states.

Interestingly, research from Ravaja, Saari, Laarni, Kallinen and Salminen (2005) shows that players in some instances actually derive more pleasure from failing in a game than succeeding. This is at least partly attributable to the game feedback that was received upon failure, which involved their monkey (in the game Monkey Bowling 2) being shot off into space in a comical manner.


Information is classed by Jarvinen (2007) as “What the player needs to know and what the game system stores and presents in game states: Points, clues, time limits etc.”(P.135)

With the exception of direct instructions to the player on how to play the game, this includes score and health information persistently displayed on screen in the Heads Up Display (HUD) as well as visual and aural cues triggered by their actions. These cues might include pleasant or unpleasant sounds, flashes of light and colour and seeing the object physically moved. These can all be grouped under the umbrella term of feedback.

In terms of the learning, the feedback in a game is of equal importance to the actions that the player is able to apply to the objects in the game environment. If the player doesn’t receive any feedback when they act, there is no incentive for them to make that action. Feedback then can be seen as a strong Behaviourist element. (Gagne, Briggs & Wagner, 1992) By providing positive feedback when a player does something well, the designer hopes to encourage the player to repeat the action.

Games offer a variety of options for motivating, positive feedback. Rewards might range from the aforementioned pleasing sounds and visuals to accumulating collectible or better objects/powers as well as unlocking new areas of the game environment or progressing the narrative.

The capacity of the game to offer quantified feedback in the form of points scored or time taken to achieve a goal not only offers teachers concrete options for assessing learner progress but can also appeal to the competitive side of learners if a high score table is provided.

All of these elements would be incorporated into Mandarin Madness with a definite focus on quantifiable elements which would include such things as scores, time taken and number of attempts as useful information for teachers about learner progress.


Theme as it applies to computer games refers primarily to the narrative which underpins the events of the game and offers the player a context for their actions. It “functions as a metaphor for the system and the rule set”. (Jarvinen, 2007, p.135)

According to Ryan (1999):

Stories essentially come in three parts:

  1. The thesis, which is the introduction to the setting, the characters and the hero

  2. The antithesis, which is where the conflict and villains are introduced and is what amounts to the majority of the story

  3. Synthesis, where there is some form of resolution, be it triumphant or tragic.

This structure can equally be applied to individual activies in the game, game levels or to the entire game itself.

Research conducted by Pinchbeck (2008) indicates that “there is evidence that story may have a direct influence upon cognitive operations. Specifically… games with highly visible, detailed stories may assist players in recalling and ordering their own experiences”(P.1)

Story provides players with an emotional connection to their actions within the game,(McMahan, 2003) which enhances their immersion and their learning. (O’Regan, 2003).

Given the more Behaviourist drill and practice orientation of Mandarin Madness, which consists largely of a series of basic gameplay oriented activities, narrative may not necessarily be all that useful in a competitive multiplayer environment. It would however provide a more immersive learning experience in a single player and even collaborative multiplayer game and I would be inclined to use some kind of collection quest in this case.


The interface is a tool which enables the player to access the game elements. (Jarvinen, 2007) In the case of computer games, this includes the mouse, keyboard and microphone.

In the broader video game world, it expands to game controllers (e.g. Xbox 360 and the motion sensitive Wii Remote), stylus and touchscreen (Nintendo DS), steering wheel controllers (for driving games), guitar controllers (Guitar Hero, Rockband), dance mats (Dance Dance Revolution) and in game arcades you might find scaled versions of motorcycles, horses or skateboards. The types of authentic activity that the latter of these devices offer has clear links to Situated Learning and Situated and Embodied Cognition and it is not surprising that they have also be found to enhance player immersion (Jonsson, 2005).

The type of controller being used determines the types of interactions that the player can have with the game. For Mandarin Madness, ideally the player would be able to use the mouse and keyboard to move through the game space, interact with objects and type responses to question – such as the English translations of the Mandarin characters.

The ability to use a microphone to practice pronounciation of the characters would also add significant depth to the learning experience.

An important issue in the use of games in learning arises when we consider the complexity of the interface. The controls of an FPS game generally involve using the mouse as the players eyes, the left mouse button to shoot, right mouse button for an alternate action, the space bar for jumping and the W,A,S & D keys to move in the game space.

If this control layout is considered overly complicated by non-gamers, this can present a major barrier to their engagement with of the learning game.

The Independent Game Developers Association (IGDA) considers this in their 2006 Casual Games White Paper. Casual games are simple games such as Solitaire, Tetris and Bejeweled which are favoured by people who don’t normally play other games.

The IGDA position on controls for casual games is that “where possible, should be limited to the left mouse button” (P.45)

This could work with the shooting gallery section of Mandarin Madness but other parts of the game would require the player to move in the space.

This does raise a serious question about using an FPS style game for education – that of who will be playing the game and whether complex controls presents a significant barrier to learning


Jarvinen’s (2007) final element of games involves “where, when and why the gaming encounter takes place” (P.135). To this I would add “and who is playing?”

I would imagine that Mandarin Madness would be played by learners in the language labs at CIT. They would initially be oriented to the game in a class session where they would learn to play both the single player and multiplayer version of the game together.

In the case of non-gamer learners, this could involve several players gathered around one computer providing support to each other, well in keeping with Bandura’s concept of Social Learning. This states that “most human behavior is learned observationally through modeling: from observing others one forms an idea of how new behaviors are performed, and on later occasions this coded information serves as a guide for action ”(1977, p.22)

An additional application of this principle could involve the game itself being incorporated into class activity, with learners in small groups (or even as a whole class) watching as one learner at a time plays a level of a game. Given the initial support of fellow students and the teacher, I feel confident that learners at all levels of gaming competence would be able to master the controls of Mandarin Madness.



Video games in general and the FPS genre in particularly have been subject to controversy in recent years in relation to perceptions about the impact of interactive violence on players of the games.

Thompson (2005) has variously described games as “murder simulators” and “mental masturbation” and claimed that the dual shock controller of the Sony PlayStation 2 “gives you a pleasurable buzz back into your hands with each kill. This is operant conditioning, behavior modification right out of B.F Skinner’s laboratory” (2006, p.12)

Research conducted by Endestad and Torgersen (2003) indicates that “it is action games and not first person shooter games, that predict violent behaviour” (p.10).

Eastin and Griffiths (2006) examined possible links between game playing and violence by evaluating gamers perceptions of aggressive/hostile intent in others directly after they had spent time playing either an FPS game (Unreal Tournament), a boxing game (Knockout Kings) or a car racing game (Gran Tourismo). They found that hostile expectations were highest in those who had been playing the boxing game and hypothesised that this was because the act of punching was far more possible and authentic than shooting. They also speculated that it could be because gamers enjoyed the FPS game more and “presence increases game enjoyment. As game enjoyment increases, hostility decreases due to greater desensitization toward game violence”. (p.461)

Regardless of the possible causal links between gameplay and violence, it’s entirely reasonable that violent and particularly gory content could discourage many players. This is not to say however that there may not be solutions to this issue.

I have discovered two FPS games which apply drill and practice principles to educational purposes (touch-typing and learning English) and which have aspects that could be considered violent. Typing of the Dead and English of the Dead are spin-off games from a popular arcade shooter, House of the Dead.

Players used light guns in House of the Dead to kill oncoming attacking zombies and other monsters while attempting to stop an evil businessman from taking over the world. Typing of the Dead cleverly replaced the gun interface with a Qwerty keyboard and the player “shoots” the zombies by quickly typing the words that appear about their heads. English of the Dead works on a similar principle but makes use of the touchscreen and stylus interface of the dual-screen Nintendo DS to have the player write the missing letters of the English words that appear above the monsters and below the Japanese equivalent word.

While the games are violent, the developers have made it more abstract (and thus inauthentic) by making the zombie blood green. They also provide the option to turn blood off entirely so that when the zombies are shot, they simply run away.

These options may not allay the discomfort of all gamers but are worth considering.


In the course of this research I strongly believe that I have been able to develop a pedagogically sound and engaging design concept for an educational FPS style game.

The full design statement for Mandarin Madness can be found in Appendix A.

Mandarin Madness offers learners an enjoyable and stimulating environment in which they are able to interact with a range of virtual objects and have an impact on the game world.

It offers Behaviourist oriented skills practice and positive reinforcement and draws on Cognitivist strategies for making information more memorable by giving it richer meaning through symbolic and metaphoric contexts. Learners are able to share their knowledge and skills in the multiplayer environment and can draw emotional connections from the use of the narrative.

The proof of a game is of course in the playing but on paper, Mandarin Madness works.

This entry was posted in activities, activity, casual games, collaboration, controllers, education, elearning, experience, first person learner, first person perspective, first person shooter, game design, immersion, interaction, language, missions, multitasking, research, second life, simulation, structure, training, VET, violence, what is a game, writing and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Creating the First Person Learner: Educational Applications of the First Person Shooter game genre (Me, 2008)

  1. Leonard Low says:

    An interesting perspective on what, as you say, has been a largely unexplored area of edugaming. I’d be interested in a more extended comparison on what you see as the differences (educationally and experientially) between FPS games and third-person perspective “Large Avatar-inhabited Worlds” (or LAWs) such as World of Warcraft. You might consider that for a future research topic… 🙂

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