Tablet-top Role Playing Games in Education?

I received an interesting email yesterday. Here is an abbreviated version:

Mark,The world of serious games – as in serious _video_ games – is fairly new to me. I know that there are a lot of people writing and talking about the use of video games in education. Since I come from a tabletop role-playing (i. e. Dungeons & Dragons and its myriad descendants) background, I was wondering whether you have any thoughts about using tabletop role-playing in an educational context? It would be very interesting to hear what, for me, would be a view from the outside about the pros and cons of this approach.

– Matthijs

This prompted me to write a brief response that I want to share here. It’s a topic I’ve touched on here before, and which I hope to return to in the future:

Matthijis,There are many ways in which I think tabletop role playing games might be better for educational purposes than MMORPGs. More actual role-playing tends to take place in a table-top game, and naturally table-top games are considerably more open ended and can thus be much more nuanced on an many levels – and much easier to differentiate for individual students’ needs.

However, the need for many (quality) gamemasters is a challenge that makes it difficult to give each student the attention they need. Also where a human gamemaster might excel in fllexibility, he or she loses in computation (in comparison to a computer). It makes it difficult to keep up the pace of a game. Also, and this might be the most difficult challenge, while the need to exercise the imagination might be a pedagogical bonus it does severely limit the accessibility of the game for many. It would loose the motivational and engagement factors often associated with video games. The bottom line is FAR fewer people enjoy playing table top role playing games than video games.

Thanks for getting me to think about this. It’s a topic I want to pursue more when I’ve finished my dissertation. I’m most interested, though, in how we can make modern multiplayer videogames (especially role-playing games of all sorts) more like table-top role playing games so that we might capture more of their benefits without taking on all of these drawbacks.


I’d love to read any comments in response to this – or other thoughts on the topic.

Videogame Resources for a Superintendent

Weeks of phone tag went into making it happen, but this morning I finally had a conference call with Mike Brusa, superintendent of Taft City School District, and his colleague Greg Mudge, who attended my Learning to Game and Gaming to Learn workshop at the CUE conference last year.

Mr. Brusa is a 51 year old gamer. He has a level 70 warrior in World of Warcraft, and two “alts,” a level 25 Dwarf blacksmith, and a level 10 Elf druid. With my limited experience with World of Warcraft, I can confidently say he’s put a lot of time into the game. Happily, and not surprisingly, he plays with his son. He is also a superintendent – one of the ones who is brought in to change the culture of a district. In our conversation his driving question was “what can we do to the system to make it more positive for the kids?”

Ultimately, he’s sees the dynamic, social, and global nature of his gaming community as a positive alternative to the often “flat” culture of classrooms. (In this sense he doesn’t mean “flat” as in Freidman’s “the world is flat” or Davis and Lindsey’s “flat classroom.” He means it is static and boring as opposed to dynamic and exciting.)

He wants to create “a classroom environment with the face of a video game” – or in other words, he’s interested in creating what would essentially be a “3D virtual school.” Many states are launching virtual high school programs, but in a “flat” text based format (think Blackboard). He would like to see something where students have avatars and can interact socially. In essence, he believes that Blackboard cannot have the same sense of community. While this is certainly arguable, I suppose something like what he’s looking for could include the sort of features I am looking for in an educational MMO as well, including educational quests where students learn by doing instead of memorizing. Brusa was particularly interested in students playing “scenarios” (he preferred the word to “game”).

Needless to say it was exciting to speak with someone in a position of formal authority who is pursuing ideas like this. Greg Mudge contacted me on his behalf so that I could share resources with them. I shared a few contacts and ideas during the phone call, but to follow up I sent them an email pointing them toward some of my blog posts on the subject.

I am writing this post for two reasons:

1.) To share the email I sent to them with all of you.
2.) To help connect Superintendent Brusa with others who might be interested in his cause, particularly any game developers who might be interested in what he has to say. He makes a good rough argument for the financial benefits of investing in something like this.

So, first here is the email with links pointing to some of my posts on the subject:

Mike (and Greg),

It was great to get to chat with you this morning. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and ideas on this subject. I look forward to seeing the white paper you’ve pulled together.

In addition to the information I shared over the phone, I think the best way to give you access to the things I’ve come across over the past three and a half years is to point you toward my blog. I’ve identified some of the best posts, series of posts, and categories to start with…

Know any good books on educational gaming? (This includes my recommended reading list):

Videogames in Education: New Reading (This is a recent update to the list above):

My “In A Nutshell” Series (This summarizes the issues in my lit. review. Note that these are in reverse chronological order, so you might start with the first one on March 27, 2007 and work your way forward in time.):

My Dissertation Category (54 posts, including some of my recent frustrations with my school, which you can ignore):

Games in Education Category (445 posts in all):

You’ll find a lot in here to get you started, including the names of many more people you can contact. You’ve definitely caught the vision and it’s exciting to see someone with your formal authority (as a superintendent) interested in changing the system to this degree – or rather, interested in creating a new system. I look forward to keeping in touch and corresponding about these issues and your efforts as we move forward.


Second, please leave a comment if you are interested in being involved in something like this. Are you an educator or game designer interested in seeing a 3D virtual school with the face of a video game? We want to hear from you.

Researcher’s Log 2007-12-18

In the methods chapter of my proposal, one procedure I stated I would follow during the data collection and analysis phases of my study was to keep a research log. Because I am not revealing any sensitive data or sharing results that might skew the study, I have decided to share my experiences here as well. (Entries will appear in an edited form in order not to influence the study if participants happen to read this blog.)

UPDATE: It’s now 2008-01-02 and with the conclusion of data collection I am now adding back in a paragraph that does discuss specific results below. It begins with the word “Specifically”.

The first round of the study was originally scheduled to conclude tomorrow. However, I have only collected five responses. Out of more than sixty invitations to participate there are now fourteen confirmed participants, with a potential for two to three more. The good news is that their levels of expertise are very much what I had hoped for, which will add to the credibility of the study, though of course their identities will remain anonymous. However, the minimum number of responses I called for in my proposal was twelve, so I plan to send out reminders today and extend the deadline to Friday the 21st at least. It is a difficult time of year to conduct surveys. I knew this would be the case and I know I will need to be flexible in order to finish in time to graduate this May.

Nevertheless, once I received my first three responses I began to organize and prepare data for analysis. Also, I began early data analysis, using Tams Analyzer for OS X to create an initial coding scheme from the first three responses. Already the categories (and thus potential questions) I may include in the second round of the Delphi have already grown beyond my original six. I’m sure I will need to synthesize and condense the results to allow for a manageable and productive second round.

Specifically, there has been a focus on active learning, depth of learning, and differentiated learning, all of which may fall under my category of constructivist learning, as problem solving might, too. There has been some focus on hard fun, as well as the expected discussion of motivation and engagement. The importance (and inherent educational value) of gameplay has also been mentioned. There has been little mention so far of social benefits, other than some discussion of the natural marriage of games and the ZPD. One category discarded during the proposal stage was 21st Century Skills, but those issues are making an appearance in participant answers, particularly risk taking. Role playing has also reappeared in participant answers as well. Note that this early analysis has focused on question 1, which focuses on the potential benefits of MMORPGs in education. I have not yet begun analysis on question 2, which focuses on the potential drawbacks of MMORPGs in education.

This morning, I will be sending an email to the participants thanking those who have completed the first round and prompting others to complete the survey. A few participants who joined later will be receiving their round 1 questions this morning. And finally, a few others I expect might still want to join will receive an invitation or prompt for response.

I also plan to add two most recent responses to my Tams Analyzer project and add their content to my coding scheme for question 1. I will also begin reading and analyzing responses to question 2.

In addition, as I review my methods chapter I am looking ahead to identifying a colleague familiar with the subject matter to serve as a devil’s advocate to the results, and to identifying a colleague familiar with the method to serve as an external auditor.

Massively Multiplayer Schools (NECC Submission)

Finally, here is the fifth of five submissions I made for NECC 2008. This is also a presentation I’ve never done, though I’ve submitted it once already… it’s the second time I’ve submitted to present my dissertation, which I hope to complete by the time my baby is born in February. (I also submitted this for the 2008 CUE Conference, though it seems I didn’t post about it here.) This one for NECC will really mean something, though, if I get it. I submitted it as an academic paper and it will undergo double blind peer review. :)

I hope I’ll get to give the talk, and I hope some of you will get to join me. In the meantime, let me know what you think of this approach to sharing it.


Massively Multiplayer Schools: Do MMORPGs Have a Future in Education?


Massively-Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games are engaging and motivating. Can they also support context-embedded, inquiry-driven, and socially negotiated learning – while encouraging reflection and metacognition?


Formal K12 education remains much as it did a century ago, but in the era of the Internet, cell phones, and videogames, students have changed. Videogames and simulations show potential as engaging and motivating learning environments. MMORPGs in particular have social and cooperative elements that might be valuable for educational purposes. However, despite a breadth of research about videogames and learning in general, the potential uses of MMORPGs in formal education are poorly understood. Therefore, this study aims to inquire into potential applications for MMORPGs as constructivist learning environments in formal K12 education , and to understand related benefits and drawbacks. Two pillars of theory support this study: constructivist learning theory and digital game-based learning theory. The study will employ a grounded theory paradigm of qualitative research and the Delphi method of inquiry. The expert panel will consist of 12 to 24 adult experts drawn from the field of videogames and learning. Both industry professionals and academics will be represented in the population. The concensus of the panel’s predictions, and any outlying or dissenting perspectives, will be reported in the final paper.

There isn’t really an outline for this type of session, and I don’t want to post the entire length of the submission here, so please check out the complete archive of the submission if you are interested:

Massively Multiplayer Schools (NECC 2008 Submission)

As always, I’d be thrilled to receive any feedback on this. Please leave a comment.

TeamTreks: Free Online Learning Game

Occasionally people email me to share their new product with me (usually flattering me while they’re at it), presumably with the intent that I might pass it on here on the blog. Every now and then I actually do just that. A few others this week didn’t make the cut, but in this case, it’s a free service that actually looks intriguing, appropriate, and relevant to my research. This game seems to have two aims, helping students develop “essential real-life skills (gathering information, analyzing situations, & making decisions)” and helping track their reading and math performance – all within an outdoor themed setting. If anyone checks it out, I’d love to hear about your experience:

Hi Mark,

I like your blog!

I was reading your Videogames in Education entry and thought maybe you’d like to look at a new website we just launched: It’s not a videogame per se…

TeamTreks is a free online learning game designed for kids in the 4th through 7th grade. In the game, you try to pass a TeamTrek Kayaks Certification test in this. You’re flown in and dropped near Glacier Bay, Alaska. Lead your team back to the TeamTreks cabin before someone calls a rescue.

A Team Leader Toolkit is also available to allow teachers and group leaders to customize the game content and track players’ essential real-life skills (gathering information, analyzing situations, & making decisions) and report on math and reading scores against state standards.

It focuses on skills for students in 4th through 7th grade in:

* Leadership, Teamwork & Decision-making. Teammates’ moods change depending on decisions relate to their preferences in activity, risk, and food. Decisions need to take into account the teammates’ preferences and attitudes.
* Map-reading & navigation. Teammates’ stamina and hunger increase the longer it takes to find a campsite. Efficient navigation decreases the risk of injury and mental breakdown.
* Information gathering & data analysis. Teammates’ health and happiness meters display their status and teammates react to all decision points and decision options.
* Reading Comprehension and Math skills.

Anyway, I thought you might be interested.

Keep up the great work.


Portage Interactive

River City Project Looking for Pilot Schools

River City Project Looking for Pilot Schools (Via Jeff Whipple.) This post from Jeff Whipple is almost a week old… I’m not sure how old the open call for participation is, but since it’s directly related to the research I’ve been sharing here, I thought I’d better pass it on. River City was developed at Harvard under Dr. Chris Dede. It looks like it’s heading out into the world:

The River City Project, a not for profit organization, is actively looking for schools to pilot a new game they have created called River City.

With funding from the National Science Foundation, the River city Project, has developed an interactive computer simulation game for middle grades science students to learn disease transmission and scientific method. River City has the look and feel of a videogame but contains content developed from National Science Education Standards, National Educational Technology Standards, and 21st Century Skills.

Access to the simulation, curricular materials, professional development, and just-in-time assistance are provided free of charge to schools. The current grant is exploring issues of scale, bringing River City to diverse schools across the United States and abroad, and the River city Project is always looking to collaborate with like-minded educators.

Date And Time: Immediately! If you are interested in obtaining a copy of the new game and piloting it, please contact the River City research team immediately for more information.

Location: Visit the River City Project website for more information.

Cost: No cost

How to Register: on website – As you explore their website, the River City Project research team invites you to send them an email with questions, comments or to find out how to get involved.

Here is a direct link to get involved.

Videogames in Education: New Reading

Since I wrapped up my literature review a few months ago, I’ve been collecting (and putting off reading) new books related to my study. There are at least three I’m dying to read (two of them sit on my shelf, and the third – the Gibson, Aldrich, Prensky book – I’m having trouble getting a hold of):

Also, I’m dying to read these two game design books, especially the first one (and both sit on my shelf):

And this is to say nothing of the steady stream (well, trickle still) of videogames and learning articles that have been released, including one in ISTE’s most recent Journal of Research on Technology in Education: Digital Games in Education: The Design of Games-Based Learning Environments by Begoña Gros.

With any luck, I’ll be able to dig into some of these at times like this when I’m waiting for my committee to get back to me… or when I’m waiting on data from the participants. Who knows, these things might make a (brief) appearance in the final dissertation. :)

If anyone has read any of these and has some thoughts or opinions on the books, I’d love to hear them, too. It’s always good to have some context going in… and it’s always more fun to read something your friends or colleagues are reading, too.

Dissertation Proposal Draft #2

On Friday night I drove up to the Walden residency in Los Angeles to meet with my dissertation committee chair, Dr. Joe Nolan. I finished my residency units in the summer of 2005, but I’d been using this particular event as a self imposed deadline for finishing the second draft of my proposal (chapters 1-3 of the dissertation, including the literature review).

In my case, this second draft was a lot of work. I turned in a 423 page first draft. My committee really tore into it and left me a lot of good feedback and suggestions for tightening it up. (Dr. Jose Quiles highlighted every paragraph to indicate whether it should be kept, severly shortened, or cut altogether… and Dr. MaryFriend Shepard inserted comments throughout, catching far more APA errors than I thought possible.) In the end, I managed to get it down to a much more reasonable 89 pages. I cut half my research questions (sub-questions actually) to make this possible, so the study is now strictly focused on how games can support constructivist learning. There is also a section on social change, of course. I cut all the game design and organizational change sections. I also cut every single block quote (except for one), and cut most direct quotes in favor of very succinct paraphrasing. Some whole subsections were casualties as well.

As usual, I’m interested in any feedback anyone can offer on this draft. Not that I’ll be making any more changes (if I can help it), but all of this will be rewritten again for the final dissertation – and of course, I’m passionate about the topic, so I want to get it right… and hear dissenting opinions. So, here is the new proposal:


I’ve also updated my IRB docs:

Link: Ian Bogost on Persuasive Games

Ian Bogost on Persuasive Games (Via Bionic Teaching.) Jim Coe posts about Ian Bogost’s new book, which had so far managed to escape my attention. This is another must buy for me… there. Just purchased it. Too bad it won’t make it in my dissertation, though.

Dr. Ian Bogost is a videogame designer, critic, and researcher. He is Assistant Professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology and Founding Partner at Persuasive Games LLC. His research and writing considers videogames as an expressive medium, and his creative practice focuses on games about social and political issues. (Via Persuasive Games.)