Dissertation: MMORPGs in Education

I’ve shared this news in many ways over the last few weeks, but I don’t believe it’s appeared on this blog yet: I’m done with my Ph.D!

On May 8th, 2008 the chief academic officer approved my dissertation. The spring quarter ended (and my degree was conferred) this past Sunday, May 25th. The commencement is July 26th in Minneapolis should I choose to attend, but I’m already sensing the relief as I can now focus on my work – and enjoy weekends off for the first time in nearly five years.

However, I’m online and writing this right now because I owe something to all of the people who participated in, and contributed to, my study… I need to share the results. So, I’ve created a page dedicated to this research (you’ll also find an easily accessible link in the sidebar of this blog for when this post is long lost to the archives):

Dissertation: MMORPGs in Education

My research focused on video games and learning in general, and my study specifically explored the potential benefits and drawbacks of using Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games as constructivist learning environments. The Delphi study was a survey of expert opinion meant to generate consensus around certain predictions. In the end, it seems the games hold a great deal of promise as educational environments, but there are many logistical and cultural challenges to implementation in formal K-12 education.

I know it’s only a small contribution to the literature, but I’m proud of my contribution and the way it was executed. I hope that this study might help other researchers, educators, and game developers when the time is right.In the meantime, feel free to check it out if you are interested. I’m always interested in comments or feedback on my research – especially while it’s still fresh in my mind. ;)

Walden Dissertation Committee Very Responsive

I’m excited to report I’ve just sent a complete draft of my dissertation to Dr. Nolan (who is the chair of my committee). I know I’ve got months of revisions and hoops to jump through ahead of me, but boy is this starting to feel real – and nearly done. I should graduate after exactly five years in the program.

More importantly, after having written on this blog about my frustrations with getting my proposal approved in a timely manner (and with some incendiary post titles), I want to say publicly how amazingly responsive my committee was when they reviewed chapters 1 through 4 two weeks ago. They all got back to me with incredibly detailed, helpful, and encouraging feedback only two days after I turned in my draft. I certainly don’t expect such extraordinary turn around time with this complete draft of all five chapters and appendixes (they technically have 10 business days to respond), but I’m very much looking forward to their feedback and to improving my paper until it is ready for academic review and the provost’s signature.


MMORPGs in Schools: The Shift Ahead

One of my dissertation committee members asked that I address in Chapter 5 the paradigm shift necessary to implement MMORPGs in schools. I’ve chosen to include this in the concluding statement. I’ve just now finished a complete draft of the dissertation and finished composing the concluding statement. I plan to send it off to my committee soon, but I’m also dying to know what some of you might think. I’d appreciate any feedback you can offer on this concluding statement:

Shaffer, Squire, and Gee (2003) wrote that “videogames have the potential to change the landscape of education as we know it” (p. 111). They urged that games be designed with “sound theories of learning and socially conscious educational practices” (p. 111). However, they also noted that the theories of learning embedded in videogames as a medium run counter to the presiding theories of learning in schools. Squire and Gee (2003) explained that games may be viewed as suspect in an era when the value of instruction is measured by standardized tests (p. 30).

This study is significant because it explored a technology that may have the potential to improve (and perhaps revolutionize) education for Twenty-First century students and educators. An MMORPG might help students develop difficult to teach Twenty-First Century Skills, particularly if frequent and structured reflection time is provided for students. In addition, MMORPGs may be motivating and engaging for students while providing a context for learning and a framework for social learning. Also, as the serious games movement has demonstrated, these games might have the ability to inspire players to effect positive social change.

The future of education may be something very like an educational massively multiplayer online role-playing game. A century of artificially linear and context-free book learning may be replaced by a system in which students learn by doing. Traditional academic content might be learned by visiting a virtual world in which the content is situated and relevant. For instance, students of history might play a role in a simulation of the American revolution; a role that might just as likely be focused on drafting the constitution as it might be related to the war. Twenty-first century skills might be easier to teach because students are exercising them while working together in a game, and assessment will be authentic; either students will be able to apply their knowledge and skills successfully in the game, or not. Students might, for example, work together to launch a business in a simulated (or fictional) world.

Experiences like this might be available to students with an unprecedented degree of equity. Students in North America, Europe, Asia, and anywhere in less developed countries where an Internet connection is available might be able to take advantage of the same game worlds and educational experiences. Students might work together (for rigorous academic purposes) across boarders and cultural barriers. Everyone might be considered equal behind their avatars.

For this to happen in K12 schools, though, a paradigm shift of unprecedented magnitude might be required. This shift in thinking would need to occur in three major ways. First, schools would need to embrace the tenets of constructivist pedagogy. Schools would have to come to value such things as Twenty-First Century skills, reflection, engagement and motivation, context-embedded learning, and social learning. The wisdom of using a technology that can provide these things is not clear if these things are not valued. Hand-in-hand with this change, schools would need to accept and adopt new roles for educators, who might serve as facilitators, coaches, and debriefing experts to support student game play and reflection on game play.

Second, schools would need to overcome broader cultural resistance to using videogames in schools. Educational MMORPGs will need to be seen as learning worlds, not as a waste of time, and certainly not as violent or sexist in anyway. Educators, administrators, parents, and society at large would need to believe in the concept of hard fun, rather than believing as many do that fun and learning are mutually exclusive or diametrically opposed. Obviously, game developers will have an important role to play in this change, as will educational technologists who will be called upon to educate their colleagues, superiors, and communities about the value of the games.

The third change, though, may be the most difficult. Schools will need to accept a significant transfer of power. As with two-way web tools such as blogs, wikis, and social networks, MMORPGs allow students to interact with each other and create content without necessarily being moderated by teachers or other adult authority figures. Surely educational MMORPGs will need to include measures to address inappropriate behavior, but schools will also need to accept that students can say what they want to who they want when they want, that students will have relationships that extend beyond the school walls (and school hours), and that student solutions to in-game problems will be emergent, creative, and unlike what their educators may have predicted, expected, or hoped.

If such a paradigm shift is a desired destination, the road will likely be a long and difficult one. The results of this study suggest that significant infrastructure and logistical challenges may lay ahead for any implementation of MMORPGs in schools. Infrastructure challenges may include student access to computers, hardware requirements, and bandwidth requirements. Logistical issues may include great costs, in terms of finances, time, and human resources. Even more significant may be the kinds of organizational change necessary for successful implementation, particularly given the likelihood of resistance not only on account of MMORPGs being seen as videogames, but also on account of the tendency of educators and educational institutions to resist innovations in educational technology.

Pioneering early adopters, developers, and researchers are needed to overcome these challenges and work towards the necessary paradigmatic shifts. This work may require individuals with who are comfortable subverting the existing system. As March (2006) told educators struggling with similar issues related to two-way web technologies, to be successful pioneers may need to “be subversive” first in order to demonstrate the value of what they propose. Postman & Weingartner’s (1969) call for teaching to be a subversive activity (including their focus on the inquiry method, relevance, and meaning making) have gone largely unheeded, but that is exactly what may be necessary to bring about this potential shift in education and to allow students to realize the benefits that MMORPGs might provide in an academic context. The researcher thus calls for pioneers to innovate and be subversive in their efforts to act on the recommendations of this study and to further explore the potential benefits and drawbacks of using MMORPGs in schools.

MMORPGs in Education: Infrastructure & Logistics

The following is a summary of responses from an expert panel over three rounds of a Delphi study conducted as part of my doctoral dissertation. This is the sixth of six thematic summaries I plan to share on this blog.

In a final consensus check survey, the participating experts indicated a high level of consensus with this summary:

MMORPGs may require fewer hardware resources compared to many other video game genres, but implementing MMORPGs in existing schools would include many challenges related to infrastructure and logistics. With current student to computer ratios, students might experience limited access to the game at school. Many computers in schools might not meet the hardware needs of modern MMORPGs. The bandwidth available at the school might also be limited. Technical problems with the software, hardware, and network as well as the logistical and cognitive overhead necessary to play the games might outweigh the positive learning experience. (Outside of the school, many socio-economically disadvantaged students might also have limited access to the equipment necessary to play an MMORPG.) Filtering games for age appropriate content may also be a concern.In addition, MMORPGs require thousands of players to feel inhabited and provide a persistent sense of community; it may be difficult to achieve such a population in an educational game, and allow students to play commercial games in schools raises concerns about appropriate content and student safety. However, it is possible to populate a game world with richly interactive non-player characters (NPCs) controlled by the computer. Also, it may not be necessary for educational online role-playing games to be massively multiplayer in order to take advantage of the benefits of being multiplayer. Smaller scale multiplayer games (or MORPGs) might be more appropriate; these games would not necessarily need to be persistent worlds.

Funding an educational MMORPG would be expensive to start and difficult to sustain. Even if an existing engine is used, it would be expensive to develop the game and attract players and teachers to the idea. However, the costs of development could be distributed across many many schools and the potential benefits might justify the expense. In addition, existing game engines, digital objects, and environments could be imported from the entertainment industry. Gaming engines (and graphics) that are a generation behind the cutting edge would still be effective for creating an engaging educational game. Low cost easy to learn tools would be ideal. A well designed game concept could also attract the necessary developers, players, and educators.

The amount of time needed to implement such a game may be the greatest cost, including the time for students to learn the game and to spend time on the less educational fun elements of the game. MMORPG game play also does not fit neatly into traditional school schedules. In a truly massive multiplayer game, coordination of players with different school schedules (potentially even across different time zones) would also be a challenge. Single player training modes or the ability to solo might help alleviate some of these concerns. Also, coordinating large numbers of students together in the game world might be in conflict with the ideals of a constructivist learning environment in which students are engaged in individualize inquiry-driven learning, and so might not be a desirable use of an MMORPG anyway; self-organized groups of students similar to existing “guilds” in existing games might be more desirable.

Cultural resistance to video games in schools might also prove a challenge. The primary barriers might not be technical, but rather psychological, political, and cultural – including sometimes unconscious beliefs, assumptions, and values. Many educators and parents may not accept the potential educational value of video games, including MMORPGs. Even if the games are accepted, there will be a need to establish appropriate norms and ethics for the educational use of MMORPGs. For a MMORPG to take root in the current environment of high-stakes testing, the game may need to be accepted in terms of what schools now value. Moreover, games would need to be based on non-violent, appropriate, and non-trivial subject matter and content – and would need to include reasonable measures to ensure student safety. Naturally, student learning would ned to be measurable and demonstrable as well. Unfortunately, this might reduce the engaging and motivating elements of the games, and as Prensky says, “suck the fun out.”

A great deal of organizational change will also be necessary if games are to be accepted and supported in existing educational organizations. There would be a significant need for teacher professional development in order to ensure that teachers would have the necessary understanding to effectively implement the games and guide students with their reflection and transfer of skills. Establishing pilot programs that follow models set by similar technologies already in use would be critical to successful implementation.

However slowly, educational institutions are moving inexorably towards the ability to overcome these hinderances.

The following are a selection of significant dissenting opinions and/or final comments that members of the expert panel made in response to this final summary:

“The costs of current MMORPG infrastructures are a concern for any one school. There are many servers and other infrastructure required that is cost prohibitive for a small environment; also, consider the scalability of running the operations is a consideration. I think MMORPG environments must be at least across schooling districts with some consideration to scheduling and optimizing around what a base system can support in concurrent players (CCU).”“Due to the high costs of developing MMORPG and the little garuantee that this investment will be liked by students or that the intended benefits are achievable, I think it is critical that existing MMORPGs be adapted for education purposes. The storylines and quests can be adapted have better material. Often changing game play and adapting graphics can customize the environment for local norms and goals. At [our development company], this is exactly the complex analysis and localization processes that we use to bring successful games from other countries to India to resonate with a local population made up of many different cultures.”

“In general, I suggest let the students coordinate themselves. The gameplay is usually enticing enough to inspire play. With a large and distributed (across timezones) population of players, ensuring there is a mass of players will happen organically.”

“Cultural resistance to video games in schools might also prove a challenge.” This is a huge barrier. We need to provide accurate tools, feedback, and information to educate parents of the benefits. This should be a major focus for the education-gaming community. Like any new media (as TV and Radio at one point) the negative perception hinders the potential benefits. The Guttenberg printing press was a major concern for the governing powers of the day such as the church, because information and lessons could be disseminated in ways they could not control. Bad and good literature can be produced, but again, the benefits far outweigh the concerns. MMORPGs are no different. They offer a unique way to provide education, and teach things that other mediums are not as effective. This is a media to be embraced, not feared. I spent 6 years in NYC educational system while working for IBM in the K-12 division. The hardest part for the adoption of technology in classrooms was that teachers were lost, as they will be with MMORPG. It helps to provide a support organization for teachers to teach and learn. This will facilitate the use and measurable results of MMORPGs in Education.”

“People don’t take pilots seriously, no amount of “proof” changes people’s deep down beliefs. It’s naive to suggest that pilots or research studies would change anything.”

“Schools are not moving in this direction (last sentence). If anything, they are becoming more rigid and resistant to change. They are driving out the very teachers and administrators who would be able to create the systemic changes that would be necessary for games to play a larger part in education.”

“Interesting thing about computers and students is kids play nicely with each other. I agree with you, part of the logistics is the computer to kid ratio, but I also regularly see kids playing well with each other when using a computer.”

“Again, I think the idea of an educational MMORPG is a bad idea. I think if you modded a current COTS-MMORPG then that might work, but there are plenty of decent reasons to stay away from designing an educational mmorpg.”

I am interested in additional feedback from readers of this blog. What is your level of consensus with this summary? Are there any points you might want to elaborate on – or more importantly, disagree with? Please leave a comment.

MMORPGs in Education: Reflection

The following is a summary of responses from an expert panel over three rounds of a Delphi study conducted as part of my doctoral dissertation. This is the fifth of six thematic summaries I plan to share on this blog.

In a final consensus check survey, the participating experts indicated a very high level of consensus with this summary:

Summary of Participant Responses
Theme 5
With the guidance of an educator and with dedicated, structured, and frequent debriefing time, MMORPGs might also offer an opportunity for students to reflect on their learning and problem-solving strategies. Educators might help students to realize the correlation between their in-game strategies and real world scenarios they might encounter. Something not unlike an after-action-review might be used for this purpose, but clear procedures for reflecting on skills such as the 21st century skills mentioned in the previous session are not well established in traditional education. Many existing techniques might be borrowed from other fields. New tools for capturing in-game experiences and representing them for later reflection may need to be developed as well.

Due to the potentially global nature of an MMORPG, they might also provide an opportunity for students and teachers to reflect on cultural differences of others playing the game. However, it might be difficult to reflect on real world cultural differences in an online game when many of those differences would not be apparent in the game-world and the players avatars. It may also be difficult for many teachers to facilitate reflections on cultural differences, particularly without exposure to different cultures themselves. Perhaps the most important lesson to be learned about culture is that people are more alike than different, and this can be learned in an online game environment as students engage in play with others from around the world and their cultural differences do not deter them from enjoying – and succeeding within – the game together.

Debriefing may reduce the scalability, increase the cost of implementation, increase the time required, and limit the independent use of an MMORPG for educational purposes, especially if conducted in a face-to-face format. However, such potential drawbacks do not outweigh the benefits of having students reflect on their game play. Without such explicit reflection activities the educational value of playing an MMORPG might largely be lost. To mitigate these concerns, though, games can be designed to scaffold reflection and to automate it to some extent. Even independent use of an MMORPG might include a report back to a teacher or peers.

The following are a selection of significant dissenting opinions and/or final comments that members of the expert panel made in response to this final summary:

“I’m concerned that this doesn’t mention the difficulty in having instructors who can provide the reflection guidance needed (in general, not just cultural).”

“Reflection is the most important part of any educational aspect of a game and I think you’ve captured it well. However, I do think that in-game reflection would be valuable because it would of necessity break into game play.”

I am interested in additional feedback from readers of this blog. What is your level of consensus with this summary? Are there any points you might want to elaborate on – or more importantly, disagree with? Please leave a comment.

MMORGPs in Education: 21st Century Skills

The following is a summary of responses from an expert panel over three rounds of a Delphi study conducted as part of my doctoral dissertation. This is the fourth of six thematic summaries I plan to share on this blog.

In a final consensus check survey, the participating experts indicated a very high level of consensus with this summary:

Summary of Participant Responses
Theme 4
21st Century Skills
MMORPGs might be useful for helping students to develop 21st century skills such as critical thinking, creativity, comfort with computer use, fluency in multiple media, economic literacy, and global awareness. Success in an MMORPG requires strategic thinking, planning, decision making, judgement, and the ability to react to changing conditions, all while multitasking effectively. Players must balance their resource, prioritize their actions, manage multiple objectives, and understand in-game systems, including the game economy. Even information literacy skills are important as players seek to find, evaluate, and use information (both in-game and from other outside sources). MMORPGs as a genre may be particularly beneficial in for educational purposes because they focus on working within systems and processes rather than on achieving a single win-state. The challenges and systems in the game can be selected or designed to authentically parallel real-world scenarios. Also, these are very complex skills, and an MMORPG in isolation is unlikely to develop them deeply unless complimented by a variety of other educational activities.

MMORPGs might also provide an arena for developing skills of leadership (and followership), interpersonal communications and management. Additionally, the learning communities that players form around MMORPGs (in which they share codes and strategies) parallel the activities of 21st century professionals in knowledge-based workplaces.

MMORPGs might also encourage risk taking by making failure safe and often fun. However, if failure is too easy (or fun) within a game, it might lead players to become more risk-adverse in real life or else to have an unrealistic view of risk, failure, and consequences in real life. An educational MMORPG would have to balance providing an environment safe for student risk taking with in-game consequences that are significant enough to make the risk of failure real and disappointing. In game consequences might even be irrevsible. Though this might conflict with the replayability of a game, then the game could also be used to help students learn how to deal with failure, a key to real-world risk taking.

A potential concern is the inclination of many MMORPG players to “game the system” or “cheat” in an effort to succeed in achieving in-game goals. This may reduce the effectiveness of the role-playing experience, may detract from (or eliminate) educational goals, and may encourage students to “cheat” the educational system outside of the game as well. Many existing MMORPGs will cancel a player’s account if they are caught cheating. Educators might want to engage students in discussions about the ethical implications and consequences of cheating the system. Another way to manage the risk of such “cheating” is to build it into the game by expecting students to exploit or “mod” the game system to accomplish a task. (In this way they will learn the underlying systems and assumptions well.) In some respects the ability to exploit a system is another valuable life skill and perhaps should be part of the process of playing an educational game. In this respect, the potential of gaming or cheating the system is a minor if not insignificant concern.

It may also be difficult to assess whether or not MMORPGs are successful in helping students to develop such 21st Century Skills and transfer them to real world situations. (However, this difficulty in assessment does not mean that learning and transfer are not occurring.) Transfer might be explicitly facilitated by educators guiding students from game scenarios into real world scenarios. Games will also need to be chosen or designed to include tasks that authentically mimic the real world tasks and situations in which students will be expected to demonstrate success – without being unnecessarily high fidelity to the point of boredom. The elements of fantasy and play are important to the success of role-playing games. Regardless, without careful alignment and monitoring students could transfer learning that has a negative effect on their real world success.


Many of the skills mentioned in this section were important skills for success in the 20th century and in some cases throughout human history. However, modern schools are notoriously poor at teaching and assessing such skills, and recent changes in students, technology, and world markets suggests that such skills will be even more important in this new century. For these reasons, and because the breadth of these skills is difficult to name, the researcher continues to use the term “21st Century Skills.” To view more in-depth definitions and frameworks describing “21st Century Skills” please see the following two websites:


The following are a selection of significant dissenting opinions and/or final comments that members of the expert panel made in response to this final summary:

“However, if failure is too easy (or fun) within a game, it might lead players to become more risk-adverse in real life or else to have an unrealistic view of risk, failure, and consequences in real life.” Let’s make sure that the student understands that this is a game. I am not sure why they would become risk-adverse, hopefully the opposite affect will happen, where taking risks is encouraged and people learn that calculated risks are a way to excel in life and that failure is a part of the process. i.e. the old entrepreneurial adage, “Every success was preceded by 100 failures.” We should encourage people to try and fail, learn and progress. MMORPG can be a good testing bed for this. I don’t think we should protect kids from failure, it is an intrinsic and beneficial part of the self-actualization process.”“When it comes to cheating the system, in general I am against permanent banning unless the behaviour is violent or destructively abusive. This will happen and the student is learning a different set of skills. Kids cheat in classrooms as well, and businessmen cheat at work. Let’s put in safeguards, monitor, and deal with it, without negating the benefits that an MMORPG can also provide. The benefits of gaming can far outweigh the affects of the cheaters.”

“Even though the note says that 21st century skills aren’t really anything new, it seems that the skills you’ve grouped here don’t really hang together and overlap a lot with other sections.”

“On cheating, I think that this has to be an open discussion and HUGE part of the reflection. Cheating in a game is different than cheating in real life. For example, players could create alliances that exist outside of the game. Is this cheating or not? It happens all the time in the real world, and laws try to regulate it, but it still happpens. Is it cheating to push the laws/rules to gain an advantage? I think cheating and discussions of rules is probably one of the most educational parts of these games”

“I’m not sure cheating is as big of a deal as you are making it – again, I think commercial MMORPG’s are the best way to go here, and they are pretty good at finding cheaters. :-)”

I am interested in additional feedback from readers of this blog. What is your level of consensus with this summary? Are there any points you might want to elaborate on – or more importantly, disagree with? Please leave a comment.

MMORPGs in Education: Social Learning

The following is a summary of responses from an expert panel over three rounds of a Delphi study conducted as part of my doctoral dissertation. This is the third of six thematic summaries I plan to share on this blog.

In a final consensus check survey, the participating experts indicated a high level of consensus with this summary (however, it is worth noting that this section rated the lowest average level of consensus out of all the thematic summaries):

Summary of Participant Responses
Theme 3
Social Learning

MMORPGs often promote collaboration over individualism and can facilitate social negotiation of meaning. Students who play such games might develop communication skills, including negotiation skills, and valuable new social roles. Cooperative problem-solving and teamwork are often necessary to achieve goals within the game. In-game competition can also lead to collaborative learning. Educational MMORPGs will need to include tasks that require cooperation or competition, and a means for tracking such collaborative play; otherwise, some students may not participate in and benefit from collaborative learning. Teachers might also establish out-of-game incentives for cooperating and competing in the game.

Unfortunately, MMORPGs that include competitive elements, particularly PvP elements, may foster aggressive competitiveness and may cause emotional distress for those who lose or do not win. If some students are ostracized for their lack of skill or success in the game this can lead to bullying, embarrassment, or other victimizing behavior. However, even when negative social interactions occur as a result of cooperative or competitive play, these episodes can be used as opportunities to provide students with strategies to cope with such interactions. Also, the anonymity of players in MMORPGs may contribute to this sort of behavior. Alternatively, anonymity might mitigate some of the effects of this behavior in the real world, so educators planning to use such a game would need to be thoughtful in their decision to allow anonymity or not. Teachers and students might also benefit from working together to establish the social rules of the game and the consequences of infractions. A well-designed MMORPG might also help to address these issues and have a positive effect on potentially disruptive students by providing them a new social environment in which to take on new more positive roles.

The social learning needs of each student are different; MMORPGs might provide an alternative means for engaging a student less adept at interpersonal communication, and might help such students develop new social skills in a safe environment. However, the violent and male dominated social structures of many commercial MMORPGs may be inappropriate for use in an educational setting. Also, if students are free to choose the roles they play, teachers may find that not all roles are filled. In addition, some students may choose to play roles that might operate counter to educational goals. On the other hand, it is possible to play most existing commercial MMORPG in a non-violent way and still progress and succeed in the game. Also, MMORPGs usually allow players to choose male or female avatars and to undertake quests and other activities that are likely to appeal to female players. In a well-designed open-eneded game it would not be necessary for all roles to be filled for each student to find success. Most MMORPGs are already designed to support players interested in achieving, exploring, and socializing – and most games discouraging disruptive behavior by design. Educational MMORPGs can be selected or designed to follow this model and to avoid violent or gender-biased game play.

MMORPGs can also serve to bring distant learners together in a meaningful way, although this may require additional technical skill on the part of the players. In addition, students can socialize outside the games about the games, or even build a learning network around the game. However, there is a risk of including a potentially malicious person in the game or in the metagame social circles; most distance learning takes place in a “walled garden” such as a password protected content management system.

MMORPGs may also be used or designed in such a way that they allow players to see things from another’s perspective. In this way the games might be used to address controversial social issues, to teach about other cultures, or to effect positive social change. However, it is unlikely that a transformational shift in a students’ cultural beliefs will occur unless complemented by a variety of other educational activities. Also, students are likely to “see through” anything they perceive as manipulation in such an effort to change their beliefs or values.

Video games, including MMORPGs, can constantly challenge a player within his or her Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) by constantly adapting to the player’s skill level. However, MMORPGs may have less flexibility to adapt to individual players because changes in the game world may effect others as well. The social structure of an MMORPG can also help provide the scaffolding necessary for individual students to succeed and grow. For instance as some players develop skill in the game they can work in groups with other newer players.

The computer mediated social environment does not provide the same level of interactivity as face-to-face communication and might re-enforce solitude and anti-social behavior, or accentuate problems such as bullying, creating new channels for certain individuals to be ostracized. Admittedly, traditional classrooms and other school activities such as sports might are at least as likely to create this scenario. However, students who are more reserved or shy might blossom in a game-world. especially through the use of an avatar. The game environment might also allow for a “psychosocial moratorium” that encourages growth and development, particularly in adolescents. Additionally, communication within a game or virtual reality can create relationships that transcend what may be achieved by the player in a real-life situation.

Also, a player may come to identify too strongly with their avatar, which represents only a small portion of the player’s personality, a fact that may need to be communicated to and reinforced for students.

The following are a selection of significant dissenting opinions and/or final comments that members of the expert panel made in response to this final summary:

“[Existing] MMORPGs are educational and this discussion is around enhancing the educational value so more skills and knowledge can be transferred. The entire gameplay, to different degrees depending on the game, teach, sometime just basic computation skills, sometime more advanced social and networking skills, and in some game, things like analytics, problem solving, history, science and languages.”“We need some line that says this MMORPG is being used specifically for education and this line is around Anonymity. MMORPGs will teach no matter what, but when explicitly used for education, the entire environment must be safe and protect all the players. The balance of ensuring anonymous exploration without real-world social reprisals, could be to let students to anonymous to each other and take on as many characters as they like, but have each student’s character known to the school or teacher in confidence. This allows the school to mitigate risk malicious people disrupting the experience for all.”

“The statement, ‘However, it is unlikely that a transformational shift in a students’ cultural beliefs will occur unless complemented by a variety of other educational activities.’ Please explain what environment does this well and why MMORPGs are any less valuable in transforming cultural beliefs? Ultimately cultural beliefs change via exposure to new ideas and cultures. MMORPGs provide a unique way to expand one’s interaction. More specifically, people’s cultural belief will not change if information is only received from only the places, people and surroundings they grow up in. MMORPGs enable an environment for perspectives to be shared from outside the context in which the student is living. This is a huge opportunity for transformational shift, that can arguably be less effective if mediated by people/teachers from within the same social context. Students are like to see through the contradiction of a teacher saying things from their own cultural perspective, when their own interaction with other cultures tells them differently.”

“I am less concerned about the potential problem of “a player may come to identify too strongly with their avatar.” I think this can be more easily addressed then some of the other psychosocial issues.”

“Come to identify to closely with their avatar? Who has been taking this survey?”

“Having spent considerable time in SL and WoW, I find this to be the opposite of the below statement. The virtual or MMORPG environment may actually make people feel as though the are more closely connected to other players, which in turn can lead to misunderstanding especially where chat is used in place of voice. “The computer mediated social environment does not provide the same level of interactivity as face-to-face communication and might re-enforce solitude and anti-social behavior, or accentuate problems such as bullying, creating new channels for certain individuals to be ostracized.”

“While I agree with the intent behind this statement, I think in the real world the problem would be capturing this in any way that was embedded into the game. Capturing and assessing social learning is really tricky, and I think it would be too easy to game the game, if the players knew that they were being graded on teamwork or other social aspects. Making the game scoring system transparent to the player means that it’s easier to work around and fool, hiding it makes the game confusing and feels like trickery. Are you doing a psychological profile or teaching history, would be the question. My only answer would be that this cannot be embedded in the game and would have to be something the teacher does outside the game as part of the reflection. You have to trust the teacher as a professional to determine these things, not the game.”

“‘Aggressive competitiveness and may cause emotional distress for those who lose or do not win.’ I disagree with this point, as one of the unique things about games is that kids do not suffer from high-levels of distress when they fail. In fact, failure is often shrugged off or encourages the player to keep trying, and learn from their mistakes.”

I am interested in additional feedback from readers of this blog. What is your level of consensus with this summary? Are there any points you might want to elaborate on – or more importantly, disagree with? Please leave a comment.

MMORPGs in Education: Context-Embedded Learning

The following is a summary of responses from an expert panel over three rounds of a Delphi study conducted as part of my doctoral dissertation. This is the second of six thematic summaries I plan to share on this blog.

In a final consensus check survey, the participating experts indicated a high level of consensus with this summary:

Summary of Participant Responses
Theme 2
Context-Embedded Learning

MMORPGs might be valuable in providing a safe context for active student learning. Game worlds can be more concrete, immersive, and open-ended than textbooks, and can be used to represent other places, historical periods, and environments (or systems) that would be impossible to recreate in a classroom, including models for chemistry or other sciences. Moreover, the game world can reach beyond the classroom due to the networked nature of MMORPGs. Even so, traditional textbooks and classrooms are likely to serve a complementary roll in supporting students’ game-based educational experiences. Games and simulations may even be best used in conjunction with more traditional educational techniques.

Students can take on new roles and safely explore new identities in an MMORPG game world, including academic or professional identities that might serve them well in the future. This ability to experiment with new identities might also reduce negative stereotyping and allow leaders to emerge who might not in a traditional classroom.

Students could even play a role in modifying the game environment in an MMORPG. Some games allow players a great deal of influence over the game environment. Others allow “modding” of game environments and scenarios.

Replayability of scenarios is one of the most valuable elements of an educational game or simulation. MMORPGs can also allow replayability, though this is not necessarily an element of such games and may need to be explicitly selected or designed for educational purposes.

The context provided by MMORPGs may allow more effective transfer of skills from the learning environment to the real world. However, successful transfer of skills may be dependent on the fidelity of the models used in the game. While removal of some real-world complexity is necessary in any game or simulation, commercial MMORPGs tend to distort or exaggerate aspects of the real world for the sake of entertainment rather than education. The models used in educational MMORPGs will need to be selected or designed primarily to help students meet learning goals – while still maintaining high levels of motivation and engagement.

Also, in order for transfer to be effective the academic “content” presented within the game would need to be accurate, though not necessarily in the same way as text books; for instance a historical simulation might accurately model systems content though players’ choices might generate different specific events than actually occurred in history. In this way games and texts might be used in a complementary fashion – games to teach systems content and soft skills such as leadership or decision making, and texts to teach real-world specifics.

Similarly, the fidelity of game models does not necessitate a “real world” setting. Just as in text-based stories, a fantasy world might be used to teach a real lesson. For instance, students can learn the basics of entrepreneurship in a science fiction setting. Such fantasy settings might help students to learn skills that might be too specific or too uninteresting to many students in a real world scenario.

It may be difficult to assess if students have learned the “content” and even more difficult to asses of they have learned “soft skills” such as leadership. It is also possible that students’ learning would not transfer well from the relatively safe environment of the game to the riskier environment of real world consequences. Ultimately, transfer may need to be supported through reflection, an aspect that existing MMORPGs do not stress and which may need to be guided by a teacher. Game worlds might also include an safe area explicitly meant for reflection.

MMORGPs might be most valuable if modeled on real world professional training, such as internships. The reward system in most MMORPGs might lend itself to this sort of design, as success in these games often requires hard work and considerable time to develop the necessary resources or money. Unfortunately, the MMORPG interface might require students to acquire new skills before being even minimally successful in the virtual context.

However, a well designed game could scaffold the development of such skills. Also, a fantasy or stylized setting may be better suited to teaching some skills than a realistic simulation or even real-life. In any case, students who play such a game before beginning a real-world internship would likely be better prepared than those who don’t play the game. Regardless, a simulation or game might not ever be able to replace the experience of working with an actual practitioner in a real-world internship.

As with any form of eLearning, the computer mediated context of an MMORPG might be missing valuable elements of a face-to-face learning environment. However, activities in the virtual environment can supplement (or be supplemented by) face-to-face interaction in a classroom. MMORPGs might also extend into the physical environment through new interfaces such as are now common in games like Dance Dance Revolution or the Nintendo Wii.

The following are a selection of significant dissenting opinions and/or final comments that members of the expert panel made in response to this final summary:

“My main comment is on ‘MMORGPs might be most valuable if modelled on real world professional training, such as internships.’ This is someone debatable because all the professional training models have been set up with a standardize learning process and tools that are known and in place for many years. MMORPGs offer the ability to have flexibility in the learning process. If you look at the way technical people learn skills, they rarely read the manuals provided with new products. On the contrary, they install and play with the application, and after much trial and error, later in the learning process, they refer to manuals or other information sources (often asking people on the net). Learning in MMORPG can happen in a seemingly random, inefficient order and also provide lessons that are difficult to model with texts and classes (such as social interaction), as therefore are often removed from professional training. In some ways MMORPGs can provide a more holistic way of learning because the lessons are intertwined with the softer skills. The point being, new learning models need to be explored. Real world professional training models are designed to streamline the process, and lower costs of delivering that service and thus they have to make compromises in the overall education experience for the purpose of transferring very specific knowledge in a very controlled realm. i.e. few people that learned MS Word in a class, learned much about how to use it or about writing. Those that learned to write and had to use MS Word as a tool to complete the tasks, often know the tools much more fully.”

“I’m a little worried about the notion that the context has to be relatively real, whereas in many cases we remove complexity or alter probabilities for instructional purposes”

“MMORPGS will not provide more transfer. That is the role of reflection and application to new situations.”

“The context may provide the necessary prior knowledge to someone who has not seen a picture of a moonbow, but for those with imagination and experience, this visual representation may reduce the pleasure of learning dependening on how inspiring the art work is and the quality of the player’s imagination.” (?)

“Why are we so preoccupied with safety? Also, wouldn’t it be better to take kids to Paris, rather than sending them to a sim of Paris? Kids are soon bored of MMORPGS if the builds are not consistently upgraded, or they are given the ability to build and create new content–but restriction in the name of safety tends to over rule this creativity.”

“’The removal of real-world complexity’ and replacing it with entertainment in commercial games in not just something that can be replaced with educational aspects. That’s a mistake most educational games make. These games are fun because the game play is tuned for fun and engagement, reality is not in the equation. You can’t take that out. if the top design goal of the game isn’t to create a fun game, it won’t be a fun game.”

“Content is a problem, there’s no way to assess it in a game like this, and yet, if all you assess is “soft” skills, you might as well just play a COTS game and see who wins. It’s as likely that leadership skills or “business” skills could be assessed through any team-based game or resource management game.”

I am interested in additional feedback from readers of this blog. What is your level of consensus with this summary? Are there any points you might want to elaborate on – or more importantly, disagree with? Please leave a comment.

MMORPGs in Education: Motivation & Engagement

The following is a summary of responses from an expert panel over three rounds of a Delphi study conducted as part of my doctoral dissertation. This is the first of six thematic summaries I plan to share on this blog.

In a final consensus check survey, the participating experts indicated a high level of consensus with this summary:

Summary of Participant Responses
Theme 1
Motivation and Engagement

Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs) may be engaging and motivating for many students. This may be true for some students because MMORPGs, like other forms of problem based or project based learning, require learning by doing that is active, challenging, and authentic.

MMORPGs might, however, also motivate players to endure the drudgery of repetitive simplistic tasks for the sake of “grinding” for experience and advancement in the game. If this is necessary in an MMORPG used for educational purposes, the experience of “grinding” could also be made educational in its own right. However, repetitive grinding for no purpose other than advancement in the game is antithetical to good constructivist learning, and such grinding not a necessary element of MMORPGs. Other commercial MMORPGs have found different ways of motivating players. Educational game designers might design or use a more authentic system that corresponds more directly to real-world skills. Ultimately, including uninteresting tasks in an otherwise interesting world might undermine student engagement in the game.

The elements of competition and peer pressure common in MMORPGs might also be motivating for some students, as might the social nature of the games. MMORPGs could even be used to teach sociology concepts, including social interaction, morals, and values. However, if the game models socially destructive behavior (such as violent or sexist behaviors) this might have a negative impact on learning. Also, some students may not enjoy competition. And, pressure from social circles to conform to cliques, participate in bullying, or ostracize certain students might be transfered into (or generated by) the game.

Opportunities for self-directed creativity and exploration might appeal to other students and might be beneficial for learning, provided the educational goals of the game are still the students’ focus. The ability to take on a new role or identity within the game might also engage and motivate some students. In addition, the nature of MMORPGs could provide students accustomed to on-demand entertainment with an on-demand learning medium. However, the content of the game, including the theme and specific experiences or encounters, will need to be as compelling as the medium in order to effectively engage and motivate students.

In particular, the quest system common in many MMORPGs could be put to educational use, requiring students to conduct research, perform experiments, and apply academic skills to solve in-game problems. Ideally, such quests would provide an authentic and contextualized opportunity for skill use that would facilitate transfer into real-world scenarios. Using a scoring process that is non-trivial and corresponds to skill-acquisitions might be used to motivate students to undertake such learning quests. The ability to provide immediate and meaningful feedback will also be critical to the success of such a system. Whatever the scoring and motivation systems used in the game, the game should be designed or chosen to rely as much as possible on intrinsic motivation rather than relying too heavily on extrinsic motivation. Unfortunately, the design of such a system that provides educationally valuable quests that rely primarily on intrinsic motivation may be a difficult (or impossible) challenge for game designers.

MMORPGs embody Papert’s concept of Hard Fun; MMORPGs are fun because they are hard, not inspite of being hard. However, if educational MMORPGs are selected or created in such a way that they are too hard for students, they will not be fun – and thus will not be engaging or motivating.

The possibility of players becoming “addicted” to the game or having “an unhealthy relationship with the game” is another common concern. However, if there were clear set learning outcomes that defined stopping points (or an end) to the game, this risk could be mitigated. Also, it may be that players’ personalities and other environmental factors play a greater role in causing addiction than any particular game. Furthermore, it is unlikely that students would develop an addiction to a learning game – and educators might not consider it a bad thing if they did.

The engaging elements of the game might lead to a loss of focus on educational goals. Alternatively, a focus on educational goals might reduce the motivational power of a game. Ideally, if the game is well designed it will help students accomplish educational goals without sacrificing the motivational engagement of the game. This balance could be addressed during the usual iterations of alpha and beta testing. Even if the game is slightly “less fun” than a commercial game, it would most likely still be considerably “more fun” than a traditional classroom assignment.

Video games are not appealing to all students, and may require skills (or time) that not all students have. An educational MMORPG, though, could be designed to provide multiple paths to success, with some requiring less technical “skill” with the game. Even among the students that are “gamers” not all are attracted to the same genre of games or to MMORPGs in particular.

The following are a selection of significant dissenting opinions and/or final comments that members of the expert panel made in response to this final summary:

“The discussion of repetitive actions, competition and content of the game really comes back to good design of game-play. Repetitive action in and of itself is not bad, this is exactly how we learn many things, and much of which was not intended in the design of this action.”

“Anonymity with fellow players allows the player to explore new ideas and actions without real-world social reprisals. By having each of the student’s roles registered with the school (confidentially so other students are not aware unless they reveal their identities) to provide some level of accountability of action and a safer environment to learn and play.”

“MMORPGs are educational as they are. They can teach basic computer skills, practice with communication, teaming, typing, email, etc. This discussion should is more about expanding the educational advantages, rather than whether or not MMORPGs can teach.”

“It would be possible to create an experience that would be highly transferable to the real world.”

“[This summary is] too negative about how hard it is to develop intrinsic motivation.”

I am interested in additional feedback from readers of this blog. What is your level of consensus with this summary? Are there any points you might want to elaborate on – or more importantly, disagree with? Please leave a comment.

Researcher’s Log 2008-02-18

Data collection for my Delphi study was completed as planned on February 8th. (As if on cue, Clark was born the next morning!)

I received 12 completed surveys in response to the final consensus check. Thankfully, this was the minimum number I set out to gather – so the level of attrition was acceptable, especially through rounds 2 and 3 and the final consensus check. Twenty-four experts initially agreed to participate in the study. Of these, only 15 people actually completed round one. Thirteen completed round 2, and twelve completed both round 3 and the final consensus check. So, following round 1, the attrition rate was only 20%. Those who left the study were not among the significant dissenting opinions.

In the final consensus check, consensus was defined in the following way:

For the purposes of this study, consensus is defined as the state in which the results are “at least acceptable to every member [of the expert panel], if not exactly as they would have wished.” (Reid, 1988, as cited in Williams & Webb, 1994, p. 182).

Participants were then asked to rate their level of consensus with each of six summaries on the following scale (Participants were also invited to leave additional comments after rating their level of consensus with each summary):

  • 5. Complete Consensus – I am in agreement with everything stated in this summary. The results are acceptable to me, if not exactly as I would have wished.
  • 4. High Level of Consensus – I agree with most of what is stated in this summary, and I disagree in only minor or insignificant ways. The results are acceptable to me.
  • 3. Moderate Level of Consensus – I agree with much of what is stated in this summary, but I also disagree in some ways. The results are acceptable to me.
  • 2. Low Level of Consensus – I agree with some of what is stated in this summary, but I also disagree in some major or significant ways. However, the results are still acceptable to me.
  • 1. No consensus – I disagree with most or all of what is stated in this summary. The results are not acceptable to me.

These ratings were used to find a level of consensus between the participants. Though many participants selected “5. Complete Consensus” in response to individual items, no items received that rating from all participants, so it would be inaccurate to report that there was complete consensus on any of the summarized themes. However, the participants ratings were averaged and the following scale was used to determine the level of consensus among the participants:

  • 5.0 Complete Consensus
  • 4.50-4.99 Very High Level of Consensus
  • 3.50-4.49 High Level of Consensus
  • 2.50-3.49 Moderate Level of Consensus
  • 1.50-2.49 Low Level of Consensus
  • 0.00-1.49 No Consensus
By this scale, there was a high level of consensus on four themes and a very high level of consensus on two additional themes. Out of 72 individual responses (12 participants responded to 6 summarized themes), 34 were “complete consensus,” 27 were “high level of consensus,” 10 were “moderate level of consensus,” and only one was “low level of consensus.” In other words, only one participant responded with a low level of consensus, and even then only responded in this way to one theme. No participants selected “no consensus” in response to any themes. Most dissenting opinions were minor and all will be addressed in the final report.

At this point in the process I have several new tasks ahead of me.

  • Final Data Analysis: I will code and complete analysis of the Final Consensus Check comments. These will be used to modify the summaries used in the final consensus check for their final appearance in my report.
  • Confirmability Measures: I will work with two of my colleagues, both of whom have recently completed in a doctoral dissertation focused on educational technology. They will aid me in a peer debriefing, in serving as devil’s advocates, and (in one case) in serving as an external auditor of my Delphi methodology.
  • I will complete a literature realignment to account for the months between completion of my proposal and the beginning of this dissertation draft.

Then I can move on to rewrite chapters 1 through 3 to reflect the actual implementation of this study – and to compose chapters 4 and 5 to report my results and discuss their implications. Though I had hoped to have a draft of my dissertation by March 1st, I don’t think that is possible at this point. However, I still hope to have a draft completed sometime in March. I think it’s time to take on no new work until this is done… especially with a new baby in the house.