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.