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.