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.