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.