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.