Jun 24 2008

World of Warcraft 101

How lessons learned from online games can help in the classroom.

This column is the third in a series exploring the experience of taking an online master’s degree program. To read the first piece, “One of Those Degrees,” visit www.edtechmag.com/k12/events/updates/one-of-those-degrees.html. To read the second column, “Video Games and Learning,” visit www.edtechmag.com/k12/events/updates/video-games-and-learning.html.

In our last article, we discovered there really is a link between video games and learning, especially the multiplayer virtual games known as MMORPGs — massively multiplayer online role-playing games. About 10 million players worldwide make World of Warcraft the most popular of these games. This success is underscored, in part, by the countless hours the average player clocks in the game per week.

One of our greatest challenges as educators is holding the attention of our audience for even a 40-minute period. The level of engagement World of Warcraft commands intrigues me. What can educators learn from this model?

I asked my friend Will, an avid player of the game, to explain. Two hours later, it was clear there was not going to be a concise explanation. World of Warcraft is enormously spatial, stunningly visual and intensely strategic on each of its 70 increasingly challenging levels. “World” is an understatement; “universe” seems more fitting.

Will explained the basic functions of the game’s economy. He alluded to the evolving mythology that is the game’s premise. He also spoke about his guild, a sophisticated and self-governed community composed of up to 100 international players, all communicating and collaborating for domination.

Feeling intimidated? Me, too. “Wait a minute, Will. How does a player even begin to play?” I asked.

Apparently he didn’t read my last article, because the next thing I knew, he threw me into the game. Suddenly, I wasn’t a safe observer but a vulnerable test subject — a hunger-stricken mage with stringy hair and a wooden staff for protection. My first quest was simple orienteering to meet up with someone who would give me more information. I was dead within three minutes.

But, in exchange for 25 percent of my power, I was back on my feet to set off again. My second quest awarded currency for attacking zombies, which I would encounter on my way to the third task. Less than two minutes later, at 75 percent weakness and completely broke, Will thankfully led me to a town where I might be able to get my staff repaired. (That was broke, too.)

As we walked around the lively center of commerce, Will explained that I could choose a profession and start earning money. Gathering certain plants, for example, could be used to make potions for people to buy. That gave me hope. Then he took me to a post office, a seamless system that allows players to transact, to check my mail.

“I have a mailbox?” I said incredulously. It made me feel like a real citizen, despite my lack of battle savvy. In what is less a game of war and more a game of empowerment, Will explained, player-versus-player combat (or PvP), like economics, is just one of the many games within the game.

While certainly these surroundings eschew reality, I could start to understand the game’s popularity. Players make choices to gain experience, amass currency and build relationships through a pervasive set of challenges and rewards. These prizes consistently tempt subscribers with a sense of motivation, status and even worthiness. No two players are the same, and the choices are almost innumerable, which increases the value of everyone, both individually and collaboratively.

Back to Reality

As we logged off, our conversation turned to the real world. Will noted that in his job he is constantly balancing the same demands he faces in his World of Warcraft guild: decision-making, simultaneously giving and taking direction, problem-solving and strategic planning. The key to survival in either realm is collaboration. I asked him, then, to compare the learning environment of the game to the traditional classroom.

“There is no comparison,” he replied. Learning in a school seems to be for learning’s sake. A school system offers good grades, whereas World of Warcraft appeals to core desires: survival, success, collaboration, empowerment and (certainly not least of all) play.

Video games like World of Warcraft follow a carrot-and-stick method of constant, pervasive and accumulating rewards. While initially these might be monetary or materialistic, they build the character’s status and worth over time within the game, which is considered far more valuable.

The next day at school, when I told my students I was up late playing World of Warcraft, I had their attention. But what about when I needed them to get back to work? A good report card sometimes seems to be the only proverbial carrot dangling from the educational stick. When managing a group of kids who essentially live moment-to-moment, I’m not sure looking years ahead to college acceptance is the most effective reward. At least, it shouldn’t be the only one.

World of Warcraft isn’t a lesson plan guide, but it does provide some compelling hints to engagement. First, it tells a powerful story. Storytelling is an effective way to emotionally involve the audience. Second, it provides the player with numerous choices.

Finally, although you may not want to liken classroom management to a game of Warcraft, this hugely successful game has a deliberately embedded reward system that we may want to model. I’m not suggesting providing candy for each correct answer, but what if our classrooms were set up to allow for different choices, talents and responsibilities? What if there were rewards for doing your collaborative part well? Ultimately, is there a way to make our students feel genuinely empowered in the classroom?

I purchased a bundle of paper stars recently and have started writing students’ names on them to reward cooperative behavior. They hang in the front of the room, and I am amazed at the conversations they spark among my ninth-graders.

“Whoa, Mrs. Hanifin, how come Chris got a gold star?” The highest distinction of honor, Chris was awarded this five-point piece of paper because he noticed a classmate’s homework on the hallway floor and brought it to me after school. I never reward anything academic with these stars, but somehow they have become the most desired accolade in the class.

There is, of course, a lot more that can be done. But purposefully aligning a reward with the students’ value system has been effective; they’ve been clamoring for stars ever since.