Tuesday, June 21, 2005

mmorpg's: the future of online education?

Ever played an mmorpg (massive multiplayer online roleplay game)? Although most of these games, such as Everquest, World of Warcraft, Dark Age of Camelot, and Star Wars Galaxies, emphasize pvp (player vs. player) combat, not all mmorpg's do.

Yesterday I had the opportunity to explore in A Tale in the Desert II; an mmorpg based in ancient Egypt. The designers have this to say about their game:

Have you ever wondered how it would be to live in Ancient Egypt? To be part of the civilization that built so many wonders? Well, now you can! In "A Tale in the Desert", you can relive those times and unravel their secrets. Build your own pyramid, help rule the country by passing laws and advising the Pharaoh, see how far you can make the civilization advance, or just explore the land and make new friends.

A Tale in the Desert (ATITD) is a groundbreaking MMORPG with rich variety in gameplay, that lets you build kingdoms from the ground up, actively interact with your fellow-people, and live in a diverse society where you can do almost anything; be a merchant, a courier, a builder, an artist, a cook, an explorer, a strategist, a king... or all of these--and more!. In fact if you find your very own part that hasn't been provided for, pass a law to do it! Whatever you decide, Egypt awaits you in "A Tale in the Desert".

Here's the beauty of mmorpg technology as I see it. First, it's 3-dimensional, graphic-based, rich audio, includes the ability to interact, move within a virtual environment, chat in either text or audio. Mmorpg's are usually quest-based, where the user has to complete a quest, a series of taks, directions, etc. in order to gain an item or improved status in the game. Most mmorpg's include guilds or clans, wherein members join together over long periods of time to support one another in the questing process. The social component is emphasized in the design of the game and quests. So where's the potential for education?

Let's break it down piece by piece:

  1. 3-dimension, graphics, audio -- appeals to multiple sensory modalities, encourages long-term retention due to combination of visual with text and sound. This approach to learning also supports Gardener's theory of Multiple Intelligences.
  2. Ability to interact, move within virtual environment -- a user can travel to many different lands, over different terrains, using various vehicles. This form of virtual field trip allows users to experience a variety of environments, such as snowy mountains, baked deserts, wooded forests. Quests can be designed to fit within an appropriate environment under study. For example, students in a Spanish I class could meet and talk in an environment replicating portions of Mexico. They could buy products, build a house, go to the mercado, etc., essentially "living" in Mexico and speaking Spanish to do so.
  3. Chat in text or audio -- mmorpg's are text-based in their chat tool, allowing users from around the world to meet and chat in the same environment. However, many mmorpg users also integrate external chat tools such as Roger Wilco or Battlecom to add live chat to their gaming experience. As discussed in #2 above, this live chat feature could be used by students studying a foreign language, by those who might be too young to type effectively for communication, as an adapative technology tool, or just to aid in learning by providing audio along with text.
  4. Questing -- in educational terms, team-problem solving! Quests are designed to motivate users by engaging them in harder and more complex tasks over time. As one progresses through the quests, they require the use of more complex skills and the ability to work as a team to progress through various components of a quest. There is great reward for the mmorpg player to complete the quest, both psychologically, socially, and in the final reward--either a new piece of equipment, armor, a tool needed to complete a more advanced quest, and/or an increase in rank in the game. In my thinking this approach to questing mirrors life and work in general. Educational game designers can take advantage of questing to design tasks that engage learners while rewarding them in the end. For example, in A Tale in the Desert II, early quests are individual. You are required to collect grass, mud, and sand to make bricks. Once you learn to make bricks, you are then able to begin building structures with your bricks. In essence, you learn by doing, not by reading a text or seeing a slideshow about brick making.
  5. Social interaction -- the social interaction in mmorpg's is often required in order to complete the game--hey, just like real life! Players come together on a short term (groups) or long term (guilds or clans) basis. For those of us that support learning as a social process, the current design of mmorpg play is excellent for promoting social interaction.

So let's imagine you are a high school or college student who is taking a class in Ancient Egypt. Would you prefer to learn in an online class in Blackboard, or an mmorpg such as A Tale in the Desert? How about an mmorpg for chemistry, art, band, business communications or personal finance? The technology exists today--moving it into educational realms will take funding, and an understanding of the power of mmorpg technology for educational purposes.


Vanessa said...

Hi Lisa, first let me say "hello" from Distance-Educator.com :) I also see you're from San Diego, my old hometown and home to my alma mater SDSU (note I recently moved to Colorado).

But back on topic, I agree with you that the RPG (Role Playing Games as my 16 year old son calls them) can, should, and are a part of the future of online learning. What has been happening at least over the past 10 years is univerisites, educators, and instructional designers have been trying to recreate the classroom online instead of using the technology to the fullest potential and RPGs are just one aspect of how.

Bernie Dodge has taught a wonderful course in the Masters program for Educational Technology at SDSU exploring the limits called Exploratory Learning Through Simulations and Games; http://edweb.sdsu.edu/Courses/EDTEC670/index.html

But as we've both seen it's not caught on in education, but not because no one has considered it but because of the system itself. There was an educational company several years ago in the San Diego area, called LightSpan (http://web.archive.org/web/20041014040022/www.lightspan.com/Portal/Corporate/default.asp), who had the vision of bringing interactive technologies into the classroom but it is my understanding they had an uphill battle with making a profit and were eventually purchased by Plato Learning.

But anyway, I've gone on long enough, I wanted to write and let you know I agree with you but the challenge is what company who looks at ROI will bring the concept to market. Because IMO the reason no one has taken up the challenge thus far is because this is a major stumbling block. Then in addition the people who have the content don't have the technology skills, or financial backing, to make it happen and if they do the quality is lacking.

But in the end, it is the system itself, stuck in the archaic educational system that hasn't had a revolution in hundreds of years. Think about it the way we teach hasn't changed since the Industrialized age in the 1700's. And now that we have the technology to truly change the way we live, work, and learn we are trying to use it to "recreate" the classroom experience online. Just amazing. :)


Vanessa Haakenson

Lisa Dawley, Ph.D. said...

Hi Vanessa,
Great to meet you. Thank you for your insightful and detailed comments. I've been a follower of Bernie's work for years--he's always staying on top of the latest technologies and their uses in education. I appreciate the link to his course. Actually, I remember seeing him and a colleague do a presentation several years ago on a pilot they were conducting using MMORPG technology with a small group of high school students. I was excited to see something in the works, and wondered whatever became of the project.

As a former Director in an educational software company, I totally agree about ROI being a major factor. Since I'm not familiar with costs involved in mmorpg development, I can't really make a rationale argument pro or con. However, having said that, I have to imagine that an effectively designed rpg environment on a general ed content area, such as US History, could be licensed and sold to tens of thousands of students around the country at any one time. Are these numbers unreasonable--initially, perhaps, but with online subscribers to rpg's in the 100's of thousands, I have to think there's a market that could provide a decent ROI.

With the recent exponential growth in online education, I'm encouraged that policy, funding, administration, and teachers are becoming more open to technological innovations to support learning.

Thanks again for sharing.