In the past decade, a new term has emerged on the learning landscape: the MMOLG, or Massive Multi-Player Online Learning Game. MMOLGs seek to engage students on a deeper level, and across a broader audience than conventional education methods, and they are doing it using a model with tremendous commercial success.
As tens of millions of people found out over the last decade, video games are an effective way of motivating people to commit to something. And no other category of game has drawn as much attention from scientists, philosophers and educators as the MMORPG – the Massive Online Role Playing Game.
These types of games were a genuine business coup, with some – World of Warcraft in particular – reaching over ten million monthly subscribers. The players of online video games spend an average 25 hours a week playing a video game online. That’s four times more than the average offline video game player and enough to gross an extra $1000+ a month at minimum-wage in Ontario (Canada).
I’m not judging – when I had my own online gaming account, I often spent more time in front of the computer screen.
While I won’t go into the different types of MMOLGs today, I do want to explore what makes video games such effective motivators, and why this media isn’t used more in the classroom.
Games Offer A Sense of Progression
A progressive rewards system makes video-games powerful and highly successful motivators. It’s not just the sense that you are moving forward, but the feeling that you are getting better at something as well. In most online games, progress is tracked both numerically – you earn more points in “strength” – and experientially, as you encounter more complex challenges, while opponents that overwhelmed you before are overwhelmed by you instead.
In many games now, there’s a system of achievements in place where tasks as mundane as acquiring a pet chicken from a certain farmer “unlock” rewards for players in the form of titles, virtual equipment or humorous pets.
As this article on MSNBC points out, games also speak to the spirit of competition – the quest to excel at something beyond everybody else in the virtual room.
The ancient Greeks held the virtue of “arete,” or “the pursuit of excellence.” Video games speak to this basic human desire for mastery.
Games Provide A Safe Environment in Which to Make Mistakes
Video games also provide a safe environment where you can make mistakes with few consequences. Players become frustrated at having to repeat a task, but generally speaking, you’re free to blunder with impunity. Avoiding the tedium of repetition is often enough to motivate gamers to do better next time.
I used to play with a “raid team” in World of Warcraft – a group of ten people that banded together to accomplish difficult objectives. We could spend entire evenings trying the same task over and over, in the hopes that we would eventually master it and move on. Most of the time we would. That’s ten people, most of whom only ever met online, who would strategically coordinate their actions for hours, despite multiple character “deaths.” Frustrating? Yes. But the only cost was time. (and $17 a month)
This brings up my next point…
Online Video Games are Inherently Social
MMORPGs are inherently social. As my “raiding” example above illustrates, people come together to play. This is something I think some non-video gamers have trouble understanding: Gamers make commitments to real people through the medium of the game.
If you’re not a MMORPG player, consider the game as highly sophisticated telephone software. What you see on the screen might be graphics, but those graphics are controlled by individuals at the other end. Your partner or child is making time commitments to them, not the graphics. It’s as real, as fun, and even more safe a social activity, as going out for drinks with your friends.
And you can end up with epic loot instead of a hangover.
But Can We Leverage Video Games For Learning?
It’s no surprise to see innovative teachers and thinkers trying to tap into the enormous motivating potential of the online video game, and some are even exploring game mechanisms to do everything from lose weight to improve memory.
Take this video by Jane McGonigal at TED Talks, who explains not only how she’s leveraged gaming to add 10 years to peoples’ lives, but how gaming actually saved her life!
Jane stresses the use of games to develop collaborative approaches to problem solving, and she encourages using this approach in everyday settings. Here’s the link to her book: Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. (not an Amazon affiliate link)
Many teachers have adopted games in the classroom, but there is still significant resistance to full scale adoption of video games as a teaching tool.
What’s the Problem?
As this paper from the Software and Information Industry Association’s (SIIA) Education Division points out, while we have evidence that games are effective learning media, we lack an education system that can effectively deploy them in the classroom.
Lack of familiarity, inherited curricular methods and dwindling resources are just three of the obstacles identified in the report. How does the SIIA recommend selling the idea?
- Link it to a metaphor that screams familiarity – like a laboratory;
- Offer guidelines for classroom management to prevent loss of control, or perceived loss of control;
- Develop game-based solutions that complement “pen and paper” based assignments;
- Clarify the expert-role of teachers in educational gaming;
- Show proof that the games are effective teaching aides;
- Use games that adhere to certain standards;
- Focus on selling the idea to “early adopters” – they are more likely to buy in, and then will provide a far more powerful endorsement to their peers than an external agent ever could;
- Communicate the key benefits education-based games clearly, without the puffery of marketing slang.
While video games aren’t the most effective solution for every pedagogical challenge, they can often offer significant advantages over traditional media. They appeal to a broader set of learners, are powerful motivators, and grab student attention in ways few other technologies do. For learning technology, I suspect there is no rival. I’ve personally learned more about computers as a gamer than I ever have in formal classrooms. My desire to succeed at various games encouraged me to download and install mods, optimize my UI, use console commands and then research how to undo the catastrophic problems I had created on my computer.
I made less mistakes as time went on. And as a benchmark for learning, I’m OK with that.
What have your experiences been with games and learning? Share some in the comments below and I’ll try to write about them in a future post.