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World of Warcraft and Minecraft: Models for our educational system?

How two games can help student engagement.

What is wrong with schools that there is so much discussion about how to fix them through gamification? One perspective is that students are unmotivated by school but obsessed with gaming — perhaps a game-like structure for school would make students as passionate about solving quadratic equations as killing monsters. Another perspective is that students are not being prepared for a 21st-century workforce — perhaps the collaborative requirements of online guilds and group challenges would help them gain the skills needed to work in a global environment. A third perspective is that school has lost any authentic connection with real life — perhaps introducing playfulness will create more relevance and authenticity.

Numerous game-like technology approaches for learning have been known to improve test scores among low-performing students. Computer-based learning that allows students to proceed at their own pace, to slow down and repeat subjects when they get stuck, to skip material they have already mastered, and to have a digital dashboard that lets them know how far they’ve come seem to help students stay more engaged — at least when combined with guidance and support from an excellent teacher. As these elements parallel many of the mechanics of games like World of Warcraft (WoW) it is not implausible to think of including them in both digital and brick-and-mortar learning in the hopes of creating significantly increased engagement and achievement on the part of students.

World of Warcraft and education

There are some powerful ideas in this approach, including the most common gamification mechanism: leveling up. Traditionally, students learn one day at a time. “What are the new example problems, and can I reproduce the process of solving them? What will be on the test?” In this model, the goal is the grade, not understanding, and the game is school. If done well, implementing a leveling-up metaphor can help shift a student’s mindset to one in which the game is learning and the grade is a side effect of getting better. “What do I need to understand in order to reach the next level?” Generally, this requires that the levels are awarded as indications of genuine accomplishment as opposed to being expected to have intrinsic motivational value.

Another common mechanism is “unlocking” new content: one can imagine a math curriculum being broken up into smaller modules that allow a student to choose what skills to “unlock” next, increasing ownership and autonomy in a way that is associated with increased motivation. “Achieves” (acknowledgement of having accomplished something significant) can motivate students to explore more widely. Leaderboards can stimulate competition and peer pressure to succeed. With careful design, the structure can create an environment that supports both intrinsic and extrinsic motivators for personal achievement using traditional gamification tools that parallel the leveling aspects of games like WoW.

Screenshot from World of Warcraft Cataclysm
Screenshot from “World of Warcraft Cataclysm.”

The challenge with the gamification approach as described so far is that it doesn’t address the whole story. What education has found over the past decade by incentivizing improved test scores is that those come at the cost of other forms of student achievement. For instance, a student who can achieve proficiency on a state math test may be able to solve rote problems and perform computation, but not know how to apply those skills to challenges in the real world that require higher-order thinking. More importantly, competency in these basic skills may not be enough to prepare a student for work in a global economy. There is a growing emphasis in education on 21st-century skills such as collaboration and communication — skills that advanced players of WoW must master in order to succeed in dungeons, battle grounds, and raids; those aspects of the game that require groups or teams.

Leveling up in WoW means solving problems (quests) and grinding (tedious monster-killing that gains experience points), and requires only basic skills. You measure success by your level, and you gain levels faster by becoming faster at questing and defeating monsters. The key statistic in how quickly a monster goes down is the “damage per second” (DPS) that your character can deal. Optimizing DPS is challenging and takes both practice and analysis, but in the end, great DPS only gets you so far. WoW is not just an online game. Like the real world, it is massively multiplayer, and much of the game, including all of the advanced gaming, involves working with teams to achieve challenging objectives. While statistics like DPS and others provide the minimum requirements for entry into advanced team gaming, you will only be able to participate if the rest of the group accepts you as a team member. This requires a more advanced knowledge of the challenges, collaboration and teamwork, communication, and other 21st-century skills. (The relationship between massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG) and 21st-century skills has been described for years by Marc Prensky and John Seely Brown.)

There is no point system in WoW to grade you as a team player — there is only your reputation. Other players include and invite you based on your value as they see it — a combination of your performance and their biases. Similarly, in school, there are currently no digital assessments that can predict the ability of a student to perform effectively on self-managed, collaborative teams once they enter the workforce, yet preparation for work or college is one of the top goals of K-12 education.

That’s not to say that there is no performance data available — it just requires human interpretation. In WoW, raid leaders download spreadsheets with data on every action of every character and its effect — data that is available because the game is digital. This data is used to determine the performance of the players and the effectiveness of their strategies. Combined with first-hand experience of collaborating with each player, this data can provide a well-rounded picture to an experienced raid leader. Analogously, in schools, one could imagine that digitally mediated group projects might yield data that would help an educator understand how a student was performing as a collaborator and a communicator. Of course, teachers do this without technology all the time; but with large classes and little time, they are exposed to only a fraction of the work and interactions that are actually happening in teams.

A personalized education can parallel WoW on two levels — in the first, a shared standard for success lets the student “level up” based on mastery rather than moving through the system based on seat time. In the second, shared common goals give the student the opportunity to demonstrate 21st-century skills such as collaboration and communication. But this interpretation of gamification still falls short of the big picture. Life doesn’t have the pre-defined goals at which these structures are designed to help us succeed; whether work does or not depends largely on the work environment, far more than on the nature of the work.

Minecraft and education

If part of college or work preparation also involves gaining experience and confidence with open exploration, curiosity, creativity, and following a hunch or an interest without knowing where it will lead, let’s shift our metaphor from Warcraft to Minecraft.

Screenshot from This is Minecraft video
Screenshot from “This is Minecraft” video.

Like Warcraft, Minecraft is a virtual world with a few simple rules. In a nutshell, the world is littered with materials that can be used for building things, a “craft table” for making things from raw materials, and optional monsters to battle. Unlike Warcraft, there are no pre-defined goals. Players may create adventure maps with all kinds of goals and challenges for other players, and these are wildly popular, but conquering a map doesn’t get you points in a bigger game-wide contest.

Minecraft is about making stuff. Virtual stuff, but stuff nonetheless. It is also about exploration. In Minecraft, you can get lost and never find your way back, in which case your best option may be to cut your losses and move forward. In Minecraft, players make elaborate buildings, works of art, performance art (see the TNT videos on YouTube), and mini worlds and challenges for other players. Games like Minecraft can offer us a perspective on balancing the goal-based solving of problems with the open-ended finding of valuable questions — a skill education will need to provide to every new global citizen.

If there are things to learn from the notion of gamification, let’s apply them at multiple levels, not superficially. We can learn from levels and leaderboards to add intrinsic and extrinsic motivators to help motivate students to succeed at traditional state standards and tests. We can learn from the structure of the human dynamics in massively multiplayer games to value and capture collaboration, communication, and other higher-order skills needed to achieve collective pre-defined goals. We can learn from simple rule-based (as opposed to goal-based) games to value and preserve the artifacts of exploration as well as its end products.

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  • student

    Finally. These are exactly the two games I would choose to showcase: the most addictive and powerful reward system known to man (WOW) and the most inspiring open canvas(Minecraft). Only one thing though. If schools decide they want to go back to drilling students with lists of facts then we might want to take inspiration from Zynga games, so at least we can all be happy about that sort of thing.
    I’m happy the institution in need of manipulating attention and learning have found the industry that already knows how. Took them long enough.

  • mbjerede

    Great point – I am officially adding Zynga to my list education motivation taxonomy.

  • frenetics

    The school curriculum needs to be looked over in the first place.

    Very few people EVER need Algebra 2 in their lives, yet it’s required of everyone?

    It is simply a waste of time. Instead, people should be guided toward what they want from the beginning of high school.

    Look at the number of people who enter college and have no idea what they want to do… or waste years of their lives learning sciences they want nothing to do with.

    There is simply too much to learn in society now. It is only going to get worse as we advance further and further.

    A math course on how to file your taxes, credit card management, 401K plans… ANYTHING useful would be far better suited for high school than the things being asked of them in the SATs.

  • Sulan Dun

    Good article. As a hobby, I have been writing free educational games to see if they can increase student learning. So far it has worked very well as there have been over 25 million page views at FunbasedlearnIng.com. Some things I have learned which address the article:
    Yes, the level gaining or ranking works. For instance, in my Line Gem 1 graphing linear equations game, there is a high score list where your placement depends on how many gems you got flying your dragon along different linear equations. The list is mythical (not against other players) but is designed so if you just randomly guess the answers you get 4th or 5th place out of 10. This motivates students be because anyone coming in 2nd, 3rd or 4th see themselves as pretty good and are happy to replay the tutorial and game to try and understand graphing linear equatiIoms better and raise their final ranking – it feels like reward only rather than punishment (ex coming in 8th say would be demotivating). Conversely, gifted students who come in 1st might wonder – I wonder if I could come in 10th? That is quite difficult, even more difficult than coming in 1st be aide the student would have to choose the worst possible linear equation every single
    time to miss as many gems as possible. So you can shape behavior based on the rankings.

  • Onofre Pouplana

    Zynga? The creators of Farmville? Thats the worst example of a game company ever. Let me drill on this:

    -Typical Zynga games are based on engagement, but only in the most superficial way: keep doing the same.

    -Most Games aimed to provide a secure sandbox for Trial and error. If you choose poorly, you lost, or others win. But at least, you expect to be able to learn from that.

    -Farmville, for example, could not be a game at all: there’s not a winning strategy, only a optimal time management approximation, that applied over time, lead to a leadership on an infinity board.

    Could better described as a competitive and infinite entertainment.

  • http://wowinschool.pbworks.com Peggy Sheehy

    May I please direct you to WoW in School: The Hero’s Journey http://wowinschool.pbworks.com > course as an example of how these ideas may actually be implemented.

  • Joel

    Great article. Can I direct you to my sites:

    MinecraftTeacher.net and
    MinecraftEdu.com

    I’ve been teaching with Minecraft for almost a year now! It’s been an amazing experience!

  • Marie Bjerede

    Peggy & Joel – WOW! (No pun intended) I just spent some time perusing your sites and am impressed and delighted by your work.

  • http://massivelyminecraft.org Jokay

    Nice article! You might be interested in Massively Minecraft!

    We are a learning community for kids aged 4-16 who are interested in developing digital media skills, exploring their creativity and developing online social skills using the video game Minecraft. Our guild is a social-enterprise for kids, parents, teachers, schools and researchers as players in an open world to learn together, using game-theory and our experience of developing process networks in virtual worlds.

    Thus far our experience in Minecraft has been amazing.. epically engaged kids, parents excited by their kids engagement in self-directed learning and a HUGE amount of fun! ;)

  • http://e-mergents.com/ Marie Bjerede

    @Jokay, Intriguing. I am always fascinated by the use of MMORPGs as tools for developing digital citizenship with real people on-line and interacting. Very interesting as digital media tool for education – I would love to learn more.

  • Random Person 95

    I LOVE the idea of putting WoW and Minecraft in school (too bad it will never happen while I am in school) but I think that the WoW Auction House could teach something too as well as the general WoW economy (even though I think things are WAAAAAAAAY too over priced (on my server (which i found out was actually one of the CHEAPER servers (cheaper as in everything is not priced as highly as other servers))) The guild repair system could teach students how a company works. The guild repairs is like a pay check and the higher rank you are in the guild the more gold you can use to repair (if it is a good guild) like how the higher up you are in a company the more you get paid.

  • allamericancomp

    My friend was at a conference where they debuted this very cool.