Megatrends: The serious business of gaming to learn

It’s quite possible that no single factor has ever played a larger role in augmenting the size of the hermit community than “World of Warcraft.” Since the launch of the Warcraft franchise in 1994, the game has made homebodies of more than 12 million gamers worldwide. And it’s quite the busy collection of bees, too, completing more than 16 million quests and auctioning off 3.5 million items daily. Of course, many (especially those at elite institutions like Yale) are likely to scoff at such accomplishments: “So what if you’re a Level 85 Paladin? I’m L33T in real life.” But they may be surprised to learn that celebrities like Mila Kunis, Kate Beckinsale, Elijah Wood, Cameron Diaz and even Jenna Jameson all lead double lives as inhabitants of the world of Azeroth.

The expansion of video game culture beyond shady basements has led many to consider how the power of games can be harnessed to make real life better. Jane McGonigal at the Institute for the Future, a nonprofit research group, recently published a book called “Reality is Broken: How Videogames Change the World.” Last year, she launched a game in conjunction with the World Bank Institute called “Urgent Evoke” that was billed as a “ten week crash course in saving the world.” Players who successfully complete ten game challenges in ten weeks are granted the title of “Certified World Bank Institute Social Innovator.”

Meanwhile, Lee Sheldon, a professor at Indiana University, has been using games to innovate in the classroom. His book, “The Multiplayer Classroom: Designing Coursework as a Game,” is due out later this year and can be previewed at his blog, “Gaming the Classroom” (gamingtheclassroom.wordpress.com). Sheldon’s grading procedure coincides with a 2000 XP (experience point) scale: students start off as Level One Avatars with 0 XP and must gain 1860 XP to achieve Level Twelve and earn an A. Instead of reports and quizzes, there are “solo quests.” Instead of group projects, there are “guild quests.” A guild plays the game by rotating through different class zones, each of which is designated with a topic about which the players must answer questions to gain points. Sheldon staged a guild vs. guild jeopardy match to review for the midterm. The strategy, Sheldon claims, is “exactly how guilds learn to defeat mobs in a boss raid, learning from their wipes, modifying their approach, until at last they bring the beast down.” It’s not hard to imagine how this approach to learning could make distributional credits a little easier to manage. That is, if the academy can overcome our bias against gaming as a frivolous activity.

And it makes sense: games, like papers or problem sets, are about learning and overcoming challenges. When there is nothing left to learn or overcome, the game ends. Yet games are addictive because every time we solve a problem or understand a pattern, that feeling of mastery correlates to the release of endorphins in the brain. It’s a mistake, however, to think that games can only be used toward trivial ends. Sure, chess teaches strategy, but “Starcraft” teaches resource allocation; “World of Warcraft” teaches team management. Studies show that gaming makes for better surgeons, due to enhanced hand-eye coordination. Games provide the best evidence that learning, particularly the acquisition of real-life skills, can be both effective and fun.

In his book “Theory of Fun,” Raph Koster argues that a good game is “one that teaches everything it has to offer before the player stops playing.” Anyone who has taken a tedious Intro class knows that if the material isn’t made palatable, most stop playing before they’ve even begun. A more effective tact may be for classes to provide both puzzles and a methodology for mastery. As things stand now, our natural apathy to the material and the sheer density of it might prevent us from seeing the puzzles at all. Koster and Sheldon would argue that despite the formidable challenges that accompany our attempts to learn about a new field, the education is not as engaging or efficient as it could be because the approach itself is flawed: there are puzzles in the form of problem sets and homework, but they are not framed as such. If “Farmville” can make the idea of returning to an agrarian lifestyle fun and addicting, why can’t the use of games be extended to make calculus (or even economics) exciting?

Far from being a paradox, gaming while learning may be the new frontier for experimental education. The concept might even prove critical for primary and secondary schooling, where younger children have increasingly lower thresholds for absorbing information and learning skills. Especially if we want to achieve Obama’s goal of “out-educating” the world, making classes more fun needs to be an imperative.

Then again, for the most devoted “WoW” pros, mixing gaming and fun would probably be a pursuit fit only for the n00bs.

Shaman Tomas Savigliano contributed his l33t expertise to this article.

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