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  • Playing to Learn: Tales from the Trenches

    - Jeannie Novak
  • [In this blog post originally published at Game Career Guide sister site Gamasutra, Game Development Essentials author Jeannie Novak offers a series of tips for students and educators who wish to employ "serious" games in a classroom setting.]

    In 2003, while speaking at the University of Southern California's Teaching, Learning & Technology conference, I noticed more than a few visibly uncomfortable educators in the audience. I had recently completed my Master's thesis on using massively multiplayer online games (MMOs) as online distance learning applications, and I was providing a summary of my findings. The notion of any game posing as a learning management system (LMS) was difficult enough for most to parse -- especially at the time -- but those who weren't well-versed in the workings of MMOs were even more bewildered. The idea involved simple economics: using one solution to address the following two problems:

    1) Online distance learning tools were cumbersome at best, and clunky at worst. Although billed as "interactive," these LMS platforms weren't living up to the promise of providing immersive, experiential learning to students who had foregone the face-to-face interaction associated with on-ground classroom instruction.

    2) MMOs attracted players who were willing to sacrifice much of their personal lives to ensure their availability 24/7 to complete quests, manage character stats, and confront "griefers." This also posed an obvious problem: How many MMOs could possibly compete in the marketplace after just one (e.g., World of Warcraft) attracted the majority of players?

    South Park's Emmy award-winning "Make Love, Not Warcraft" (left) and popular web series. The Guild (right) provide a glimpse into the traditional MMO gamer lifestyle.

    The solution?

    Turning the online classroom into an MMO would allow students to log onto an LMS that behaved like a game. In turn, more game developers would have the opportunity to develop various MMOs for specific courses, programs, and educational institutions, thereby widening the MMO market.

    A few years later, I attempted to address these issues in a project that involved Second Life (SL) and a team of educators, students, and industry volunteers. The idea was to create a virtual environment that could be accessed by students as a course. In that environment, students would become players-focusing on solving narrative mysteries tied to gameplay systems that were quite sophisticated at the time, especially when embedded in a multi-user virtual environment (MUVE) such as SL.

    Our team pushed the envelope -- from the art to the scripting. The project was ahead of its time; again, the notion of learning within a game environment was beyond comprehension, even though our tech team provided a "bridge" by writing code that allowed results from SL to feed into the LMS.

    Our Second Life project (exterior of building during construction, left; interior portion of one floor during polish, right) pushed the MUVE envelope in 2007.

    To this day, the two problems outlined above have not been resolved...for the most part. Even though I'm no longer actively directing or teaching online programs, I hear complaints from students worldwide regarding their extreme disappointment with the online distance learning process. These concerns are the same as they were 10 years ago: copious on-screen text, arcane file incompatibility issues, and unnecessary "busy work" leading to participation points. Some students will "cheat" the system by simply logging on for the required length of time, waiting for others to make comments, and chiming in with brief platitudes of mutual agreement.

    The good news is that many developers and educators alike have embraced in the alternately lauded and derided term "gamification," incorporating its associated toolset into the onground classroom. My hope is that this state of mind will fuel a paradigm shift to online distance learning solutions as well.


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