Virtual Communities

The WoW Factor

For a growing group of educators, the online role-playing game World of Warcraft is a place to go to relax, network, and discover potential learning strategies-- and slay a few monsters if they get in the way.

VYKTOREA PACES ANXIOUSLY in preparation for a quest to the capital city of Shattrath while her teammates inventory their gear. It's an important mission. Set in the northwestern part of Terokkar Forest, Shattrath contains portals to every other major city in Outland: Darnassus, Exodar, even Ironforge. By placing their hearthstone in Shattrath, Vyktorea and her team will create a passageway that puts any resource they need at their fingertips. Vyktorea, a level-80 Night Elf Rogue, has but an hour to ready her unit. The entire team looks to her lead. The entire team, that is, except for the perky Night Elf in the back, who asks, "Does anyone know where to find best practices for a unit on reptiles?"

Forgive the young elf. A level-5 newbie, he hardly knows his shadowmeld from his wisp spirit. Plus, his query about best practices is excusable, even permissible. Like all of his quest mates on their way to Shattrath, he's being led around by an educator, and the only real potential danger is a hand cramp. This is, after all, the virtual interior of World of Warcraft, Blizzard Entertainment's massively popular massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG).

"When I first started teaching, it wasn't uncommon for all of the teachers to get together on a Friday afternoon and go out to the local watering holeā€¦ Warcraft gives us an opportunity to be social with colleagues that is difficult to manage otherwise in today's world."

Vyktorea herself belongs to Catherine Parsons, assistant superintendent for curriculum, instruction, and pupil personnel services for Pine Plains Central School District in New York state. Parsons is the founder of this "guild"-- a community of game players with a shared interest. Called Cognitive Dissonance and populated entirely by educators from both K-12 and higher education, it meets regularly in WoW's elaborate, monster-laden fantasy adventure world, where members play, share ideas, and explore possible instructional crossover. Parsons created the guild two years ago and now runs it with help from Sandy Wagner, director of technology for New York's Auburn Enlarged City School District.

Parsons says a sense of irony led her to name the guild Cognitive Dissonance, to reflect the incongruity of using a video game as a professional networking environment. "Cognitive Dissonance represents for me the moment when you realize your perspective may not be the only one, or what you knew before might not be true or may need to evolve or change based on the new information you have gathered," Parsons says. "For many, the idea that video games might represent some analogy to an effective learning structure, or that there might just be something to using video games in the classroom, is one some educators might consider 'nontraditional.' So what better name than Cognitive Dissonance-- the uncomfortable feeling caused by holding two contradictory ideas simultaneously."

A longtime user of Second Life as a personal and professional networking tool, Parsons grew interested in online gaming communities and role-playing games after attending a conference on virtual worlds in New York City in 2007. "From there I started looking at the concept of gaming as a social activity and what we could learn from gaming and the gaming industry that may apply to learning engagement in schools," she says.

Having never played an MMORPG before, Parsons realized that the best way to really understand the genre was to join one. "I had met someone at the conference who played World of Warcraft, and I figured, 'Okay, that's the one I'll play,'" she says. After a few months of playing WoW, Parsons realized that she'd benefit more from exploring the game with other educators, which led her to create Cognitive Dissonance and invite a few educators in her professional circle to join. The guild now has more than 100 active members from all over the world.

Wagner was among Parsons' initial invitees. The two met originally through Second Life and then in person months later at an ed tech conference. Wagner is now the guild's co-leader. "We've spent almost two years in Warcraft now," he says. "A lot of conversations ensue when you have 15 or 20 educators online at one time who can chat freely about their experiences in the game, or about what students might be learning when they're playing, or what might be missing in the classroom experience that makes the WoW experience so much more engaging."

A 21st-Century Golf Course

Parsons says the Cognitive Dissonance guild provides an unthreatening environment that allows educators to do three things: learn how to play a kind of video game that they may never have played before; learn about the concepts of video games and how they relate to education; and learn from other educators. "It's a network where even just learning from one another about conferences or about resources or about books that people are reading is encouraged and worthwhile," she says.

For many guild members, networking via an MMORPG stands in for a way of socializing that no longer exists. "When I first started teaching, it wasn't uncommon for all of the teachers to get together on a Friday afternoon and go out to the local watering hole," Wagner says. "You don't see as much of that anymore. Warcraft gives us an opportunity to be social with colleagues that is difficult to manage otherwise in today's world."

Wagner believes a gaming environment provides a looser setting in comparison to a conference or a professional mixer on Second Life, which puts people at ease. "It puts us all in this place where we're there to relax and play a game. It takes the pressure away; we don't have to be talking about effective teaching methods or interactive whiteboards or state education funding. But those conversations just kind of happen naturally, because we all have education in common."


Tech coordinator Lucas Gillispie's WoW in School wiki, where educators share ideas on incorporating World of Warcraft into instruction, can be visited here.

The opportunity to bounce ideas off other guild members helped Wagner through the launch of a 1-to-1 netbook program his district is now piloting. Since his district generally uses a Mac platform, and Apple has yet to introduce a netbook, he was unsure about choosing between Windows or Linux as the operating system for the computers. "We have members who were very experienced with this situation," he says. "After talking to them, I was able to not only make the decision to implement Linux-based netbooks, but to go to them along the way and say, 'Hey, do you know how I can tweak this or make this work right?' They were my support throughout the process."

As Cognitive Dissonance members have found, networking within a game setting has the extra benefit of squaring the professional playing field. A teacher may be reluctant to approach a superintendent at a conference, but within World of Warcraft, that same teacher could be leading the superintendent through a mission, advising on the intricacies of the game, forming a bond that might not have otherwise have developed. Lucas Gillispie, instructional technology coordinator for Pender County Schools in Burgaw, NC, and an experienced WoW player before joining the guild a year ago, explains that workplace hierarchies can get turned upside-down inside the gaming environment.

"If I know more than a superintendent or a college professor with a PhD who's playing with us, he doesn't hesitate to ask for help," Gillispie says. "In my other guild, which includes students and former students from my schools, it wouldn't be uncommon for me to ask a student how to achieve a specific task. If the student knows more than me in this situation, it doesn't matter."

It's the use of avatars, Gillispie observes, that strips away some of the barriers of traditional networking. "Unless you know who's behind the avatar, you're not going to bring a lot of preconceived notions into the interaction," he says. "If I meet someone in World of Warcraft, the only thing I know about them before we begin playing is what I can tell from their avatar-- they're level 80 and I'm level 50, so they have more experience than I have. It makes for a laid-back environment where your 'real-life' ranking doesn't really matter."

"It's like a golf course, where businessmen go for both recreation and networking," Parsons says. "That's the best description for what this virtual environment has become."

Mixing Pedagogy

With Pleasure But the formation of the guild, Parsons says, wasn't intended for recreation or networking, but as an effort to uncover education's brass ring: student engagement. Parsons was resolved to find out why students gladly perform mentally rigorous tasks in WoW that turn them off in the classroom. "If the software companies have figured out how to get students to do things that are challenging but require persistence," she asks, "why aren't we doing these things?

"We came together on this one like-minded principle: What do video games have to teach us about learning?"

A lot, they found out. Parsons notes how WoW draws on multiple skills across multiple disciplines. "You have to be able to read to play World of Warcraft. You have to be able to communicate. You have to be able to use analytical skills, use statistics skills. There's an economy, there's the concept of supply and demand. There are four different wars going on, and those wars pattern what we know historically about conflict in the world. Both sides of the conflict have a point of view, so whose point of view is correct? Social studies concepts, history concepts, English concepts in terms of writing and lore, and even the scientific and statistical theories behind how you build your character and what sort of combination of different talents you use and what different weapons you use. It's complicated to be involved in those conversations.

"We have 13-, 14-, 15-year-old boys and girls whom we can't get to do those kinds of computations in the classroom doing those computations and having those conversations in games like World of Warcraft."


The Cognitive Dissonance guild is always open to more members. For more information on joining the guild, go here.

Parsons says that after discovering what draws students to virtual worlds, educators need to borrow from them: "How can we change our practices to make them reflect the types of things that engage students? How can we harness this genre of media?"

She fired her first strike over the summer, having her district's high school computer programming class rewritten to incorporate the use of Scratch, a programming language that allows users to write video games. "That's what the kids are doing right now-- creating games in Scratch," she says. "That's the first step in my district in seeing how video games can apply."

Others in the guild have been inspired by WoW to take similar steps. Parsons explains that one member, the director of online learning at a community college, described to her a new course at the college in which the works of J.R.R. Tolkien are studied through their various representations-- his books, the films based on those books, and also the Lord of the Rings MMORPG. Students in the class meet as their avatars in the game's virtual world rather than in a classroom.

"Consider how motivating it would be for students to learn Tolkien if they could do it in an environment they're comfortable in, like a video game," Parsons says.

Gillispie is making the most ambitious effort with a project he has started called WoW in School. "I'm trying to get people to look at using World of Warcraft as a platform for teaching concepts such as economics or mathematics, or writing and literacy," he says. "The Cognitive Dissonance members have been an excellent sounding board. They have really helped me think through the logistics of using WoW in the school system."

Gillispie began playing MMORPGs about 10 years ago as a high school science teacher. "All along, I was making connections between things that I'm doing in the game and thinking, 'If I could use this or that to teach a particular concept or lesson, how nice that would be.' I finally just said, 'I need to write all these ideas down, like doing a mathematics lesson based around a statistical comparison between one weapon versus another weapon, or this particular armor resistance and this particular armor resistance."

He even took inspiration from observing that a particular herb that allowed his avatar to go invisible was always growing in a thick clump of weeds. "It's almost like the game has its own ecology," he says, "so that is an idea: Create a lesson that compares World of Warcraft ecology to real-world ecology."

Gillispie wrote down all of his ideas, shared them with other guild members, who contributed some of their own, and created a wiki to hold them all and accept more.

The project is still in the idea phase. Gillispie got the go-ahead from his administration and is now waiting for the state to come forward with technology funds before he can move ahead to implementation. He expects to pilot WoW in School as an after-school program for at-risk or fringe students, to "give them something that could be an anchor for them in the school, something that they enjoy."

Gillispie says his graduate studies, which focused on instructional design, were influenced by his gaming experience. "I always have suggested that instructional designers, especially those who are designing for computer-based instruction, might want to look at how game designers are developing their games. Today's games are highly cognitive in nature, a lot of higher-order thinking and problem solving. They're very complex. I mean, we're not playing Pac-Man anymore.

"Maybe it's a tragedy that I'm having to go to a commercial, not-intended-for-instruction type of game like World of Warcraft to do this. My question is, If this is a good format for learning, why aren't we seeing more games like this designed for instruction, maybe to teach cellular biology or complex mathematics? If you could do this with a game that was never designed to be something that teaches you ecology or culture or economics, what could you do with a similarly designed game that was designed to do that?"

The Play's the Thing

It's worth remembering that the Cognitive Dissonance guild fundamentally exists to play World of Warcraft. When Parsons moves on from explaining the game's social and professional benefits to its gaming pleasures, her voice takes on a new velocity. "Saturday nights are hysterical," Parsons says. "That's when we let it all out. That's when we raid."

On Saturday nights, Parson and her strongest "raid-level" guild members join forces with high-level members of other guilds within their trusted Small Guild Alliance to run advanced, 25-person forays.

Parsons describes a recent Saturday evening siege in which her crew had to fend off monsters, giant spider tanks, helicopter attacks, and assorted other menaces before coming up against the formidable Flame Leviathan, "a big, huge, tank-like thing," she says. "As you're driving through the area, you have to knock down all of these towers. So you're killing stuff, you're trying to stay alive, you're trying to pay attention to the person in your tank and all the people around you, plus you're trying to take the towers down. Finally, you make it to Flame Leviathan, and all 25 people attack him at the same time while he's attacking us."

During a raid, the gamers communicate via a VoIP system called Ventrilo. "You've got 25 people talking in your ear and those 25 people can hear you," Parsons says. "It's a coordinated fight-- and it gets pretty intense."

The big beast was felled easily. "We pounded right through it. Nobody died this past Saturday night."

Parsons knows that some of the people she interacts with at her day job may find some humor, or even peculiarity, in her passion for WoW-- namely, students. "They think it's funny when they see my laptop and I have Warcraft stickers on the back of it. They look at me and cock their head and think, 'She plays Warcraft?'"

She plays it, all right. Hers is no community of dabblers. Parsons says that Warcrafter, a WoW-dedicated website, ranks Cognitive Dissonance eighth out of the 333 guilds in its "realm." "We may not be the best," she says, "but we don't suck."

Of course, Parsons and Wagner both say that gaming prowess is not the guild's ultimate objective, but instead to have an arena where like-minded professionals can connect with each other on terms that circumstances may otherwise prevent.

"These are the times when I spend time with people who I actually believe are closest to me," Parsons says. "My best friends are in this guild, and they live all over the place. I can't always travel five or six hours to someone's house, but this is how I spend the time with them that I do. For me, there's no separation between seeing each other in the physical space and seeing each other in the virtual space."

"We've built such a collaborative environment within this guild and within this game," Wagner says. "You're allowed to have that initial anonymity when you first join that makes you comfortable and allows you to settle in, but by participating in the game you get to really know people, sometimes even as much or more so than you would in 'real life'-- a term I don't really like to use, because this is real life."

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This article originally appeared in the November-December 2009 issue of THE Journal.