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.
- By Jennifer Demski
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 hole…
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."
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."
If you would like more information on online
role-playing games, visit our website at
www.thejournal.com. Enter the keyword gaming.
This article originally appeared in the November-December 2009 issue of THE Journal.