Dmitri recently received an e-mail from Mike Fred, a
Behavior Intervention Specialist who uses WoW therapeutically as part of his work with challenged kids:
I play WoW with a few of the students from my school. It has proven to be beneficial to the students socially, academically, and therapeutically. In general these students lack social skills. Even when they want to make friends, they often behave inappropriately and tend to push people away. Yet, as these students have gotten involved with playing WoW, they have made social connections - not only with each other, but with other players online. They are all active members of their online guilds… their online relationships are not deep. However, the fact that they make relationships at all is significant. Moreover, two of these students have developed a real friendship.
WoW has proven to be a help academically. One of my students, who has a learning disability, has shown an increased interest in reading as a result of having to deal with the text in WoW. I have also noticed his "tells" and ingame emails have gotten easier to read. One of the important factors in getting children to read is giving them a reason which has meaning for them. For this student, finding out where to go to gather Laden Mushrooms in the Barrens is a reason to work harder at school.
The most important benefit from playing WoW with my students at school has been the therapeutic effect. It has proven to be a bridge to one of my students who was withdrawn and disconnected from school. He refused to engage with his social worker, and was determined not to work with his teacher. Through WoW I was able to form a relationship with this student. In the course of our game interactions, he would bring up things that had happened during the day. Perhaps as a consequence of the peronal distance afforded by intergame communication, he was able to talk about these things. Over time, he was able to extend this willingness to talk to his teacher in the classroom. I am happy to say that he has taken steps that have started to put him on track for return to public school. In the course of my job, I often deal with students when they are in crisis. I have very little trouble dealing with the kids I play with, even when they are in the throes of a violent tantrum.
I asked the TerraNovans if I could be the one to post about this because my Ph.D. research looking at social learning associated with virtual worlds has morphed somewhat into an assessment of the socio-cultural literacies that players develop in order to achieve mastery of a virtual space. In more basic terms, I've become interested in the 'soft' skills (social intelligence?) like communication, team-work, leadership, etc. that players develop as by-products of play, and whether those skills are potentially transferable to real life. In fact, I have just returned from New Zealand, where I was invited to do a keynote at a Ministry of Education conference about these possibilities, especially important there, where a set of soft skills-based competencies (based on the OECD's five key competencies) have been introduced into the formal curriculum - these competencies emphasize core life skills like managing self, relating to others, and participating/contributing. The local media, in particular, has taken quite an interest in this idea, and I spent a few days taking advantage of a whole bunch of opportunities to assuage parental fears about their kids' videogame play (and hopefully making myself a few juvenile gamer friends in the process!). So the reception there, even (or especially) among the teachers, was fantastic, though it has certainly stirred quite a lot of debate, especially as it relates to the transferability to RL bit.
Aside from my own observations while conducting ethnographic research in various virtual worlds (but particularly
City of Heroes/City of Villains), I was encouraged to think
about these issues more fully when John Seely Brown introduced Steven Gillett,
a Yahoo executive who scored his job in large part because of his experience
running a big MMO guild, at the Games * Learning * Society conference last
year. And this year, JSB collaborated with
Doug Thomas on a related piece for Wired magazine. In the meantime, I have been attempting to
collect some data to support these ideas, though not quite the rigorous and
longitudinal study this sort of thing really deserves. Still, there are some interesting hints in my
data, a survey of nearly 10,000 City of Heroes/City of Villains players, that
though based on self-reporting, serves to help generalize some of the things
that most virtual world residents have observed anecdotally.
So when asked to write a book chapter for the just-published Games & Simulations for Online Learning: Research and Development Frameworks, I collaborated with educator Melanie Zibit on our chapter, 'Online Games for 21st Century Skills' [12 MB PDF]. That chapter outlines the hypothesis that online games, particularly MMOs, are excellent practice arenas for 21st century skills. My survey data definitely supports this idea, with about a third of participants acknowledging improvements to their RL skills in areas like communication, team-work, conflict mediation, patience, sense of humor, etc. But some of the most poignant examples came from the open-ended comments: people with Asperger's syndrome, for instance, who have found MMOs a safe place to practice their social skills, or a recent widower who used an MMO to cautiously reintegrate himself into life, or a fellow who sought RL social skills training after being marginalized by his guild. Ted Castranova has referred to this 'socio-emotional therapeutic potential' as 'sanctuary', and I agree that this is a very compelling feature of virtual worlds to the large number of people who find physical reality scary, unfriendly, inaccessible, or just downright unfair (the mysterious R.V. Kelly 2 covers this ground compellingly in his chapter on the reasons for problematic usage in his book Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games: The People, the Addiction and the Playing Experience)
In addition, there have been a spate of articles about various games and virtual worlds, including Second Life, that have attempted to focus on the pro-social aspects, like the development of skills (in some cases just basic computer literacy) that are potentially transferable. I appreciate this sort of reporting, because I think looking at what kinds of benefits can emerge spontaneously from play in entertainment spaces is a nice counterpoint to much of the consternation surrounding the potential of games for explicitly education or training purposes. Gonzalo Frasca, for instance, has been (rightly, I think) raining on the serious game parade, echoing a sentiment many of us have felt: the potential of serious games is perilously close to being over-hyped. Though most people can see the potential, there is something a bit awkward about trying to take a medium like videogames and stuffing pre-established curricula, designed for a linear and pre-digital context, into it. This is a big part of the reason why I got out of e-learning/educational game design and into game research from an anthropological perspective (a la Jean Lave, I like to think, and inspired mucho by Constance's work). I believe that the key to understanding the potential of games/virtual worlds for learning is to understand what is being learned there already, and how that learning happens. So that's my question to you all… what are people learning? And is it transferable to RL contexts?
One final wrinkle in all of this:
A fair number of my respondents,
when asked whether skills learned in-game have had an impact on their real
lives, are adamant (!) that an MMO is 'just a game' and has no effect whatsoever on
their lives. When I probe those
responses, I most often find that it's a statement being made by young males. Does anyone have an explanation for this?