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Oct 05, 2006



Young people are really defensive about the effects of gaming (and media in general), because of a perception that games are murder simulators designed to put killers in every high school in America.

"They're just games, they don't matter" is an easy defense that doesn't require explaining subtle distinctions.


I am so excited, intrigued, and curious about work such as this regarding use and effect of games and learning of all types of competencies. I have taught for a couple of years and have since been working designing educational software for a online service. I also run a community blog called The Game Chair with a group of writers who are devoted to writing some thoughtful content about games. I have such passion for education as well as games and have recently begun seeking out knowledge for how to find an opportunity to share my skills and passions with games and education. Thanks for taking the time to share what you are up to and to provide links to other resources. Now, I just have to find the time to read them all and find a path to get involved.


Good to get the update on all your doings, Lisa. It's nice to see the Lave reference, and Berkeley of course also has another strong proponent of practice theory in the stupendous Loïc Wacquant in the sociology department.

As for the "just a game" comment; naturally what mjh says is true, but I also wanted to add that it's a perfect example of cultural intimacy at work, where a practice that is a key part of producing belonging within a group is nonetheless protected from view or scrutiny vis-à-vis outsiders who may construe it as harmful or embarrassing.


Young males also seem to be the demographic most likely to treat these worlds as games, regardless of the purposes that others put them to.


Right Raph, which suggests that there's more at stake for that demographic in representing them as "just games" to outsiders. It would be consistent with the idea that these (white?) males are thereby able both to get things out of games and protect the privilege of remaining consistent with the mainstream (and reject them).


I think the excuse that 'it's just a game' is intended to make the game more of an experiment and less of a habit-forming exercise. Saying 'it's just a game' is a way of saying 'it's not real life, so stop judging me by how i play.'

Kind of like saying football doesn't teach you to tackle anyone who is a problem, or that baseball doesn't teach you to smack all your problems with a bat. It's saying 'my actions are dictated by the rules and constraints of my environment, and a different environment will produce different actions.'

Which is interesting when taken with Cialdini's Influence, which states that the more externalities which can be used to justify an action, the less likely a person is to continue doing the action when the externalities are taken away. So... it's just a game, if you say it's just a game. Otherwise, not so much.


Something many mmorpg players learn is how politics and economy shape the behaviour of people. You will learn in school something about supply and demand, and something else about democracy and despotism. Its not easy to put into practice a method where you as an individual can experiment with this type of systems involving real humans over an extended timeframe.

Even the less gifted will be able to see similarities between guilds and nations. Would your hard earned DKP produce more turnover in the neighboring country or not and so forth. The humans behind the different systems are wired with the same dna but the inputs and outputs differ. The things you learn are about the humans, not a reality of rock and wood but arnt people what we really care about anyway?


From a philosophical point of view, individuals are forming the world just by experiencing it; it's not necessarily the world forming the experience. Thus, a game is what you see in it. If it's just a game, it's just that for you, but keep in mind that some fans would die for their team; for them, it's life. Even if you treat it just as a game, it's part of your experience, of your life.

WoW establishes a rigid framework for social interactions, while also providing fun and entertainment. This is very helpful for people who would like to learn certain social skills; they (and the others) are protected by the limited choice of interactions, the shared understanding of playing a game, and the physical distance. However, otherwise I don't like to differenciate between social interaction in real world and a virtual world.


Are the young males here particularly used to be isolated or excluded when around their peers? The distancing you mention could be an instinctive attempt to deny ammunition to others.

Place a group of young males together and a *lot* of their discussions can be broken down thus:

Person A: Jokingly-phrased but well-observed criticism of Person B
Person B: Either
{Deflection by criticising C or of A (if A is not a lot higher in the pack than B)}
{Failure to respond adequately}

Assuming deflection onto C, who fails to respond:
Person D: That's true, C is therefore totally ghey for liking/doing/being interested in [subject]!"
Persons F-Z: "Ah-ha, ah-hahaha."

Obviously, a failure to respond just brings the final steps a lot closer.

It is therefore vitally important, as a young male, to provide as little ammunition as possible by *never* expressing strong feelings about anything not already at least tacitly approved of by the group.


Good point by Endie.

I would add parental impact to the discussion. No doubt parents who have no interest in the mmorpg's are putting it down as "just a game". When the young males try to hint at the importance of it to their parents, they may be getting an overly negative reaction from the parents.

In dealing with their parental negativity towards the subject, they may be developing a reaction of their own to blunt their parent's criticism.

In other words, their parents are adding to the peer pressure as described by Endie.

However, I would also be willing to bet if you asked young males 50 years from now the same question, you will get a very different response. I expect online gaming will acquire a far different cultural perception over time. Right now, it is still too new and different to most people in positions of authority to be "acceptable".


I would say that one thing I've personally learned from playing MMOs is to think before speaking. I'd always had a tendency to immediately snap at someone if they said something displeasing, but in a WoW guild that sort of behavior can have immediate and unpleasant consequences. Taking a moment to pause, and come up with a diplomatic response to stressful situations is a very important life skill, and one that playing WoW has definitely taught me!


I'd definitely consider MMOGs to have helped me develop my leadership and mediation skills. At the very least, it gave me a safe space to try out these skills, and helped me become less uncomfortable with the idea of being seen in a leadership role.

While it seems odd to some people when you say that playing a game gives one management skills, I think the parallel to physical games gives a clear analogy. If someone has been playing a lot of football, they may not be able to transfer their passing skills into a non-sports career, but they'll certainly be better qualified for a job that requires them to be physically fit. Likewise, a social game will have specifics that are "just game", but can leave the player more fit to work well within social environments.


At the AGC a few years ago I had the pleasure of meeting a professor from a university (in Stockholm I believe).
He told me truancy prevented a number of students from getting their high school diploma, and that these were oftentimes socially withdrawn. He used MMOs (SWG iirc) in-class to draw these students out, to get them to communicate with their classmates. In addition, he even used the chat logs to justify the assignment of grades (conversational English fluency, grammar, etc..) so that they could get their diplomas and be admitted.
If I can dig up the gentleman's name or school I'll post it as a followup.


I'd have to agree with josh g. I think that MMOs were a helpful place to test leadership and discover my own style.

But I'd like to ask a follow-up question. If an MMO is not "just a game," if it can indeed be good for the soul, and if it can be said to have a very real and positive impact on social interactions, does it not follow that other outcomes may also result? I mean, if you allow that an MMO can have an effect on the soul, is there anything inherent in the MMO that dictates that this effect must always and only be good? In other words, if we are going to step up and take credit for the positive benefits, shouldn't we also step up and take responsibility for any negative impact? Or, in the face of those sorts of claims, will we then talk about how the MMO is just a game?



I absolutely agree, Phin. It is always a danger for those studying a marginalized social phenomenon to fall into the trap of presuming its normative impact (good or bad) in the research questions themselves (though I don't think Lisa would make that error in her work; this is, as I understand it, just a way to elicit some thoughts on the subject).


Thomas said:

It is always a danger for those studying a marginalized social phenomenon to fall into the trap of presuming its normative impact (good or bad) in the research questions themselves (though I don't think Lisa would make that error in her work; this is, as I understand it, just a way to elicit some thoughts on the subject).

Yes, I did try to avoid this pitfall, though I couldn't resist one open-ended question asking about skills transfer (assuming benefit). This is the question to which I got the responses ranging from fantastic stories about the benefits of play to denial of any impact whatsoever. There were also a few people who said that certain skills actually got worse while playing online games.

And yes, we only have to watch the WoW-inspired episode of South Park for it to be clear that there are a variety of outcomes. I simply choose to focus on the pro-social stuff in my outreach efforts; I figure videogames get enough bad press as it is. And certainly people are more than capable of exploring the negative stuff... it seems to come naturally!

But one of the big problems, as I see it, and one of the main contributors to problematic usage, is that some people develop socio-cultural fluency in-world that they aren't able to transfer to RL, over time building a marked dichotomy between their abilities in the two spheres, causing them to retreat even more fully into the one they inhabit most successfully. I think this is both a big issue and a huge opportunity... how do we help people transfer that literacy into RL?


It could be that young males are not the most self-aware of creatures at the best of times, and don't realize the effect it has.


It's interesting that this post should have appeared at this time. I just happened to see this in the EQ2 Non-Gameplay forum today, and some of the posts apply to the topics mentioned here, with regards to social bonding and adults interacting with younger individuals within the game. Though there is also some very interesting discussion of disabled individuals experiences in the game that might belong in another topic altogether, I think that that has definitely come up before, but I wasn't sure where it might need to be linked.

Link here...

The post was given Post of the Day status by the Community Relations Rep, which is how I happened to notice it. Very timely!


Paul, are you thinking in terms of making someone less socially skilled? Or in terms of the social morality the game teaches?

(A game might teach one to be a skilled leader, but at the same time encourage one to use leadership skills to manipulate and control others for selfish purposes. So the two questions are very different, and somewhat orthogonal.)


I think spending too much time playing graphic-intensive games (mmo or otherwise) erodes my writing/verbal communication skills. I am still not as good at writing as I was before I started playing Everquest a lot, 5 or so years ago.


@Lisa: Small clarification: When I said "research questions", I wasn't thinking of your interview questions, but rather of the broad questions your research seeks to answer, so no worries on my end with your asking about that stuff in intervews. :-)


@Thomas: Yeah, cool. Interesting thing is that this stuff wasn't even really part of my initial research plan, but has emerged sort of spontaneously. I realized that a huge aspect of the learning taking place was learning how to learn/how to connect in a networked setting, something that requires a whole set of capabilities for collaborating with others, sharing information, etc.

Another interesting finding in my data: women are much more likely to leverage existing social networks to find information (and are more likely to have networks comprised of people who are both online and offline friends), whereas men are more likely to access information repositories or strangers (e.g. broadcasting questions), even. Makes intuitive sense, but still interesting to see it laid out so plainly. Also very interesting differences in the way the various age segments approach groups/information sharing, etc.

But I am giving lots away. ;-)


This may be way out there, but could MMO's actually just be games?


@Jon: lol, you need to watch that South Park episode.


D Lacey says: I think spending too much time playing graphic-intensive games (mmo or otherwise) erodes my writing/verbal communication skills. I am still not as good at writing as I was before I started playing Everquest a lot, 5 or so years ago.

MMOs, IMing, texting, etc. are good at bringing you past a threshold of communicative ability. To go beyond that, you actually have to motivate yourself.

For instance, a friend of mine once reprimanded me for using improper punctuation and poor grammar in my IMing. Years later, now, I instinctively type in near-perfect English. I play a text MMO (Dragonrealms) and while others generally vary on their usage, I maintain my habit of perfectionism in everything I write. To the point where I worry slightly that it marks me if I try to take on an alter ego.

Remember that, in chat, you have a lot of opportunity to improve. It's up to you to take advantage of that.


Josh, I was mostly just trying to point out that if we admit that MMOs have the power to influence how people act in real life, we should also acknowledge that this influence may not always be beneficial. Given all of the negative press that games do receive, this acknowledgement might impact the typical PR response that attempts to trivialize any relationship between what occurs in a game and what occurs in real life.

While I agree with the OP that games do have incredible potential to influence and change people for the good, I find the PR claims coming out of the industry (usually carefully couched in terms of causality and not influence) about how these are "just games" disappointing. You can't have it both ways. Instead, I'd like to see the industry step up and acknowledge the power of the art of game design and the incredible responsibility that comes with it.


jbrandt said:
"It could be that young males are not the most self-aware of creatures at the best of times, and don't realize the effect it has."

Have you ever been a young male?!? They are *painfully* self-aware and self-critical. It's the awareness of other people that tends to be the problem...


I think it's meaningful to tip the question of the social benefit of these experiences on its ear, so to speak: I think it's not that these experiences can have, sometimes, positive results, but that we engage in them, to some extent, precisely because they can. Part of what makes the game, or the raid, or the guild, meaningful and even compelling is the set of dynamics (I'm reading Clifford Geertz here to start to catch up on how some of these dynamics have been framed) that the participant is able to engage in that enable learning about these things. And it's learning that can be darned difficult to find elsewhere... where do you go to learn to see yourself as heroic? Or noble? Or capable even? I think it's sort of a variant of "fun is challenge".

I'd even happily extend this to all sorts of game related behavior: it's not addiction the way chemicals are addicting, it's a meaningful opportunity to address and grow aspects of one's psychology via experimentation in a nice safe wonderfully colorful and creative sandbox. We learn we that we can consistently overcome challenge, we learn how better to communicate so that our collaborations are successful, we learn how to lead. In some sense, these interactions really prove that the virtual world is real- at least that we treat it as such.

And it's not a byproduct of these behaviors that we learn, grow, have transformative experiences... It's the result of the aspirations we bring online from the start, being able to be worked with in a way that's often much more difficult to find elsewhere. Thus it's really not suprizing that there's lots of positive benefit here, as a by-product of these wildly compelling experiences. They're so compelling because they have this potential. In some sense, why would we respond to them if there weren't a strong set of motivations very deeply ingrained in our psyches?


Hear, hear, Ron! Only after we accept that the power of games and gamelike domains inheres in how they resonate, not with a desire for something different from everyday life, but in fact with something at the core of everyday experience, will we as game researchers come into our own and say something powerful. What we say will be powerful precisely because we won't be falling into the trap laid for us by what has come before, by the idea of games as different (and therefore good! and therefore bad!). Instead, we will aim higher, and claim a big piece of the way we understand the everyday human engagement with world. There's no reason to aim lower. As always, your articulation of it gets at the centrally human and high stakes nature of the things happening now.


And it's learning that can be darned difficult to find elsewhere...

Generally speaking, the only other place to find it is to go and flat out do it.


Boy Howdy, Thomas, thanks so much, your words are very much appreciated! And yes- I think we're really witnessing a huge shift in how we socialize, one that offers ways to experiment, learn, and grow that were simply unavailable previously.

Michael, this speaks to your comment too: one example of what's possible now is how teens now have a chance to socialize with adults without neccessarily being identified as teens. They have the chance to try on adult roles with minimal consequences, to experiment much more freely. How is this going to change that transition for them? And what does it tell us that often it seems that their choices self-identify them as teens much more clearly?


But yes, I think these worlds have a tremendous potential for social experimentation both by the participants and by the folks working in the field. Very very exciting times to be poking around in this area...


I've been blogging/talking about the difference between social features of various Web activities, vs. social functions that may or may not be at their core. Whether the activities are VWs, MMOs, IM, email, chat rooms, wikis or blogs, it seems to me that there is a difference between learning the skills that allow for proficiency within a medium -- what we often call in artistic venues one's "craft skills" -- and the skills that are truly social in nature. The difference is important, I believe, because craft skills, while they can have a bearing from one medium to others, tend not to transfer very well. Whereas true social skills really do.

An example: logistical planning vs. management vs. leadership. Being able to gather the necessary folks and parts together to "do a thing" even on a small scale is not necessarily a small achievement for someone who has never had that experience. And the first time you do it, whether it be in Boy Scouts or team sports or WoW, you learn new skills. At the first level, logistical planning, you have to basically understand the requirements of ths system, and how not to be a complete ass. In many cases, logistical planning need not involve others, except minimally. You can buy from a vendor, sell to a customer, agree to group, etc., with minimal interaction. You need to know which "buttons to push," and learning how to do that in front of other people, yes, can count as a social skill. A minimal one. For some people who have a very hard time doing so in RL, MMOs make a good place to have success at this level of skill building. But we're still talking about craft-skills; putting together pieces.

Management is the next layer up. It requires someone who knows the layer below, and is willing to work with folks on getting past individual goals in order to achieve something a bit more complex. Most guild structures are happening, as far as I've seen, at the management level. Some people who are good at "gettin' 'er done" help others get 'er done. These skills -- planning, organization, integration, long-term forecasting -- can be social and can transfer to a certain degree. You can learn how to manage virtually; people do it all the time via phone and email in offices around the world. To suggest it can't happen in another virtual medium is insane. The content of the management learning -- how to run a guild or farm gold or kill imaginary critters -- may not be as useful a craft as editing a company newsletter or running a union tool-and-die-shop, but some of the management principles still can transfer. But let's be clear -- BAD learning can also transfer. If the system you learn in is not optimized for another environment, the ideas you take out will shape your next experience. Folks who have spent a lot of time in the military are very, very good at certain types of civilian jobs... and very, very bad at others, because of the types of experience they've had. Because management is the admixture of craft and social skills, I think it's going to be the hardest set of skills to transfer.

Leadership is the last and highest type of person-to-person social learning that goes on in RL. It almost always requires a mentor, because the principles of leadership are often indirect and non-linear; ie, hard to fathom without explanation. Can leadership be taught in an MMO? Sure. For precisely that reason; it is the most ephemeral and mind-to-mind type of learning. But here's where we probably can get in the most trouble, too. Because we tend to think of "leadership" as a benign or even laudable characteristic. Well... we can count some pretty bad leaders out there, can't we?

So, as the point has been made pretty well above, and we initiate social learning as something that these games can teach, I think we do need to be pretty careful. Most MMOs out there now have a very violent undertone (and overtone, come to think of it). If we are arguing a beneficial social aspect due to the person-to-person connections that can be made and the fact that "souls can touch each other" in these fabricated forests... let's remember that these forests are bloody places full of dark magic and mosters. By our own creation.

What does that say of our desire to connect? And how we do it best...


one example of what's possible now is how teens now have a chance to socialize with adults without neccessarily being identified as teens.

I am currently 21, and I was on MUD-Dev when Terra Nova began. That is to say: I was 18 when I started. To my knowledge, no one picked me out and said I was a kid until I walked into the MUD-Dev Conference in 2004 and the person signing people in remarked that they were getting younger. Age is typically irrelevant, online, even outside of game spaces. For those who are willing to ignore their own age and take on an "adult" role, I would suggest that they have a far higher "mental" age, however that might be calculated. Of course, it posits the question of "Are they growing up too fast?" And I can't answer that.

What does that say of our desire to connect? And how we do it best...

It reinforces Thomas' idea of contingencies. It makes perfect sense, since herd behavior is a very standard animal defense against predators. We are bound together, united, by the dark menacing world that threatens to eat us. Especially interesting against the idea (just an idea) that the response to a close call results in the need to have sex: to either procreate or at least achieve a stronger sense of intimacy. Or I've been watching too much Hollywood. Entirely possible.

Because we tend to think of "leadership" as a benign or even laudable characteristic. Well... we can count some pretty bad leaders out there, can't we?

Leadership for the wrong reasons can still be good leadership. Your standard list of historical evil leaders includes terribly good speakers and national movers. I view it as a neutral characteristic: an acquired power, with which you do good or ill.

So instead of saying "bad learning" can occur, perhaps it's more accurate to point out that sometimes we learn morals and ethics and etiquette in games, too.


Skills learned in-game can be transfered to life, but it is important to note that this largely depends on the nature of the player and their ability and willingness to learn. My expereinces have shown me that bad players seldom evolve into good players. Rather, its the good players that have the mindset to become great ones.


I think Lisa is on to something, and its something that is going to prove important as we begin to understand it. Games, especially MMOs, do change behaviors.

I'm putting together a talk at the Serious Games Summit in DC on the design differences between games that have behavior change as a goal and games that have skill development as a goal. One of the assertions I am going to make in the talk is that the most interesting behavior change work is not going on in academic games, its happening in WoW, Lineage and the other MMOs. Lisa is coming along with some timely ammunition (thanks).

And I am aware that all games teach skills and change behavior, but when your setting goals to be achieved by the design of the game it is a useful distinction to make.


My "Road to Damascus" conversion on World of Warcraft came when my son, then 12 was walked through the process of installing voice over IP on his computer by his online friends. To both of our surprise, his friends included

* a registered nurse in Florida
* a health and safety co-ordinator in Australia
* a health care worker in Alabama
* a manager in Kansas
* a marketing production/designer in Nashville and
* a network manager somewhere in cyberspace

I spent a lot of time listening and really was impressed with a community which was so caring and would spent so much time with my son and the other young kids in the guild. They were really good caring, thoughtful people. What better could you hope for than to have your child taken in as an equal by a group of adults and joining them in their endeavours. It takes an (e)village to bring up a child.

I am, at times, concerned at the amount of time that he spends in this virtual world but then something happens that just blows me away.

For example, the division of loot in a raid is a politically charged issue that has caused the destruction of one of his guilds. But I was there when he was the leader of a party of 20 children and adults, no small feat for a 13 year old. The same loot issue came up and as leader, the decision was his, his decision could have destroyed a guild of 100 or so members. You cannot buy that kind of schooling at any price.

He has learned to trade and to buy and sell at auction. Lots of really good stuff, see for example http://tonyforster.blogspot.com/2006/09/world-of-warcraft-learning-economics.html

I have concerns that he doesn't get enough exercise but otherwise I'm pretty happy with WoW.

My advice is for teachers to get a WoW account and start a character on their students' realm. They will find so many "teachable moments" if they do.

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