Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Behold, the power of games...

David Wiley has done it again. He's designed a course that is modeled after the very popular MMORPGs (massively multi-player online role-playing games). You can choose your character, go on quests, and 'level up'. In the end, if you've reached a high enough level, you will get an A in the course. While the idea is intriguing, there is, I believe, a crucial missing element to the course – PVP.

Educators have been trying to harness the power of games for almost as long as games have been around. They do this because people are far more interested in games than they are in the instruction the educators come up with. "If only people will study humanities as hard as they study space invaders," the instructor thinks.

But there is an aspect to instructional games that educators always seem to leave out. They seem unwilling to embrace the simple fact that one of the most important parts to a game is the competition. Think about it, when player A politely asks player B if he wants to play chess, what he is really asking is, "Do you want to witness my l33t cognitive skills as I crush you with nothing more than a rook and two pawns?"

Last night, a priest in my guild logged on to World of Warcraft (WoW). He was on for approximately three minutes before he said in the chat, "Bah, I can't quest tonight." And he logged off. I felt exactly the same way. I'm level 78, and it's been painful. I've gone on hundreds of quests, killed thousands of creatures, delivered dozens of items for NPCs who are too lazy to do it themselves. It's not that fun. So why do I do it?

Because I want to be level 80. I want to go on raids with our guild, and be the top healer in the group. I want to be better than everybody else, and I want them to see it.

This sounds shallow, but this is why most people play games. Sure, they're fun, and I have fun playing board games whether I win or lose. But deep down, we want to win. It’s a public arena where our skills are demonstrated. We want to be better than other folks. Not to rub it in their face, but it makes us feel smart, special, or whatever. Need more proof? Look at the recently introduced achievements into WoW (something X-box has been doing for years).

Achievements give you points, but those points can't be spent on anything. It's simply a way to quantify things. You get points for anything from going on quests, to telling critters you love them, to exploring every nook and cranny of the game. Sound like fun? It isn’t. You have to work for three hours tracking down every critter on the list so you can say love you. It’s not fun, but people do it. And they do it because they want to have a higher 'score' than somebody else. I'll say it again; being better than other people is driving force of most games, particularly MMORPGs.

And this is where educators fall short in their instructional game design. As educators, we want everybody to succeed. No child left behind. We have a very hard time introducing competition into education. But this is exactly the compelling nature of games. After a while, Space Invaders is the same thing, what we’re really after is leaving out high score for everyone to see it. Player-vs-player, or PVP, is a core piece to popular MMORPG games. Whether it's literally fighting or dueling other players, or struggling so your guild earns a ‘server first’ achievement, most of the players in the game are in direct or indirect competition against the players around them. It's all part of the fun.

Going back to David's class, there is the briefest of hints at competition. There are two challenges in the course. These challenges don’t reflect on your grade, but are "a matter of individual and Guild pride", but as far as I can see, that is the only thing closely related to PVP in the course/game. By the end of the course, it's very likely that everybody is going to be a level seven. Everybody is going to be the same. And where is the fun in that?

So, how can you make a course like this better? I'm not sure you can, without raising some eyebrows. But if you really wanted to make it more like an MMORPG, then you would allow students to move past level seven. Let students do extra work and get up to level 21. Level seven still give you an A, but I would be willing to bet, several students go for higher levels, just for the bragging rights. Maybe a blog post mentioned in the Chronicle of Higher education is worth 300 XP (after you’ve reached level 7). Or maybe a podcast with 500 subscribers by the end of the semester gives you 500 XP. Have activities where students can debate, and 'pwn' other class members with their l33t instructional design skills.

Human nature makes it so that we want to succeed. We want to be special, and stand apart. It is certainly a double-edged sword. It can drive us to be better, or it can make us discouraged, and give up. But it's a powerful force, and one that could lead to better instructional design, if we are willing to use it.


novelaborate said...

Fascinating insights.

I've always agreed with your general sentiment to some extent, but personally, I'm also cautious about making any kind of class a competition. While I certainly have a competitive spirit in games, when I walk into a classroom, my goal is to interact with other students as much as possible, or when the professor is lecturing, zoning everyone else out and listening to him.

Sure, it kinda bugs me when I get, say, an 85 on a test and look over and see that someone next to me got a 92.

But is competing with that person the next time the healthiest way to go about it? Well, maybe, maybe not.

But I do think all instructors should take your thoughts into consideration. There's certainly a way to appropriately implement those ideas.

Nate said...

Interesting insights, but I think it needs more exploration.

I suspect that you have also played single player games, and enjoyed them thoroughly, even though nobody else cares at all about whether you beat the game or not. I certainly have. I would put forth that this same sense of personal achievement is a greater driver in MMOs like WoW than PvP.

The problem comes when a player has experienced a certain amount of game content. In a game like WoW, there comes a point where the player realizes that much of the content they are seeing is just dressed up leftovers. PvP provides an element of random content that serves to keep a player engaged, where the rest of the game remains predictable and no longer stimulating. Its the same sort of reason that a lot of competitive multiplayer games lose their luster when a player with a higher degree of skill regularly plays against someone with a lower degree of skill. Predictable outcomes are boring. The game design of MMORPGs like WoW include PvP because it is a more cost-effective way of retaining player attention.

MMORPGs can be very successful in the absence of competition, provided that the people steering the MMO are actively generating stimulation into the environment. Left to its own devices like most MMOs, it will remain interesting until the players feel the content has been sufficiently explored. Without careful design, this point may come sooner than expected.

Nate said...

One other article you should read regarding PvP, MMORPGs, and the mishandling of the competitive spirit in gaming:

Gambling your life away in ZT Online