A Gaming Civic Lesson

Constance SteinkuehlerI have been playing World of Warcraft for a few years now. The persistent world inhabited by characters I recognize and befriend is fundamental to my enjoyment of the game. There is an exhilaration from accomplishing a complex fight with twenty-four friends that only an MMO player can experience. Not only do these communal battles offer fat loots, they also offer a decent civics lesson. 

Last week, Michigan’s Capital Times published an article covering a speech given by University of Wisconsin-Madison education professor Constance Steinkuehler regarding online games creating better citizens. She made her argument during a speech entitled "Learning and Virtual Worlds: The Education Benefits of Digital Technologies" as part of a free event in a series of monthly lectures hosted by the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts & Letters Evenings. MMOs, she argues, are often more diverse than the players’ immediate social circles.

"Learning how to navigate that diversity is ‘in the big scheme of life’ about citizenship, she said. Videogames are a ‘push’ technology that pushes things like powerful computers and videogame systems into our homes. But they also push social norms and practices because those things are necessary to succeed at highly complex MMOGs like World of Warcraft. Steinkuehler quoted Will Wright, who said in a Wired magazine story that gamers’ mind-set means they ‘treat the world as a place for creation, not consumption.’"

Often without realizing it, MMO players will interact with all sorts of individuals from different socio-economic, ethnic and regional backgrounds of all ages. I have personally interacted with married couples, a father and son, and twin sisters from around the world. Though it may even sound silly to gamers, Professor Steinkuehler is correct in suggesting norms are created, taught, and learned in gaming communities. There is most definitely a gamer culture and even gamer sub-cultures. Thus, it should not be surprising to hear that gamers, who frequently interact with each other, will develop socially constructed methods of communication to accomplish tasks. Guilds will often have rituals and forms of punishment and reward to encourage certain types of behavior, which is one of the reasons many "hardcore" players shun pick-up-groups. There are also unspoken rules about raid behavior that is common across MMO worlds.

"Her work included analysis of message boards where World of Warcraft players get together. She found 86 percent of the talk was ‘productive’, featuring very detailed questions and serious discussion, with players exchanging ideas and making counter-arguments using data and reasoning and building on each others’ ideas.  There was not a lot of ‘hey dude, what’s up,’ she quipped. She found that 65 percent of the discussion was ‘evaluative" vs. 30 percent ‘absolutist" — ‘My idea is right and not open to discussion’ — and 5 percent ‘relative’ — it’s just opinion and no one is right."

Naturally, even diverse groups can learn to cooperate and employ constructive communication to accomplish shared goals. Perhaps part of the reason this percentage of productive communication is higher amongst MMO players is because it is easier to ignore inflammatory communication based on differences when players are frequently reminded of their similarities. A raid team in World of Warcraft will be entirely composed of fellow faction members and will always have a potentially surmountable task in front of them. There is also the idea that an MMO environment is a miniature recreation of a persistent world with a persistent population. Even though it is easy for players to log off of a game, the same problems and players will be there upon their return.

I think you could find evidence game design can create and perpetuate normative behavior amongst players. Do in-game communication interfaces facilitate better team-building experiences? Does art style or combat styles affect how players interact with each other? Certainly these ideas are worthy of study and could be applied to far more than videogame design. Even politicians could take a lesson from Professor Steinkuehler and MMO players. After all, our real world is absolutely persistent and there are more than enough surmountable problems to work on collaboratively. Then again, MMO worlds are also inhabited by consistently opposing factions, and griefers who take enjoyment in causing suffering to others. I wonder what Prof. Steinkuehler would have to say about Goonfleet’s recent acquisition of power in EVE Online. Apparently MMOs can also teach important lessons about warfare, espionage, and the strategic dismantling of a corporate super power.

[Ed: More information on Prof. Steinkuehler and her work can be found here: http:/website.education.wisc.edu/steinkuehler/blog/ ]


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Author: Jorge Albor View all posts by

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