At the first keynote of Toronto's Future Play 2007 conference for game educators and developers, Dr. Constance Steinkuehler, assistant professor in the Educational Communication & Technology program for the University of Wisconsin-Madison, argued that MMOs and online worlds are good "push technologies" for education, rather than threats to it.
Her presentation was titled "Massively Multiplayer Online Games as an Educational Ethnology: An Outline for Research," a deceptively straightforward talk about Steinkuehler's research findings on what constitutes gameplay in MMOs and virtual worlds, and how that research might be applied to education programs.
Why did Steinkuehler write a dissertation that was a two-year ethnography on virtual worlds? "I needed to find out what in the world would be productive from playing these games," she explained, describing how she played Lineage, Lineage II and World of Warcraft for research.
"I was a siege princess leading a huge guild through massive battles, I learned more about military tactics in those two years than I ever wanted to," she recalled.
The Literary Scare
To establish the point of her studies, she described what she called the "The Literary Scare" in America: "There's a huge fear that kids will no longer read and write because of video games - before that it was television, before that it was telephones, or something."
As examples, she cited a book titled "A is for Ox," about "the collapse of literacy and the rise of violence in the electronic age," and quotes from CNet, the New York Times and the National Endowment for the Arts, which called electronic media "torpid... and invite inert reception," or claimed games and the internet "foster shorter attentions and accelerated gratification."
She noted that the final quote was interesting, because their study on the loss of literacy didn't actually investigate any video games -- but blamed them anyway.
Steinkuehler argued that within games, there are in fact multitudes of literacy practices - games are full of text, she asserted, to say nothing of the entirely text-based fandom communities online that take place in forums, blogs and social networks.
In-game chat in MMORPGS is described as sub-literate nonsense, but Steinkuehler used examples to illustrate that it's merely shorthand for in-game language -- the sentence structure, she asserted, is perfect.
"it's far from an impoverished form," she argued. "You could consider this more meaningful - you're having to cram in more information in less text."
She described how, within a world like Lineage, players like to perform "orally delivered narratives" - telling each other the lore of the games as if they were text box minstrels. And letters between guilds in Lineage are usually written in pseudo-medieval English, which is complex to write.
Elaborating on the unofficial online fan communities -- people prefer player-generated content, Steinkuehler says -- she noted they provide a great deal of space for collective, player-written intelligence in databases and wikis, clan sites and discussion boards, and, her favorite example, MMO fanfiction.
She highlighted a fan fiction writer she came across in her studies named "OrientKnight," whose works were so popular in the community that sites that could get early access to publish it were part of the "cool club." "But he was failing basic literary tests and English because he hated school," she added.
Continued Steinkuehler, "Many of these communities actually value this level of intellectual labor. If you can write a good story, you're cool."
Moreover, she continued, "If you compare them to things like the national reading standards, many of these practices not only meet the national reading writing and technology standards, they exceed them. But when you ask these kids if they like to write... They claim they don't!"
She related a story about talking to a player who was planning to write a long story about his Lineage character over the months of summer break. Teachers would never be able to persuade students to take on such an assignment, Steinkuehler points out.
These observations are clearly relevant to the educational disciplines of reading, writing and english, but what about science?
Studying Stats In WoW
A year ago, Steinkuehler started to run a study based on her earlier ethnography about World of Warcraft forum discussions in which people were getting together and running statistical comparisons of their characters. Randomly selected, they looked at the priest forum: 2000 posts over 85 threads.
Her motive? Steinkuehler wanted to know to what extent people in the forum were doing things that you could describe as scientific research - in other words, approaching things with a "scientific mind."
She built an analytic framework: Do they use data to back up their research? Do they use model based reasoning? Are their discussions productive? Steinkuehler found 86 percent of the forums were "social knowledge construction" - problem solving and discussion or ideas - "not things like 'your mom' jokes."
Only eight percent was "banter," she noted -- although six percent was "literally nonsense." A third of the discussion built on other ideas, and a third used counter-arguments. 28 percent used data and evidence to back up their ideas. 12 percent also gave alternative explanation of data, and 7 percent gave references to outside resources.
"These numbers look a little bit low... but these can all be combined in as much as one post," Steinkuehler pointed out. She demonstrated discussions about character statistics that were so mathematically complex as to be incomprehensible to the conference attendees, concluding that comprehending the stat-based rules at the core of the average MMO's play system both required and developed advanced skills.
The Third Space
She moved on to discuss the modding community - how gaming encourages users to move on and create. Mods are hugely popular, and valued culturally in the online community. Certain mods are even considered requirements for joining guilds.
But, posited Steinkuehler: Why are people willing to "work" so hard in games? Creating statistical models, writing stories, and creating mods? It's because, as she says, MMORPGS are now the "third space" between home and work -- "Cheers" became World of Warcraft, as she says.
"In American culture, bonded friendships - those between best friends and family, are valued far higher than bridged friendships." However, she argued, MMORPGs are working to challenge this perception.
She now runs an after school gaming club for at-risk youths, attention deficit-disordered who are failing English, or otherwise struggling students. In her club they explore collaboration by working in a guild, and work on reading, writing and art in forum discussions and fan art and fiction production in the context of online play.
Concluded Steinkuehler, "There are so many ways this could fail. I hope these kids will use what they've learned to not fail English a second time - but ask me in a year and I'll tell you how they did."