Over the past two months, Rockcliffe University has been conducting classes on education and leadership in World of Warcraft (WOW). At first blush this may seem very strange as World of Warcraft is a massively multiplayer online role playing game (MMORPG) that, at first glance, is all about “shooting zombies”. That fact not withstanding there are many factors about WOW that make it an ideal environment for teaching.

To understand why World of Warcraft provides these capabilities it is first important to understand the foundations of the WOW world. Game play is sub-divided into five main categories each of which is mutually supporting of each other: questing, battlegrounds, raids, dungeons, and professions. The combination of each of these categories means that there really isn’t an “end game” to playing the software. Rather, game play can go on indefinitely.

PART I – World of Warcraft

Questing, or levelling, is the main thread of the game. WOW itself is broken up into 4 graphic novels consisting of the main WOW modules and 3 expansion modules: The Burning Crusade, The Lich King, and now Cataclysm. Each story line requires that the character gain increasingly more difficult levels of experience (known as levelling) in order to complete “end game”. That is, the final chapter of the storyline for that specific module.  The character goes on a series of quests that reveal parts of the storyline and gains experience.  The main WOW modules go to level 60. The Burning Crusade goes to level 70. The Lich King goes to level 80. And Cataclysm goes to level 85. Getting to these levels allows you to finish the novel, usually with the help of other adventurers and play out the last of the story line.

Professions could almost be considered to be a sub-plot to the main story line. Adventurers can select from up to 6 primary and secondary professions including tailoring, blacksmithing, mining, herbalism, cooking, fishing, and more. Each of these skills provides some benefit towards the other aspects of game play. Cooking for example allows a character to create foods which will replenish health and sometimes convey special attributes which are not normally available such as increased strength.  The goods which are gathered or produced as part of a profession can in turn be sold to a vendor for a set price or auctioned at an auction house.

Auction Houses (also known as AH) allow for the development of a free market for goods to be traded between adventurers. So for example, if I choose mining as one of my primary professions (you are allowed 2), then anything which I mine, such as copper ore, I can place on the AH at a price of my choosing for a specific length of time. I pay a commission to list the item which I lose if the item doesn’t sell. Other people can undermine my price point however if the market is strong for a particular good, then most items which are reasonably priced will typically sell. The benefit is that items on the AH typically sell at 10-100x the amount you can sell your items to a vendor. The drawback is that you can sometimes lose more game tokens through repeated attempts to sell an item than the item will fetch once it is finally sold.

Battlegrounds are areas where random teams of players face off against one another. Some battlegrounds are a simple ‘capture the flag’ type of game whereas others have a specific objective each team needs to complete. In either case the battleground engages people in player-verses-player combat where tactics play as much a role as simply completing the objective. Battlegrounds also represent a sub-plot to the main storyline in that there is a direct tie in between the objectives of the battleground and the main questing storyline. Battlegrounds earn players experience which helps with levelling.

Dungeons are also a sub-plot to the main storyline. Dungeons are essentially quests which require a team of 5 players to cooperate on more complex questing activities. Not all dungeons are ancillary to the main storyline.  Dungeons also tend to contain higher value prizes such as better armour, weapons, toys, or spells than what can be obtained through regular questing. Dungeons earn players experience which helps with levelling.

Raids are the last form of sub-plots to the main storyline. Similar to a Dungeon, a raid is a dungeon which may require up to 40 people in order to complete although most raids typically require either 10 or 25 people. Raids typically have the best prizes for completing the raid objective and provide experience toward levelling.

Other components to the WOW game include achievement awards (over 1000) which range anywhere from speed to complete a dungeon to the number of kills on a battlefield or the number of cooking recipes collected and prepared.  Some achievements are only available at specific times of the year such as Halloween and Christmas.  In addition, players can form self-organizing groups called “guilds” which allow groups of like-minded adventurers to pool their resources for a specific purpose. For example, some guilds exist to reach ‘end game’, others are for doing raid challenges, and others are simply just for social fun.

PART II – World of Teachcraft

The variety of content available within World of Warcraft, and the consistency by which it is applied, is what makes the environment particularly suitable for conducting lab studies on various topics including leadership, teambuilding, operations, information technology, statistics, sociology, psychology, economics, and education. Four very notable factors are important to utilizing WOW effectively.

The first is the consistency of the starting conditions for battlegrounds, dungeons, and raids. In order to effectively examine the outcomes of a specific application of knowledge, the starting conditions need to be consistently applied each time the lab assignment starts. The second is the size of the target population from which the lab obtains its sample size from. The third is the ability to establish reasonable boundaries on the sample size from the target population. And lastly is the statistical significance of the results based on the number samples that can be taken.

If this looks like a lot of statistical work then congratulations, you’ve just discovered the first and most primary educational objective to why WOW is such an ideal tool. Without even designing experiments there is a wealth of statistical opportunity that is available to those in the math profession that established the groundwork for other types of educational content that can be developed for WOW.

The auction houses provide a rich opportunity to develop micro and macro-economic models of how a free floating economy works. Principles of arbitrage, production supply and demand,  factors of production, competition, and other economic principles can be examined as they apply to virtual economies. This may include parallels with other forms of economic trading situations such as stock markets.

Sociology and psychology are obvious area in which lab assignments can be generated. The narratives and interrelationships of ‘people watching’ within public space provides opportunity to examine networks and collaborations.

Leadership and teamwork can be examined from the points of view of battleground, dungeons, and raids. How to groups self-organize? What types of leadership theory are in place? How to people react to stress? Differences in attitude when their side is winning verses losing. How does this compare and contrast with the real-world environments? There are a myriad of questions that can be asked and examined on a micro scale within WOW across a variety of social conditions.

Guilds provide for opportunities for people to explore their operational and information management capabilities. The development of add-on programs for the WOW game through established application programmed interfaces (APIs) publically available in the game. Some guilds develop their own external social networking sites through NING and other platforms. A guild’s hierarchy may sometimes account for specific roles as to operational management which have co-relationships with logistics and materials management.

The ways in which the platform can be used to develop training and / or laboratory assignments ancillary to learning is in part bounded only by the imagination of the instructors that choose to use the platform to its maximum advantage. The platform however is not without its disadvantages some of which have become self-evident through the World of Teachcraft program. 

The first is an understanding by the student of the platform and how it works. It takes a player, on average, until about level 20 before they start to become comfortable with the interface and the nature of the game. This includes a fair bit of instruction to short-cut the learning process. More realistically, a minimum level of 30 is needed so that students are not trying to overcome two learning challenges which divide attention: the first being the game, and the second being the classroom objectives. This imples approximately  1-2 months worth of “pre-assignment” with the average homework being 4-6 hours of game play per week supported by targeted activities so that students do not get distracted by other game elements.

The second is the very nature of the game itself. Computer games can have a tendency to become self-addictive. While currently literature shows that using an immersive 3D environment to supplement classroom based learning increases comprehension and retention, there is a line over which game play can become counter-productive. Classroom programs that use WOW and other 3D immersive games need to be careful to structure the relationship between classroom – 3D immersion – and real life application such that the “end game” focus is on the real-life application and not on the 3D immersion experience otherwise there is potential for the participants (including the instructors) to lose focus on the objectives.

On balance, the benefits of the 3D immersive experience outweighs the drawbacks. As 3D environments become more and more commonplace, the challenge will be how to more appropriately structure future applications rather than bending other virtual environments to educational needs for which they were not originally intended. For now we work with what we have. As a ready-made 3D immersive environment World of Warcraft provides unique opportunities to play with the future today, and if for no other reason it provides opportunities to identify what they future should look like, not necessarily what it will look like.

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