To non-gamers, World of Warcraft, the massive multiplayer online role playing game, has mainly been a punchline to a joke about its addictiveness. But now, the popular MMO is being used to do something that might remake its reputation as a tool educators use to transform the way they teach and their students learn.
Peggy Sheehy – who is working on a project called WoW in Schools for the game's owners Activision Blizzard – says that the game's design lends itself to education. In the game, as in the classroom, players are required to tackle elementary concepts before they are allowed to progress to those considered more difficult. In parlance of the game, the process is called leveling-up. In classrooms around the world, it is simply known as learning.
Sheehy designs "quests" with particular learning objectives in mind that the students or — "heroes" as they're called in class — must complete. Quests might include components of comparative writing or characterization exercises. For example, Sheehy had her students read J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit as they progressed through the course, and for one assignment, they had to pick a character from the book and categorize that character within World of Warcraft. They were asked to defend their choices in writing, supporting their argument with the text.
The writing produced by students for the assignment surprised not only Sheehy but her colleagues as well. When she passed samples around to other teachers, many commented that they had a lot of trouble engaging students enough to produce such passionate and well-crafted arguments.
Another benefit of using WoW in school is the fact that the game requires cooperation. Students learn to work together and help each other – everyone working together to achieve a particular goal. Sheehy's classroom is divided into guilds whose members help each other learm and encourage and critique fellow guild-members
Perhaps one of the most prominent ways that game-based classes are different from traditional ones is how failure fits into the daily experience of learning. "Failure in a game typically means that you tried the challenge in a new way," Sheehy said. It's not bad; it's creative problem-solving, risk-taking, and a natural outcropping of trying something new. But in most classrooms, kids are programmed to understand failure as shameful at early ages. "Game designers get that failure is anticipated and celebrated. It's a learning opportunity," Sheehy said.
Sheehy allows the success or failure within the game to act as an assessment system. She says that looking over the shoulder of students in order to grade them would be counterproductive in this case, since it would take away some of the benefits of using games in the classroom. When a teacher is standing nearby waiting to catch mistakes, it takes away the immersive nature of WoW and defeats the purpose of using it.