Books and games are good at teaching different things. Games are no better or worse at transmitting information that other forms [of teaching], such as books, TV, [and] lectures.
What games are very good at, however, is experiential learning. Concepts such as ethics, civic engagement, or teaching unintended consequences are very hard to do in the traditional classroom. They are fundamental to games. So teaching someone that certain choices have long term and potentially unforeseen consequences is relatively easy to embed in the mechanics of a game, while it is difficult to communicate in something like a text book.
Likewise, it is much easier to teach someone principles of citizenship by having them actually be a citizen in an environment and by asking them to reflect on that experience than it is to create a list of rules for good citizenship that someone is expected to memorize.
Games, especially MMOGs, are also good at teaching the social, and often times tacit, aspects of knowledge that are communicated through things like apprenticeship and enculturation.
In your research, you assert that MMOGs provide players with a better understanding of both the real and virtual world through 'conceptual blends'. What are 'conceptual blends'?
Conceptual blending is a theory developed by [Cognitive Scientist] Mark Turner to explain how our brains process seemingly impossible ideas, with little or no difficulty.
An example is a talking animal. We know dogs can't speak, but we have no problem watching a cartoon or even a film where they do. The theory holds that we embrace these ideas when the frames (animality and speech in this case) are non-conflicting.
There is no logical reason why dogs can't speak, they just don't. The blends become powerful because they allow each element to have a depth and vividness that blends together; it allows something to be both/and rather than either/or.
With virtual worlds, most of the framing has been contrasting the virtual world with the real world. Our contention is that when you step into a virtual world, you are entering a conceptual blend where you are both in the real world and in the physical world at the same time. As a result, when things like dispositions form, they are being created simultaneously for the character and the player, rather than being something that happens in the game and must then be transferred out into the physical world.
Are the benefits associated with cognitive blending and learning unique to MMOGs, or do online RTS and FPS games offer such benefits too?
I am not sure if I would say unique. But we find that the most interesting learning that happens is in the space around the game. Games are often the impetus to create learning systems to solve problems and organize players. Not surprisingly, a lot of what we are finding in these game spaces is also providing some insight into other technologies that youth are engaging, such as Myspace.